Ultimate Guide To Setting Up Your First Online Shop
E-commerce is the most popular business trend in our futuristic society, as most modern cities have Internet equipped and it’s such a simple process to send payments anywhere in the world via Internet connection. Along with these technologies have risen hundreds of thousands of new digital web stores which sell both physical and digital products to one global marketplace.
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Business means trade, and trade means transaction. For Internet buyer, what they really care about is probably the security, as there are overwhelming fraud issues happening all around the world nowadays. So setting up web store is not like your regular Blogger blog, it requires careful planning and guided installation with hardened security in mind.
But hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do it yourself. For any aspiring webmasters hoping to get into the e-commerce game, this post will serve as the guide mentioned above, to ease the transition a bit with full of helpful tips and recommended service, so don’t wonder anymore, let’s get down to business!
The Process of Building
Before even considering to launch your website it is crucial to spend some time away from the computer and build your idea. What kind of products will you be selling? Are there any competitors in this niche? Ideally how should your website’s user interface look?
(Image Source: Fotolia)
These are all very important topics of discussion which you should consider deeply. It will also help a lot to build a brand name in these early stages of development. You can purchase the matching domain name ahead of time to secure your company name and logo.
If you’re a businessman and interested in working online you may also wish to set up some profiles. A new Google account can help on multiple levels for a new corporation. With Google you’ll gain a brand new email account under Gmail and access to each of Google’s apps. This includes Google Docs and Google Analytics for tracking your web page traffic. YouTube accounts also tie into Google via OAuth, so it’s possible to market your store with video media too.
Registering a Domain
Once you have a rough idea of how your shop will work it’s time to make some bold steps. Registering a domain name and finding a web host aren’t very difficult tasks. Yet they are monumentally important steps in the overall launch process.
Spend a lot of time considering your domain before purchase. Once you buy one it’s usually set for 1 year (or more if you choose), so you’re stuck with it! Personally I am a fan of NameSilo for registering new domains. Their user accounts let you set up portfolios and organize your domain names into different structures. Their domain search is also quick and produces to-the-point results.
Choosing the Web Hosting Service
When it comes to hosting things get a bit more difficult. You’ll want to consider the backend language which your online shop will run, and to choose the proper server settings. If you don’t have any preference or just don’t care I recommend sticking with PHP. It’s open source and supported in mostly 99% of server environments. But just ensure that any hosting account you purchase will support PHP and MySQL databases.
Some companies Hostgator and Bluehost offer some incredible solutions for first-time webmasters. The average cost is $100-$150/year for unlimited storage and bandwidth. Now some web hosts do cap their storage and bandwidth limit. But for even the cheapest solutions you’ll generally be using well under their rules.
For more precise guidance, follow our post to help you choose the best web hosting service based on 10 essential factors, and consumer guide on understanding the very truth about web hosting and tips to avoid some annoying hosting troubles.
Choosing your E-Commerce Package
There are two main categories to choose from for building an online shop. Hosted solutions are companies which provide you with everything you need on the backend and host the e-commerce script on their servers. This means you won’t need to perform any programming or file uploads of any kind. You will however still need a domain name to redirect and give your shop a distinct URL.
Now you can also work with licensed scripts, both paid and open source. These kinds of e-commerce systems are easily customized and make up the majority of online web stores. Even if you aren’t a programmer at heart it’s a very simple process to download and re-upload script files onto your hosting server and follow some installation instructions.
But when you are working with money and payments online there are many security risks to consider. If you feel uncomfortable taking on that much responsibility it may be wise to choose a hosted solution. Many times you can talk with company representatives to figure out site security without any stress. The customer’s overall experience and safety should be held in regard to your bottom-line decision.
Hosted E-Commerce Solutions
Many of the hosted solutions can provide an amazing experience to your visitors with very little work on your end. The administration panel is also uniform to all other scripts, which should provide you an easy interface to upload photos and add catalogue entries.
There are so many choices out there it’s hard to pick just one. But I’ve included 3 below which stand out among the rest. They’re viable options for the average webmaster who isn’t interested in messing around with FTP and programming IDE’s. You do lose a lot of opportunity for customizations, but you are gaining added security and personal staff support.
