Practical Ecommerce

Cart of the Week: Whirlwind eCommerce

There are more than 500 online shopping carts. And each week we feature one, interviewing both the cart’s developer and a customer. “Cart of the Week” is not a review or an evaluation, but rather an opportunity to learn about a shopping cart from the people who build it and use it.

This week, we’ll hear from Mark Wexler, a partner in Whirlwind eCommerce, a Bethesda, Maryland software development company, and the makers of the Whirlwind eCommerce shopping cart.

According to Wexler, “About four dozen websites use the engine. Of those, about three dozen are ecommerce sites. It has a great content management system, which attracts a lot of publishing, hospitality and other non-ecommerce clients.”

We’ll also hear from a Whirlwind eCommerce customer, Barbara de la Riva, marketing director for Great American Business Products.

PeC: Please provide some general background on the cart.

Mark Wexler

Mark Wexler

Mark Wexler: “Back in 1998 I was working full time for Booz Allen Hamilton developing e-government applications (basically ecommerce for the public sector). At that time one of my good friends was working in the private sector developing applications for insurance companies. He had a contact that was interested in developing an ecommerce site on a very tight budget. My friend approached me and asked if I would teach him to make ecommerce sites by working on this project together after hours. I accepted.

“Our first client site went live in 1999, and by the end of the year, we had enough potential business to take that leap of faith into the world of entrepreneurship, and Whirlwind Inc. came to be.

“We quickly identified a need for seamless integration between our clients’ websites and existing point-of-sale systems. Today, our system has matured into one of the most powerful ecommerce engines available for the medium-sized catalog company ecommerce market.

“Throughout our client experiences we have developed relationships with industry experts specializing in online marketing and merchandising, and who have performed significant market research and usability testing to identify what is most effective. In 2006, we aggregated all this information into a single solution to bring our clients the best possible cart conversion rates for an ecommerce web site.”

PeC: Is it hosted, licensed, or both?

Wexler: “Licensed.”

PeC: How much does the cart cost?

Wexler: “The core ecommerce/content, merchandising and marketing management software sells for $8,000. Complete ecommerce solutions (which include discovery, design, integration, content entry support, ongoing support, and more) typically run $20,000 to $50,000 to set up and $1,000 month for support. Multiple installations for the same client company benefit from a significant cost reduction for the additional sites.”

PeC: What is your company doing to become PCI compliant?

Wexler: “We can only guarantee PCI compliance for our hosted clients. This is provided via our strategic partnership with Rackspace, which sits on the PCI Security Standards Council. [Editor’s Note: Rackspace is named on The PCI Security Standards Council’s list of participating organizations.]

“Our software fulfills all compliance regulations of data storage and management. Rackspace provides the PCI DSS-compliant hardware infrastructure and required PCI services to maintain the necessary level of compliance for each of our clients.” [Editor’s Note: Whirlwind eCommerce is not currently named on The PCI Security Standards Council’s list of validated payment applications or on Visa’s global list of PCI DSS validated service providers.]

PeC: What are the cart’s biggest strengths?

Wexler: “The first strength is the site architecture. We have a close affiliation with Eight by Eight, a leading Internet marketing consulting company, and this gives the platform many years of marketing and usability expertise built right in. It is a selling platform with a strong focus on increasing average orders and maximizing conversion.

“We allow clients to have a ton of control, including complete content management of all site pages. Once the system is in place, clients can manage all their products, pages, categories, checkout steps, emails, and more, without having to interface with a developer.

“It has an extensive suite of marketing tools to attract more visitors and nurture the customer relationship for repeat purchases, as well as integration with premier complimentary website marketing tools.

“And, since we work directly with each client on every step of the process, we are able to integrate with point-of-sale systems, including off-the-shelf and custom legacy systems.”

PeC: What are some of its weaknesses?

Wexler: “The model is not plug-and-play. It is built to be customized specifically for each client, and requires developer integration to do so.”

