Evaluating Online Shopping Cart Software

    September 29, 2003

If you’re in a position where you need to evaluate online shopping cart software programs for your company, you’re in for a big challenge. There are a ton of shopping cart software vendors online, so how do you decide which one is the best fit for your business? While we can’t possibly offer you a definitive solution, we hope the criteria below helps narrow your search by bringing up a few things that shouldn’t be ignored.

What to consider when evaluating online shopping cart software programs:

1. Hosting – Do you have to host your entire web site with the vendor of the shopping cart software? This isn’t really a plus or minus decision, but if you decide to outsource, are you absolutely sure the hosting company has a reliable and secure hosting environment for your business? For example, if you decided to use Yahoo’s shopping cart solution, you can probably sleep soundly knowing they’ll keep your site running 24/7. In cases where you are not as familiar with the company running your store, make sure to do your research so you won’t end up with an offline store.

2. Design Flexibility -Does the shopping cart program have the flexibility to integrate with the look and feel of the rest of your web site, or will you have to sacrifice your store’s look to adjust to the restrictions of their software? In some cases this might be to your advantage because the shopping cart designers may have integrated a few cart design principles you may have missed but this isn’t always the case. Provide a template of your current site to the shopping cart vendor and ask them if they can integrate that look into their program. If not, keep looking.

Additionally, if you’ve used a different shopping cart package in the past, finding a solution that will enable a relatively simply transition with a database upload from your current cart could save you many hours of work.

3. Shipping – This one can be challenging. Let’s assume you have some items in your cart that don’t justify a shipping charge (memberships, gift certificates, etc.). Additionally, you have other items that are ridiculously heavy to need special shipping requirements. Can the cart handle the exceptions? Can the cart offer free shipping for specific items, or for orders over a certain dollar amount?

3. Taxes – Do you need to tax people in the state you’re in? What if you’re selling a combination of taxable and non-taxable? For example, you probably wouldn’t need to charge a tax on a membership, and some states don’t charge taxes on clothes. Does the shopping cart program address with exception?

4. Search Engine Friendliness – this is a big one. Can search engines read the whole site? Ideally, search engines like Google should index your whole shopping cart, but not all shopping cart programs were designed with this critical criteria in mind. If the major search engines can’t read your web site (or do manage to read it but it’s not fully optimized for search engines) you’ll likely miss out on a large percentage of your potential search traffic. In our experience, we’ve seen sites receive as much as 40% of their search traffic through pages other than the front page of their site. Another thing to consider: the conversion rate on searches for specific products is generally higher than more general searches. If a potential customer searches for a specific product you carry, and that page of your site does not rank well, chances are pretty good that one of your competitors is taking a nice vacation at your expense.

5. Reporting – What kind of data should a shopping cart provide? Sales figures? Traffic info? Biggest selling products? There is a ton of data generated by a shopping cart but and the best shopping carts do a great job presenting that information in an actionable format. Do you know which products are receiving a lot of traffic but no sales? If you did, wouldn’t you take a look at what you could do to improve the copy on that product page?

6. Back end functionality – How easy is it to add new products or product categories? Can you turn items off if they’re out of stock? Can the cart ever be tied to an inventory system? How about loading images? Is this a chore or a simple task? Do you need to upload separate images for thumbnails and a zoom view? If it looks like it’s going to be a chore to maintain your shopping cart over time, move on.

7. Cross selling – Can you cross sell by listing related items for sale within the cart? If someone is looking at some pants can you tell them about a belt? How about offering some batteries for that new stereo? Cross selling is a great way to fill shopping carts but few programs offer this feature.

8. Merchant Account Flexibility – Unless you’re starting an entirely new business online you probably already have a merchant account you can use to process credit card payments. Will you be able to use this with the shopping cart software you’re evaluating? If you have to use the merchant account affiliated with the shopping cart program you’re evaluating, are the acceptable? How do they handle charge-backs? Do they accept all of the cards your offline account accepts? Also, how usable is the cart’s merchant program for your customers? Does it require registration with a 3rd party program to make a purchase like paypal.com? If anything about the merchant program could have a negative effect on your site’s close rate, be careful.

9. Feature additions – Once you launch your cart, you’ll probably start thinking about features that could increase your sales. Does the cart you’re evaluating offer the flexibility to handle additional features? Can the cart have a gift registry so that users can save a wish list? Can the cart have promotional codes, so that referred users can receive a discount? Does the cart offer an affiliate program? Does the cart offer a wholesale login?

In conclusion, there are many questions to ask when choosing a shopping cart technology. We hope the questions above will set you on the right track when evaluating shopping cart software solutions for your business. Clearly every business has its own requirements to consider when evaluating shopping cart software solutions so we hope the question above will put you on the right track when evaluating an appropriate solution for your own business.

Ed Kohler is president of Haystack In A Needle, a web marketing firm in Minneapolis, MN, offering search engine optimization and pay per click advertising consulting services.