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Questions to Help You Find the Shopping Cart Right For You

I have been getting tons of phone calls and e-mails lately from people who are going crazy trying to figure out what kind of shopping cart is best for their businesses. I want to address this very important issue, especially since the right shopping cart has the potential to more than double your sales!

Many people do not know this, but "shopping cart abandonment" is a serious problem -- 55% of online shoppers have abandoned carts. And the main reason these folks desert their selections before actually completing their purchases is because they are frustrated with the shopping cart itself.Shoppers abandon carts when...

  • They ca not browse through your products freely
  • They ca not find pricing and product information easily
  • There are too many forms to fill out and the process takes too long
  • The cart loads too slowly
Obviously, if you want to streamline your ordering process by adding a shopping cart to your web site, then its critical that you choose one that will be user-friendly for shoppers. The "right" shopping cart can result in 55% more shoppers actually completing their purchases! And this means 55% more profits in your pocket!

However, choosing a shopping cart can be an extremely difficult (and confusing!) decision, especially for those of you who are just struggling to understand what one actually is!

So, What Exactly IS a Shopping Cart?

A virtual shopping cart is a lot like the metal one at the grocery store -- with a whole lot of features added on. The virtual cart collects the products that visitors to your site have an interest in purchasing, and shoppers can "add" or "remove" items as they please, just like with a real shopping cart.

But then the osCommerce cart takes on other duties. It first calculates the total of the customers order, including taxes and shipping costs. Then, when the customer is ready to make a purchase, the cart passes all of this information over a secure site (a "payment gateway") to your merchant account, where credit cards are approved or rejected.

Once the shopping cart hears back from the merchant account, it...

1) Generates a customer receipt and e-mails it to the customer, 
2) Sends you a fax or an encrypted e-mail that contains the customer details and order information.

... And at that point, you can fill the orders.

If you sell only one or two items and do not plan to add more, you do not really need a shopping cart -- you can use a simple order form instead. But if your e-business is just a bit bigger than this, or if you plan to expand at any time in the future, you will want to have a good shopping cart in place.

Are There Different Kinds of Shopping Carts?

Yes! There are literally hundreds of shopping carts available for you to choose from; however, they all typically fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. ASPs (Application Service Providers) provide the shopping cart as a service to you. The ASP hosts the cart on their server and gives you everything you need to run it. Signing up with an ASP is like paying someone to take care of the whole process for you.
  2. Shopping cart software is just what it sounds like -- software that you pay a flat fee to license. In this case, you are responsible for installing and hosting the application yourself.
  3. Customized shopping carts are ones that you build yourself. In my opinion,theres no need to write your own shopping cart software unless you have VERY specific needs and TONS of money! The average small business web site does not typically need this level of customization. And given the wide-range of cost-effective software and solutions that are now available, theres certainly no need to go through all the trouble and expense. So we will leave this option out for the rest of our discussion.
Of course, knowing that you can choose between software and ASP shopping carts does not really help you select the right one for your business. You still need to understand the fundamental differences between Asps and software (why one might be better for your business than the other), and then you need to know how to choose from the hundreds of shopping carts available in each category!

So to make this decision a bit easier for you, I have developed seven key questions that will help you find the cart thats perfect for your online business -- one that will streamline your ordering process and potentially double your sales!

Seven Questions You MUST Ask Before Choosing a Shopping Cart

1. What do shopping carts come with?

The options that come with your shopping cart can vary widely, based on the package you choose. However, both ASP and software typically include:

  • A shopping cart that tracks products selected for purchase by your customers and calculates total purchase price, including tax and shipping costs.
  • A maintenance system that allows you to easily add new products, remove old ones, adjust prices, and set up special offers.
  • An order-retrieval system that provides you with all the information you need to fulfill orders (like name, mailing address, product ordered, etc.).
On top of these fairly standard features, ASP carts and software packages can also include a variety of other options (some which you may have to pay for, and others which may be included free as part of the package) such as:
  • Storage of customer information
  • Revenue tracking
  • Inventory management
  • Advertising capabilities
  • Permission marketing
2.  How much control do I have over how my shopping cart looks and operates?