PeC: What plans do you have for future cart development?

Wexler: “We are currently working on a redesign of the management interface which will add features like snapshot reports, additional third-party software integration extensions and more. In addition we are wrapping up several social media integration components, such as a link to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, so customers can have shared status updates and have purchases automatically appear on the social networking sites, if desired.”

PeC: How would your cart help an ecommerce merchant, versus the cart he or she is using now?

Wexler: “In general, we believe that our platform is one of the most flexible and marketing-oriented packages out there. We put as much control in the hands of our non-IT clients as possible.”

PeC: Any other thoughts for our readers, who are mainly ecommerce merchants?

Wexler: “Yes. Be sure to implement an abandon-cart email program (as well as other triggered email programs). A standard ‘thrust’ email program is not enough these days. This is the number one neglected item on the ecommerce marketing horizon, which is crazy, because the right abandon-cart program provides a tremendous ROI [return on investment].”

A Customer’s View

Barbara de la Riva is the marketing director for
Great American Business Products. It is a Houston, Texas-based company that operates three online stores using Whirlwind eCommerce, producing gross revenue around $30 million per year. Its sites, Sparrow & Jacobs and Great American Property Management Products, sell products for the property management and real estate industries, such as forms, banners and signs; and Great American Automotive Products and Supplies sells similar products for the automotive industry.

PeC: How long has your company been using Whirlwind eCommerce?

Barbara de la Riva

Barbara de la Riva

Barbara de la Riva: “Three years. We started with one division and have since moved all our sites over to Whirlwind. We initially chose it because it had all the benefits of our previous platform but was much more customizable and more reasonably priced. It was the only system we found that would allow us to manage the content of all pages via the interface, not just categories and products. We have the ability to control and tweak many areas of the site that were off-limits with our previous provider, such as form pages, custom landing pages, and the entire checkout process.”

PeC: What are the cart’s biggest strengths?

de la Riva: “The simple and robust content management system, the cart conversion tools, marketing tools, and flexibility. The platform is specifically geared toward the marketing side of a business, which, as marketing director, was extremely attractive to me. Whirlwind helped us integrate with any marketing channel we chose (email, PPC [pay-per-click], direct mail), without trying lock us into any of their specific services or service charges. The system is robust and flexible enough to serve some of our very particular needs, such as product personalization (customers can build their own newsletters, post cards, or custom signs).”

PeC: How could the cart improve?

de la Riva: “Customization makes upgrading difficult. Some of our sites require custom programming of the software to address our particular needs. When we upgrade, we need to have the customizations rebuilt into the new versions of the software, which may be more expensive and time consuming.”

PeC: How would Whirlwind eCommerce improve another merchant’s business?

de la Riva: “From my experience, there are three routes you can take when you are considering an ecommerce platform:

  1. You can go with an off-the-shelf, inexpensive solution (which we tried at first) that will have lots of design/structure/functionality restrictions and will require seasoned in-house IT folks to get it going;
  2. You can spend gazillions of dollars on a custom platform (which we looked into) built from the ground up exactly the way you want (and you better know exactly what you want if you are paying that much);
  3. You can select the ‘in-between” option where you have a more ‘turnkey’ solution (which we chose). Whirlwind is the best in that arena with its perfect mix of proven site structures and marketing tools, and the handholding needed to get the site up and keep it humming. It’s more rare than you might think.”

PeC: Do you plan on continuing to use the cart?

de la Riva: “Absolutely.”

PeC: Any other thoughts for our readers concerning the cart?

de la Riva: “From a usability and conversion standpoint, I am consistently amazed at how many seemingly insignificant details of a site can play a part in its success. The Whirlwind staff seems really focused on this. We talk to them weekly. They are always working with us to tweak our sites, add tools, and improve the platform as the industry and marketplace demands. The results speak for themselves. Highly recommended.”

Other Whirlwind eCommerce Sites

Kate Monteith

Kate Monteith

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