Practical Ecommerce

Ecommerce Know-How: Picking the Right Shopping Cart

An online retailer is an online marketer. Often the difference between a successful online business and a failed one is not the product or products available for sale, but how the product is promoted.

As an example, consider the case of Marcel Salathé, a Swiss artist and theoretical biologist, who painted the numbers 1 to 1,000 in blue ink on white canvases. Salathé has sold nearly 800 of his numeric masterpieces for several hundred dollars each, thanks to fantastic marketing.

Salathé’s marketing focuses around an unusual pricing model that makes his numbered paintings more expensive as more are sold. The model invests buyers with a sense of urgency and a willingness to pay extremely high prices for rather simple artwork. This pricing model was intriguing enough to capture global media attention. Wired magazine featured the artist’s work and the story of how Daniel H. Pink paid almost $600 for the number 41. And, promotional guru and author Seth Godin has blogged about Salathé’s marketing.

Once we recognize, as I think Salathé did, that the ecommerce task is very often a marketing task, we begin to make better choices, including how we select a shopping cart.

In this edition of “eCommerce Know-How,” I will share eight shopping cart “must haves” that I believe can help you select the proper ecommerce platform for your business and your marketing plan. If the cart you’re considering doesn’t have these must-have features, keep looking. I’ll also quickly mention how I define shopping carts.

Video: Choosing an eCommerce Platform for Marketing Sake

No. 1: Pick an SEO-friendly Cart

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the first order of business in ecommerce marketing. While there are a lot of things that site owners can to do create interesting content, they have less control over technology’s effect on search-engine indexing. So choosing an SEO-friendly ecommerce content management system (CMS) becomes essential. A telltale sign of a good SEO-friendly CMS is how it rewrites URLs (web page addresses).

Take note of the URLs here on Practical eCommerce. They include the title and provide a rich source of keywords. Your shopping cart or ecommerce platform should do the same.

No. 2: Coupon Code Support

Nothing attracts customers like saving money, and coupon codes are a great way to promote your store. As I reported in January 2009, online searches for coupon codes are on the rise, and it is clear that customers value, share, and use online coupons.

A good shopping cart platform should support coupon codes or other adjustable rate models right out of the proverbial box. Don’t use a cart that doesn’t offer coupons.

No. 3: RSS Capability

RSS, which is most often defined as really simple syndication, is simply a set of data formats that make it easy to syndicate page content.

This technology is a powerful tool for marketing. You can offer discount feeds that customers and potential customers will use in a reader or news aggregator. You can submit RSS feeds to Twitterfeed and have all of your new products, coupon codes, inventory alerts, or other specials effortlessly posted on Twitter, Facebook, iGoogle, MySpace, Identi.ca, or just about any other social networking site you can imagine. And you can even use RSS to generate alert emails using services like MailChimp.

Choose an ecommerce platform that generates RSS feeds for new products, special or discounted products, coupons, sale items, and product categories. Don’t consider a cart without RSS capability.

No. 4: Cross-selling Functionality

Cross selling is simply the idea of selling a customer more and related products to increase total per-checkout revenue. We’ve all seen cross selling done well. As an example, when a toy store recommends batteries to go with a battery-operated Elmo doll, we appreciate the reminder. Or, when an online fashion shop recommends shoes to accompany a suite or dress purchase, we appreciate that, too.

Your shopping cart should offer cross selling as an automated or semi-automated process. The best ecommerce platforms will have a system to associate products and then dynamically place related items on the proper product and checkout pages. If a cart doesn’t cross sell, don’t bother.

No. 5: Customer Reviews

Customer reviews encourage more sales. Psychologically, customer reviews are akin to having a peer recommend the product and the store. Think of it as a way to let your customers market for you — plain and simple.

Your shopping cart should integrate customer reviews, either supporting a review system itself or easily connecting to a third-party customer review tool like PowerReviews or similar.

No. 6: Product Sharing and Recommendations

A customer visiting your site should be able to email or otherwise share product details. Imagine that a teen is searching for clothes at some hip online shop. The teen finds the perfect pair of pants and wants to let, say, Uncle Bob know that this is what she really wants for her upcoming birthday. No smart ecommerce marketer is going to get in the way of that sort of communication. Rather, a good store should give the teen an easy way to send her important message to Uncle Bob without any messy cutting and pasting.

The best of carts include this sharing feature, usually as part of a wish list function that requires some form of registration.

No. 7: Multiple Images, Image Zooming

Sometime the very best ecommerce marketing you can do is to have great pictures of the product. Nearly every product detail page should offer several images of the product from different angles, and when it makes sense, include image panning or zoom to show specific details.

Your shopping cart should support multiple image and image manipulation; or at the very least, it should easily integrate with a third party product image solution like Zoomify.

No. 8: Manage Campaign Landing Pages

Pay-per-click advertising dominates many ecommerce marketing budgets. Marketers want to refine their ad copy, scrutinize keyword selection, and squeeze every ounce of ROI from their campaigns.

So don’t consider a cart that cannot manage campaign landing pages. Your shopping cart or platform should support custom, non-catalog pages. Some carts refer to these as “CMS pages,” others call them “landing pages,” but, regardless of what you name them, make sure your cart offers them.

Picking the Right Cart

So I have pointed out eight cart features that I believe are deal breakers. Of course, there are a lot of other things to consider when you select the web platform for your business. But with hundreds of carts to choose from (and dozens that include all of these features and more), you can be very selective.

What Is An Ecommerce Shopping Cart?

I also wanted to describe what a shopping cart is. I think there is a significant amount of ambiguity in the term, and since I just outlined eight “must haves” that I think will eliminate many weaker carts, I felt like I needed to do some defining.

