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Managing your e-commerce solution

Ecommerce Buyer's Guide

A great-looking e-commerce site is all very well but you must be able to manage it easily.

Stock keeping units (SKUs)
An SKU is a unique numeric identifier for each of your products stored in your database. You'll need to use SKUs every day, so ask your e-commerce service provider to show you how simple it is to remove or add products and change their details. To help you judge the effectiveness of SKUs, ask the provider some pertinent questions.

  • Can I place an "out of stock" indicator on a product without deleting it from the system?
  • Can I take a product from the site but keep the image and text on the database?
  • Is it simple to replace a picture and alter the description?
  • Am I restricted to a certain number of characters for the text that accompanies each image?
  • Am I restricted to a certain number of pictures per product?
  • Can the customer click on the picture to enlarge it?
  • Can I arrange items into various headings and subheadings?
  • How many SKUs can the system hold?
  • Do I need to have an SKU for each product or can an unlimited number of the same products have an identical SKU?

HTML is the standard programming language of the Internet. Ideally, if you want to manage the e-commerce site in-house, you'll need a member of staff who understands and can use this. If not, you'll require a "point and click" interface, but this won't give you the flexibility that comes with direct use of HTML.

Price management
If you have a lot of products, you may want the option of being able to change all their prices in one go rather than work through them item by item. Check to see if the e-commerce software lets you do this. You may also want to confirm that the software gives you the chance to make price changes at a pre-arranged time. If you're planning to begin a sale at 6am, Monday morning, for example, you may want to programme the software in advance so the prices alter across the board at exactly the same moment.

Sales reports
A good e-commerce system will give you invaluable reports about the number of sales per product; the number of visitors per product; the amount of time visitors spend on each product page; details of shopping cart transactions; and the email addresses of your visitors. All these facts, and more, can help you build sales by changing products and targeting potential customers.

Therefore you should always ask e-commerce service providers for sample reports. Also ensure the compatibility of these reports with your other systems by reviewing samples of exported data from the e-commerce software.

The processing of orders
You may already have a processing system you use for phone orders. If this is the case, check that the e-commerce system can link up with it. If you need to buy a processing system, ensure it has the ability to connect with your merchant account and is able to track the orders.

You may want to confirm if you can rewrite the emails that are automatically sent to customers when they place their orders. If you can, check whether you have to make any changes using HTML or ordinary text.

Also ask the e-commerce service provider for samples of the emails. You're looking for text that is polite, concise and clear. Finally, check that the emails are covered by security encryption such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy).

Amount of products per order
You may wish to place minimum and maximum numbers on product order quantities per customer, or you may wish to charge more for the postage and packing of small orders. Check with your e-commerce provider that these facilities are available.

Features for advanced e-commerce systems
There are features less commonly used but nonetheless suitable for some types of online shop. If you need them, be prepared to pay extra.

  • Cross selling. You can arrange for your system to display products related to the items in customers' shopping carts. This is useful for maximising sales opportunities.
  • Linking with other systems. To create a fully-rounded business computer system, you may wish to have a link between the e-commerce software and any related sales management tools such as a stock system and a customer database. Before you commit to a particular e-commerce solution, check that it's possible to set up a connection. Even then, you may find you have to invest in costly programming, so get a quote for this in advance.
  • Preventing fraud and abuse. There are various fraud prevention systems for e-commerce transactions. Check what's available and ensure that whatever you choose complements your merchant account.
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