Adventures of Implementing a New eCommerce Website
Part 2 of 2 – The Implementation
My old website had become a tangled mess of old files, old photos and outdated products, so I had decided to build a new one rather than try to remodel the old one. Part 1 of this story covered the background and decision-making process of selecting my new cart, OpenCart.
I set up eCommerce programs for a living. What I mean is, for the past 10 years I have written user manuals for these programs, and I learn every aspect of the program inside and out when I write the user manual. I install it, configure every menu and program as I set up a real live store and take screen shots. I also consulted for many years, installing and customizing these sites for customers. So you would think doing my own online shop would be as easy as pie. Not so!
Doing my own shop was like doing 10 shops for other people because I was so heavily invested in the outcome. I expected it to take me a couple of weeks, but it took nearly a month. Of course, I wanted it to be picture-perfect.
Starters – Hosting, SSL, and program installation
I already had a domain name and SSL security certificate installed with the business hosting package by my web host, Hostgator, so I was ready to install. Installation of OpenCart was super-easy for me. I downloaded it from the OpenCart website and used my web host’s cPanel control panel to create an empty database, upload the files, and then run their built-in installer program.
I’ve installed eCommerce programs many, many times this same way – all open source eCommerce programs are very similar in their installation routine – but it’s not necessary to go this route. Many web hosts will install OpenCart for you for free, including Arvixe (the Official Web Host of OpenCart), and TMDHosting. I have hosted websites with both hosts and they are excellent, highly supportive web hosts.
There are also “auto-installer” programs like SimpleScripts and Installatron which can be used with nearly any web host. After you decide on a domain name and sign up for a web hosting account with that name, look for the “account information” email from the web host and simply plug that information into the SimpleScripts or Installatron form.
Next was installing the new template from Themeforest. When I unzipped the template onto my PC, I found the best and most extensive instructions I have ever seen! It was an HTML file that opened in my browser and contained clear, detailed instructions on installing and modifying every aspect of the template. I bookmarked the file in my browser so I could return to it again and again. Normally with templates you have to guess what size to make the images, for example, but this one contained exact recommended sizes. Five stars for the template!
Graphics, graphics and more graphics
Now it was time to make custom graphics for the new shop. I had to make a new logo with the right sizes and colors to match. I first made a matching “favicon” or the tiny icon that you see on the browser tab. I used a free Favicon maker to upload my logo, and they shrink it and put it in the right format. Then I needed a bunch of stock images in the right colors. My old favorite stock photo site has gotten super-expensive, so I searched around and now have a new favorite stock photo site, depositphotos.com. This site had inexpensive small images, which is the right size for use on the web.
I spent way more time than I planned agonizing over the photos, probably a week of creating a “lightbox” or group of photos that I like, printing the lightbox and then poring over them circling favorites and crossing out others. I cropped and added text to the images to support my new marketing campaign that I hoped would engage my customers – if they use my book to make their own eCommerce website, I ask them to submit a photo of themselves in their workplace for a chance to win a prize.
Once I had uploaded all my new graphics, the shop suddenly looked like a real store! But click a few times and you would see it had no products yet. My old store had sprawled to over 200 products over 10 years, most of them outdated, so I decided to create them all manually in the new shop. I could have installed a handy import/export extension or add-on which allows you to type all the product descriptions into an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve used import/export tools many times and recommend them if you have a lot of products. But in my case it was a toss-up. I like the OpenCart Admin, it’s pretty and fun to use. I’m also a very visual person, and it’s hard for me to envision what the product will look like on a spreadsheet. If I have to update all products in my shop I will definitely install the import/export tool.
Customize with extensions
At last it’s time to install the add-on extensions I selected. I had been very careful to select only extensions for the current version of OpenCart.
I found the check-out process a bit long and tedious, so I installed “Keep It Simple Checkout” extension. This allowed me to customize the checkout process without actually modifying the files. This is because it is done using a method called VQMod, or Virtual Quick Mod, which leaves your original files as-is and makes the modifications “virtually.” Keep It Simple Checkout allowed me to make changes to virtually every aspect of the checkout process by filling in forms in the Admin.
I also have a lot of information pages including reviews of many ecommerce programs, so I installed an add-on called Category Hierarchy which allows me to organize those pages into categories. So now all my product reviews are in a “Product Reviews” category. It’s pretty important to be able to organize information, so I hope this add-on is included in a future version of OpenCart.
Finally I added the extension called “Download Free Products” so that my customers could download my many free guides and cheatsheets without going through the checkout process.
At this point we are just days from launching the new site! I paid my trusty programmer to “port” the data about my customers and orders from my old site. From this point, all new customers and orders until launch will either have to be imported again, or manually added to the new site.
It was now time to do serious stress-testing. I did thorough testing after each add-on was installed, but now we need to be sure all the extensions are working and playing well together. Occasionally there will be a clash between extensions and you will have to choose one or the other, or have one or both custom-modified.
Here I created a list of seven sample customers from each of my shipping and payment “geo-regions.” I had to use real addresses or the shipping, payment and tax would not work properly. So I Googled a representative pizza shop address in each region I wanted to test – there are pizza shops everywhere.
It took another week to get all the testing done. Every issue I had turned out to be human error – i.e. a box I had not filled in correctly – and not the extensions or the program.
OpenCart Support was superb: the OpenCart Extensions section includes a link to support for each extension, which was always answered promptly. Community support – i.e. posting questions on the forum – was also great. No snarky comments, everyone truly wanted to help. Finally, when neither of these work, OpenCart offers FREE support for both the program and extensions! On the OpenCart.com website, just click the large “SUPPORT” tab on the left of all pages. Yes, that giant left tab that almost knocks you in the head. They really want to help.
Ready to launch
Finally I launched my new site, using my web host’s cPanel control panel again to set permanent “redirects” from the old site to the new. I didn’t announce it for several days though, which is called a “soft launch.” If something went wrong, I could still revert back to the old site. I posted a notice on the home page that the site was brand-spanking new, and offered a deep discount on my ebooks to encourage customers to try the new site.
After several days of watching and tweaking the new site, I announced the new site in press releases posted around the web. This is called the “hard launch.” There’s no going back to the old site – this is my new home now!
- OpenCart ecommerce: OpenCart.com
- Hosting with free SSL included: Hostgator.com
- Hosting with free installation of OpenCart:
Arvixe.com and TMDHosting.com
- OpenCart Auto-Installers: SimpleScripts.com or Installatron.com
- OpenCart Themes, Templates or Skins: Themeforest.net
- Free Favicon Maker: Favicon.cc
- Low-Cost Stock Photos: depositphotos.com
- OpenCart Add-On Extensions: opencart.com/index.php?route=extension/extension
- My brand-new, completed OpenCart website: ShowMeGuides.com