Using the E-Commerce Internet …Keeping Records

    September 12, 2003

We know of few entrepreneurs and small business owners that don’t find record keeping an enormous waste of time and energy that should be spent on more productive endeavors. Simply put, maintaining records of any business activity is just a given part of the business environment. Maintaining good and complete records can serve to enhance the business and save a lot of time later on.

Essential Records
The Feds, in just about any country known to man, want a piece of your action. We won’t debate the political issues here; just know that it is frequently necessary to show your government, in very specific terms, what you’ve been up to.

Naturally, the primary focus for a government is the collection of taxes. The three basic taxes are on earnings, employees, and sales. As an interesting aside, in the USA alone there are over 60,000 tax schemes and rates. In Europe and some other locations there is also the VAT (Value Added Tax). VAT taxes can apply to off-shore companies exporting goods to Europe as well as European companies selling within the European community.

Earnings and employee taxes are a part of every business and are not unique to the on-line store. Therefore, we won’t review the need for records regarding these taxes. Suffice it to say that earnings records begin with sales records, having distinct entries for shipping costs and sales taxes.

In the USA, sales taxes are generally set by the individual states and apply only to sales made within the state which has jurisdiction over the company making the sale. This is frequently the state in which the company is registered to do business. For most small on-line stores, sales taxes are not much of an issue because most sales are made to customers outside of the state jurisdiction. However, that doesn’t mean that keeping good sales records isn’t required. The time may come when the state from which the company is operating will request an audit of sales records to determine taxability.

The merchant must be prepared to demonstrate in detail how, when, and where sales are made. To this end, a record of every sale with the date and amount, showing the name and shipping address of the customer, is essential. Depending on the jurisdiction, a computer record may be OK but, a hard copy record is the merchants best protection to keep a state from estimating in-state sales and imposing the sales tax. This record is known as the shipping invoice. A copy is usually provided to the customer.

The shipping invoice is also the best place to keep a record of the shipping method and any tracking numbers from the carrier. If the sale is paid for by credit card, this information becomes essential. It is a very easy matter for a customer to claim the merchandise was never received and request a credit by their issuing bank. Proof of delivery is required of the merchant to counter a resulting chargeback claim on a “card not present” transaction. A signed receipt is the best proof of delivery; however, a carrier confirmation of delivery can often suffice.

In the same chargeback situation, it will be necessary to show a credit card transaction record. Almost always the record will have to show a verified cardholder address or the card issuing bank will not even consider reversing the chargeback in favor of the merchant. The best record to meet this requirement is a purchase order submitted by the customer that includes the credit card transaction information.

To argue a chargeback request, printed copies of both the shipping invoice and the purchase order will have to be sent to the merchant’s service provider. A convenient way of printing out this information is essential.

Optional Records
There are innumerable optional records that a merchant may want to keep for their on-line store. Mostly these records fall into two categories: statistical records and sales records.

Statistical records:
Statistical records relate to visitor counts and their activity. Most hosting companies will provide statistics for unique visitors, page views, and time spent. What is often missing and can be very useful to the on-line merchant is information about how many visitors enter the store and what happens once they do.

Naturally, statistical records can always go deeper and deeper into detail. It is our opinion, however, that for the small internet store, the issue is not trying to micro manipulate results from a lot of confusing detail information but getting some of the basics right from a few necessary records.

Of particular interest will be how many store visitors actually make product selections vs. abandoned carts vs. completed orders. Armed with this information, the merchant can start making informed decisions about the effectiveness of their in-store promotion and description of products. The same information, where there is a high visitor to product selection or abandoned cart ratio, may indicate that the store is attracting the wrong kind of visitor. This may require updating the website description and keyword entries for a more focused search engine result.

Sales records
Sales records are pretty straight forward. They are usually kept on a monthly basis and displayed in the form of a chart for a quick review by the merchant to see how things are going.

However, some detail in the sales record as well as cross referencing to store activity can be very helpful to the on-line merchant in making promotional decisions. For instance, a break out of sales activity by day of the month may indicate that most sales come at the end of the month. This information might indicate that promotional efforts would be most effective if made around the same time.

Similar arguments can be made about knowing the sales activities on an hourly basis. Some stores are trying special promotions directed at certain time windows. Such an effort could be aimed at bolstering sales during slack periods.

In Conclusion
It is natural for new merchants looking to open an Internet store to focus on selecting a storefront itself by looking for the functions essential to their type of business. However, the availability of back office utilities to accompany the storefront, can be just as important. Having sales records presented in the form of quick reference charts along with store visitor statistics can go a long way toward improving overall store results without relying on blind intuition. While these records are not essential to the operation, they are certainly useful. Having a quick and convenient way of generating a sales invoice is essential.

Anyone looking to open an Internet store or upgrade an existing store is well advised to consider the back office utilities that are available in support of the storefront.

Mel Davey is the creator of ImagineNation (, a full service E-Commerce Application Service Provider, offering Storefronts, Order Management Utilities, and 3rd party credit card processing.