Providing a shopping cart system for your web site – An Overview

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A basic function of a commercial website is the marketing and selling of products. Products can be tangible, physical products or items such as file downloads. Providing these services to your customers is an undertaking that takes careful planning and preparation to avoid headaches for your business and your customers down the road. The most daunting challenge of providing a shopping system for your site is to decide how to implement it. There are a multitude of options to choose from, including:

  • A third-party shopping cart plugin for your CMS
  • A shopping cart system provided by your ISP
  • A dedicated shopping cart system hosted by a site that specializes in providing e-commerce solutions
  • Implementing your own shopping cart system

If you are using a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal or Joomla, you have the ability to install a community-supported e-commerce solution that has most features of a shopping cart system already developed. They’re usually implemented in an a la carte way that allows you to modularly add on functionality that you may require, such as handling credit card payment, state tax calculation, calculating shipping rates or providing download mechanisms. They require that a skilled developer install and configure the plugin for you, but in most cases they are a matter of tuning configuration items to suite your needs and creating products within those systems. The benefit of these plugins is that they can be tailored specifically and exactly to your e-commerce needs.

Some ISPs provide shopping cart systems in their web site management packages. They take care of all of the credit cart handling and other configurations, and leave it to you to create the products you will be selling. These are more restrictive in the nature of products and options that you can provide to your customers but do remove the burden of managing the configuration of your own ecommerce implementation.

There are also websites that can act as your storefront and are completely external to your own site. When customers are viewing the products, they are viewing them on another web site from your own, however they can almost always be branded and themed to match your web site. They take care of all facets of managing e-commerce, however you are still managing the product information and fulfillment. The advantage is that almost all responsibilities of managing the e-commerce backend are handled by the 3rd party, however, they are more restrictive in the types of products and services you can offer, and how those items are presented. Many customers find that while this is the path of least resistance, they are hampered by the limitations of the one-size-fits-all offering.

The third way is the most difficult and expensive path, however it ensures an e-commerce solution that is perfectly tailored to your needs: hiring a developer to create a custom e-commerce solution for you. In most cases, this does not mean reinventing the wheel from scratch. There are services, tools and libraries available from most credit card gateways that handle the actual payment transactions, however a developer must wire them all together, including things like shipping, fulfillment and managing the product catalog. While a custom solution is tailored to your needs, you do open yourself to more potential issues with programming errors or handling customer situations that were not expected when developing the application. The benefit of a community-driven or commercial solution is that more of these unique use cases have been taken care of. In some cases, though, a custom solution can be implemented rather quickly for a simple e-commerce need. For example, PayPal makes it very simple to implement their payment gateway as a basic shopping cart, with great documentation and pre-developed code libraries.

There are three layers to an e-commerce implementation:

  • The catalog and shopping cart system
  • The credit card payment gateway
  • Your bank

The catalog and shopping cart system handle everything up to the moment of payment. Browsing the catalog, selecting an item and adding it to your cart are the basic functionality. Depending on how you implement your payment system, your credit card payment gateway may handle the actual credit card acceptance and verification, or your shopping cart system may handle it, and interact with the credit card payment gateway. The payment gateway is responsible for authenticating and charging the credit card for your business. Upon verification and capture, the funds are then available to transfer to your bank account. The credit card gateway and bank may not necessarily be the same entity. The gateway will have to be linked to your bank account, however.

When implementing an e-commerce solution of any kind, there are some essential features that you must provide to ensure a successful shopping experience:

  • Security
  • Ease of use
  • Communication

Security is the foremost important feature of any shopping web site system. When dealing with financial transactions and personal information, careful security planning must occur. In fact, there are very specific requirements laid down by most credit card merchants for minimum security requirements. These are known as Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards (DSS). Believe it or not, some ISPs may not even qualify for these requirements, so you must inquire with your ISP is they are PCI compliant. The actual requirements are too detailed to list in this document, so I advise you to discuss them with your credit card merchant. Security is more than just making sure that your web site has a SSL (secure socket layer) certificate. There are information storage requirements that must be followed as well. If providing PCI compliance on your web site proves to be too difficult, most credit card merchants provide a hosted authorization service so the PCI compliance falls to them.

The difference is where the credit card number is accepted and handled. On a fully PCI-compliant website, the customer can enter their credit card on a form on your website. When they click the final “Purchase” link, your web site communicates that credit card information with the gateway service that authorizes the payment. The customer never leaves your web site. The alternate method, which takes some of the security onus away from you, is diverting the user to the merchant gateway web site to enter their credit card information and upon authorization, they are redirected back to your website (with some information that tells your website that the transaction was successful or not). This method adds an additional step to the check-out process for the customer.

It is essential that your shopping cart system is easy to use. Customers online can be very fickle and often bail at the last minute. Cart abandonment is a large problem for any e-commerce site. Removing as many barriers as possible for the shopping process and most importantly, the checkout process is critical. There should be as few distractions as possible on the final checkout page, it should be clear and concise and a single operation for viewing their final total, shipping information and entering their payment information.

Customers should have clear paths of communication with you, from product inquiries, shipping questions to order confirmations. This will give them peace of mind when they do go to complete their checkout process.

This is a very high level overview of implementing an ecommerce solution. There are many other factors you need to carefully consider when you implement one of your own. Some of the areas I only touched on are fulfillment, shipping and taxation. Along with security, you should discuss these requirements with the parties involved to ensure that the solution you pick takes them in to account.