You want to make sure that you have the option of customizing your shopping cart software to include logos, graphics, and colors that match the overall look and feel of your web site; a shopping cart that looks drastically different from your site may confuse potential customers, causing them to leave before completing their purchases!

Whether you choose an ASP or software, you will be offered at least one (or a combination) of the following three options for customization:

  • Web page templates that you can just fill in with your product information, prices, descriptions, etc. You do not need to know (or even see) HTML.
  • "Copy & Paste" HTML pages that have all the coding in place, so all you have to do is copy and paste the code, then add the details you need to create your web pages (you can usually modify the code if you want)
  • An Easy-To-Use Wizard that leads you step-by-step through creating and customizing your cart.
... Each of these three options is pretty user-friendly; however, if you are not comfortable working directly with HTML code, you should probably stick with the Wizards and templates.

On the other hand, if you plan to customize your cart beyond these standard options (i.e. if you want to integrate other software or alter the carts functionality to fit your specific needs), you may need access to the source code.

With software, you tend to have more control over customization than you do with an ASP -- you will usually have all the source code you could ever want, and if you are the technical type, you can go nuts!

Asps, however, may not offer you the option of customizing their source code, or they may offer code that is quite complicated. Because Asps host carts for many different clients, its usually easier for them to maintain control over the way the carts work. This is something to watch for if you are interested in customizing your cart to any great extent.
3. How do I make changes to my shopping cart?

Obviously, your inventory and your offers will never remain exactly the same, so you will need to make changes from time to time. All shopping carts will provide methods of making changes to pricing and product descriptions, updating your inventory, etc.

You can make the changes using either "browser-based" or "database" maintenance, depending on what your package offers.

Browser-based maintenance is the easiest way to go. With an ASP cart, you would make changes by logging onto the ASPs web site and going to an administrative options page that allows you to update prices and inventory. With a software package, you would go through your own "back office."

Database maintenance is a little more difficult. It lets you maintain a database on your desktop computer and upload revisions on a regular basis. While this can be convenient, its really only needed if you are dealing with hundreds of products.
4. How do I make sure my shopping cart is user-friendly?

Your customers do not care about the behind-the-scenes function of your shopping cart -- they just want quick, easy shopping. Keep in mind that many people are still a bit wary of shopping online, so you will want to lead the customer by the hand through the buying process, explaining each detail (such as site security when they are entering credit card information, and how billing and shipping will work) along the way.

It is a good idea to keep your cart as simple as possible. The last thing you want to do is confuse your customers or make them waste their time. If your cart has all kinds of fancy images, it will take too long to load; if it has an array of pretty pages, it will take too long for the customer to get through... Net result: you will lose customers. Keep it simple.

Provideplenty of product information and prices up front; in fact, make sure your customers have all the information they need before they even get to your shopping cart. Your web site should offer everything your customers need to know, so that clicking the "Buy Now" button is the very last decision customers make after looking through your site.

But do not stop there! Make sure your shoppers can easily move back and forth between the cart and your web site to browse through your products and add more items to their orders! And when customers are ready to buy, do not limit their payment options! Most will pay by credit card, but other methods are increasingly available. Consider options like virtual debit cards and virtual checks (PayPal is a good place to start).

Lastly, keep in touch with the customer until the product is delivered. If something is out of stock, let the customer know when it will be available and how long delivery will take. Your shopping cart should not only e-mail the customer at the time the order is placed, but also when the product is shipped.
5. What should I be careful of when I choose a shopping cart?