An ecommerce “shopping cart” can be defined as just the portion of your website that manages transactions, or the term can describe an ecommerce-specific content management system that stores product catalogs, monitors sales, and serves up database-driven content for just about every page in your site.

It is the second of these possible definitions (an ecommerce CMS) that I really had in mind in this article. You can think of ecommerce platforms like Magento and GoodBarry as the specific sort of shopping cart in view.

By contrast, I have recommended Instinct’s WP e-Commerce to folks on Twitter. This cart is really an add-on to the WordPress CMS, which itself does not have all of the features I describe here. It fits the first definition of “shopping cart,” but when combined with WordPress it is even more able.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Michael Stearns June 25, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for the high-value post Armando.

    Item #3, RSS, is an interesting one. I certainly agree with the important, however, we have been amazed at the lack of deployment from our customers. RSS is really simple, but just complicated enough that a lot of non-tech people can’t wrap their heads around it. The value of RSS/xml output that we see is with product feeds to shopping engines. A slightly different application than you mentioned, but hugely important.

    I will stop short of shameless self-promotion of our own shopping cart, but whether it is sitemaps, product feeds, or the other type of micro data-exchanging you have brought up, this is really where the action is at in a social world.

  2. Tony Birnseth June 25, 2009 Reply

    Very nice article on the basics.

    Since merchants spend a considerable amount of time managing their store, ease of use and things like drag and drop are critical in saving time and exerting control. Integration between inventory management and the catalog is also critical for saving time which becomes saving money.

    Another key feature for seasonal marketing is the ability to have multiple versions of the skin or theme available along with multiple catalogs. I.e. the ability to have a separate catalog for say Valentine’s day and a theme that is based on red. A couple of weeks before, switch to the new theme with the special pricing and then on 2/15, switch it back. Same goes for Christmas, and other holiday periods or even "summer sales".

    IMHO, a hosted solution is paramount. In today’s world, an entrepreneur must be able to manage their business from anywhere, any time.

    A powerful (but again simple and intuitive) back-end is also important for managing orders, suppliers, inventory, CRM, receivables, etc. This must be a completely integrated solution as well. No export/import and juggling by using your PC as an intermediate point for extracting information from the store and importing it into the back-end.

    Great overview of the most important aspects. But as usual, the devil is in the details.

  3. Mireya Pizarro June 25, 2009 Reply

    Yes it is interesting. I am trying to set up this account and am having trouble.

  4. Armando Roggio June 25, 2009 Reply

    @Tony

    Good point about theme switching. I would not consider it a must have, but it is certainly a good to have. Best bet with any skin or theme is to use a professional designer, not a template.

    I am not sure that I know what you mean by "separate catalog." I would never want to have to divide my inventory between more than one catalog, it can be a real pain and is likely to create a customer service problem. Rather, have a catalog that can change prices, design, etc. based on the time of year or other context (even managing more than one web store). Is that what you had in mind?

  5. Martin June 25, 2009 Reply

    There’s a few things that have been missed on this article that really are important too so just wanted to include them as small bullet points:

    Any shopping cart system should have

    – Proper 24/7 support. It’s something that goes without saying that eCommerce is a 24/7 store that never sleeps so the product support team shouldn’t be keeping business hours in one hemisphere.

    – Search that works. It seems obvious but having a search system is vital and one that includes sensible weightings towards FAQ’s, products, categories and all the myriad of details like keyword tags that make any search intuitive. Not easy to get right but certainly not something to pay lip service to either.

    This last is especially important for things like intuitive up-selling or related product display when a customer hits "add to cart".

    Most important of all though is a…

    – Clear roadmap as to how development will progress. This along with proper feature development, where each is maintained properly, allowing the product and it’s features to mature. There are some carts (one in particular springs to mind) where features are treated more as marketing tick boxes. Surface pretty functionality that once investigated in any depth belies a serious lack of depth.

    Probably the most important point when it comes to choosing though… Ignore the hype, get cynics involved and test your shortlist to death. It’s better than being disheartened to realise that you’ve been taken in by surface shine.

  6. Armando Roggio June 26, 2009 Reply

    @Martin
    Do you mind if I ask which cart you had in mind in your third point?

  7. Martin June 26, 2009 Reply

    @Admando: As the article is pretty generic I’d prefer not to. Feel free to contact me privately though…

  8. blueberry_cs June 27, 2009 Reply

    I believe Martin is referring to the Interspire Shopping cart and I can only wholeheartedly agree with his comments, Interspire needs stop providing lip service but fess up to what they advertise.

    I.e a telephone order facility which actually lets you accept credit cards and a more realistic update/upgrade support policy would also go a long way. It is pretty poor customer service that you can not upgrade (which you have to pay for anyway) without also having a paid support and update plan (yes there is a difference between update and upgrade at Interspire) so please make sure you read the fine print.

  9. joshmods June 27, 2009 Reply

    I’ve already added a phone order system for Authorize.net to Interspire and I’m adding one for PayPal Standard and Pro in the next 5 days. Also, I’m 90% done with an RSS feed builder add-on for creation of RSS feeds from any group of products you want for ISC. Check my very reasonably priced mods out at http://www.joshmods.com

  10. Kingpin June 28, 2009 Reply

    I agree with Martin and Blueberry.

    Interspire cart has huge potential, but they must fix their expensive update & upgrade policies. Further improving functionality of the already advertised existing features is also a must, I would personally prefer this BEFORE new features are added.

  11. IbnSaeed July 2, 2009 Reply

    I am using Viart shopping cart, it has the most features on the market.