E-Commerce - May I Take Your Order
There are numerous options for displaying your product and taking orders on-line. The most basic solutions consist of nothing more than simple HTML and forms. If you only have 1 or 2 products that are strictly a one-time purchase, this may be all you need. However, if you have more items to sell and there is the possibility that your customer may buy from you more than once, you should consider other more comprehensive solutions.
Outside of simple forms, solutions will fall into two main camps:
-Freeware/shareware scripts (Java, CGI, etc.)
Free and share scripts have an advantage in that they can cost less. In some cases these may be a viable solution. There are some drawbacks, however, when compared to e-commerce hosting solutions provided by the major web hosting companies:
1. More difficult to initially set up.
2. More difficult to maintain in terms of product and price updates.
3. Limited features to dynamically display special promotions.
4. No cross promotion functions.
5. May have more cross browser/platform compatibility issues.
6. No customer management utilities.
7. Limited store management utilities.
8. Can be slow to load and cause a customer's browser to "hang".
For many of the free/shareware options that are available, the developer will probably have a working demo version on their web site that you can try out. You should also be able to download a time expired demo version and install on your server. When considering any of these as a possible solution for your web based business, be sure to put them through all the paces. Keep in mind future requirements, especially as they relate to the drawbacks mentioned above.
The majority of web hosting providers offer some form of shopping cart application. These applications use some very complex programming and interface directly with databases to enable the entire on-line e-commerce experience. They dynamically display products, descriptions calculate prices, tax, and shipping totals, but they also provide comprehensive reporting, store maintenance, and customer tracking functions. In some cases features may allow you to change a featured special, cross promote products based on customers purchase/page request habits, personalize content for returning customers, etc. Many of these feature rich applications can also be used for Business to Business (B2B) e-commerce web sites. In fact it is easier to conduct B2B e-commerce for the simple reason that most transactions are to pre-approved customers who receive net 30 invoices. This eliminates the need for merchant accounts, credit card processing, etc.
Because of this tight integration with databases and dynamically driven content display, these solutions require a proprietary server side component to function. This is commonly referred to as the "back-end" of e-commerce. Naturally, it makes sense for web hosting providers to include e-commerce-hosting options as part of their value-added services. As is the case with most software, you do have the option to purchase the shopping cart applications directly from the vendor. Doing so will require you find a web host provider that supports your choice of software.
The real beauty of hosted shopping cart applications is in the fact that all of this, including initial set up of the store, is done using your browser. Most web-hosting providers even offer comprehensive support options for companies that have hundreds of items and need help setting up.
Some of the major advantages of hosted e-commerce applications include:
1. significantly less difficult to set up
2. much easier to maintain in terms of product and price updates
3. web/browser based store management
4. additional customer management and tracking functions
5. can scale up or down depending on needs
6. may have additional functions like cross selling and featured specials
7. can integrate real-time transaction processing more easily
Although hosted applications may appear to cost more than most of the free/share ware options, you should crunch the numbers to prove this. Be sure to include the additional time spent setting up and debugging the script, as well as the time you may save from having the web based store management utility from a hosted application.
Remember to keep your product attribute list in mind as you research your options. Unless you have thousands upon thousands of items, very unique product configurations, or some otherwise specialized needs, hosted shopping cart applications are the solution of choice.