Besides checking out consumer reviews of the shopping cart you are interested in purchasing to make sure that others are satisfied with its capabilities, you will also want to make sure the cart you choose gives you:

  • Control: The level of control you need will depend on your business and your preferences. Make sure the cart you choose offers the level of customization you need and allows you to make changes and adjustments without too much difficulty.
  • Security: Make sure the customer is always entering credit card information over a secure server (SSL connection). This can happen either in the payment gateway (which is always secure) or in your shopping cart (which means your cart needs to be hosted on a secure server).
  • Flexibility: Your cart must be compatible not only with your merchant account and payment gateway; it also needs to be flexible enough to accommodate other programs you may wish to run with it in the future. For example, if you have an affiliate program (or are thinking about starting one) you will want to ensure that your affiliate tracking solution is going to be compatible with your shopping cart.
  • What You Pay For: You may run into ASP carts that claim to offer total package solutions, but that actually outsource different aspects of their cart to other companies. For example, the cart, merchant account, and payment gateway could all be operated by different vendors, contracted by the ASP. In a situation like this, if anything goes wrong and you need questions answered, you could find yourself getting the run-around.
6.  So which is better, an ASP or software?

The shopping cart solution you choose, whether its an ASP or software, must meet the needs of your individual business. Are you selling a handful of products, with no plans for expansion? Are you planning to grow in the near future? Are you comfortable looking after the technical details yourself (like coding your own web pages)? Or would you prefer someone else looked after the design and implementation? These are all questions you need to ask yourself before making your final decision.

ASP shopping carts can be a great solution for those who may not be technically inclined; they typically offer package deals that ensure you never need to worry about issues of compatibility (like whether or not the shopping cart is going to work with your merchant account).

However, the drawbacks are that (a) ASPs generally offer you less control over the look and functionality of your shopping cart, and (b) they may also limit your growth to a certain size, which can be a real problem if your business suddenly starts to take off. As well, if you already have your own merchant account, you will be limited to the ASPs that your provider is compatible with.

Shopping cart software, on the other hand, typically gives you more control over the look and functionality of your cart and gives you greater flexibility to grow. However, because you will not usually be getting a package deal, you will need to deal with issues of compatibility. You will need to make sure that your shopping cart, merchant account, and payment gateway will all work together (so be sure to do your homework!).

Of course, while software may not be as convenient as an ASP, its actually less expensive in the long run as you pay a one-time flat fee for the software as opposed to a monthly fee for an ASP.
7.  How much do shopping carts cost, anyway?

Does not the old adage say that nothing in life is free? Well, there are carts out there that are offered for free by various online organizations, but beware! Freeware carts can be surprisingly expensive in the long run. You will likely spend a fortune on programmers to make your cart usable in the first place -- then, you will lose out on the documentation and periodic upgrades that are offered by established carts. Plus, freeware shopping carts will limit you quite severely in size, and switching to a new cart can be quite a hassle.

With an ASP, you will pay a monthly fee of somewhere between $30 and $60, and sometimes an initial or annual fee. You may have to pay for your merchant account and payment gateway, but you will get a slightly lower price through the ASP (you can get both for $150 to $200).

A software license will cost between $200 and $600. You can also lease the software for about $40 a month (typically with a two-year lease). You will have to pay the payment gateway fee (usually between $20 and $60 per month) and you will need to set up a merchant account (usually $300 or more).

Resources to Get You Started:

Have a look at a variety of carts and think about your specific requirements. The fanciest of carts can be impressive, but you might not need every option thats out there. Focus on the needs of your particular business and potential customers.

Think about whether you want to have everything included in one package or want to put the components together yourself. If you want to have more control and a high level of customization, then software might be your best option. If you are not as technically inclined and would prefer that someone else host your cart and take care of compatibility issues, then an ASP might be a better choice.

Final Thoughts:

Finding the shopping cart that has the potential to double your sales should not be too difficult now that you are aware of the compatibility issues that you need to be on the lookout for. And now that you know what your options are, you will be better equipped to choose a cart that suits the needs of your particular business... and budget!

With the right system, you can set up your shopping cart so that it blends into your web site almost seamlessly in a way that makes sense for your business and your products. Not only will this make it easier for you to manage your cart, it will also make it easier for your shoppers to purchase from you.

Do not forget that for the online buyer, the shopping cart stands in place of face-to-face interaction with a salesperson or customer service representative. So make sure your cart represents you in a way that welcomes buyers and promotes your business? and keep that 55% shopping!

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