You can check out Shopify for yourself to see this amazing service in action. Their website is designed beautifully and contains some wonderful demos. If you are on the edge with choosing any company, Shopify may possibly be the best option. Their features include a personal app store, SSL security, unlimited server bandwidth, a custom mobile template and a whole lot more!
This is one script which offers a lot more user customizations than others. In the admin backend panel you may choose between dozens of themes to implement onto your live website. If you understand HTML/CSS it’s possible to edit the raw website design online. The editor is similar to WordPress theme‘s editor and offers a very simple UI for beginners.
Shopify also includes live chat and contacts 24/7 for any support. Check out their huge examples page if you’d like to see a few Shopify-powered stores. By looking at some templates it’s difficult to even tell what script they’re running.
Pricing can range from very cheap to very expensive over the course of their 5 plans. Compare details and see if any would stack up to your credentials. Ideally I would recommend Shopify if you have some standard knowledge of HTML and are looking for a fully-accountable staff to back up your new launch.
For small businesses Yahoo! Merchant Solution may also catch your attention. The layout for your standard Y!MS account is fairly straightforward and easy to customize. They provide custom traffic analytics and split testing right from your admin panel. The most popular payment gateways are supported, including PayPal, money orders, checks, and credit cards.
Yahoo! is a great company to partner with if you’re choosing to go the hosted route. They spur large bouts of traffic through organic search and ad clicks, quite honestly only rivalled by Google. You can set up a small marketing account and help spread the word of your new store. Additionally if you’re looking to work with a skilled web designer or developer the small business network includes these features. Yahoo! can practically manage your entire store deployment and launch.
The BigCommerce shop software could be compared to Shopify with trimmed features. They offer a clean user interface which clears up a lot of confusion in the signup process. It’s a breeze to add in new features, products, users, and take payments online in just a few minutes.
Granted if you are a developer the team has spent time building an online API. Check out the integration and API settings on their website for details about page plugins. You may include details from many accounts around the web such as Facebook, eBay, 2Checkout, MasterCard, and PayPal. The staffs offer plenty of template customizations to choose from so you’ll never be worried about branding.
To see a few stores in action check out their live stores showcase, updated regularly and spurring some of the finest e-commerce designs in modern Internet layouts. There are a lot of features to go through when you’re first working with BigCommerce. Consider e-mailing the developers or get in touch with somebody at the company to answer questions you may have. I have only heard very positive reviews about their customer service and support for clients.
On the flip side to pre-hosted solutions it may be easier for developers to work within their own boundaries. Of the many scripts online to choose from there are only a handful worthy of testing. Although I’ve included 4 of my personal favorites here, check Google and do a bit of research if nothing suits you, alternatively check out our featured open source e-commerce shopping carts.
Each website launch is unique and will require unique conditions which another e-commerce solution may provide. In popularity these 4 scripts rank very high, so I’m sure you’ll find most things you need.
Possibly one of the best known brands for e-commerce scripts on the web, Zen Cart is written in PHP and supports mostly all hosting environments. It’s free to download and install on as many websites as you’d like. The only retributions which they require is leaving the “Powered by Zen Cart” link open in the footer area.
Working with Zen Cart provides connections into other services. Some of these are included as modules and it’s possible to download them from their website. Others are simply companies which have tied into the Zen Cart software. Check out their personal recommended services list to see if anything jumps out.
If you know API development yourself there’s a simple XHTML templating system applied onto each website. It is incredibly easy for your standard web developer to create a custom theme.
Additionally the support community is alive and constantly buzzing. Zen Cart has personally sponsored an entire wiki devoted to the script and common topics. Their support forums are also often active with helpful members. You can ask questions ranging from setup and installation all the way to custom module controls.
Magento has developed a very fine script for e-commerce websites. Their whole script is written on PHP and includes plenty of details for getting started. If you’re familiar with active development and FTP deployments check out the current SVN. It’s updated frequently and gives you a great way to access raw PHP files.
Certainly it’s possible for non-programmers to work with the Magento suite. But I would recommend checking out another option if you aren’t at least well-versed in HTML/CSS. Truly those looking to customize an amazing store with brilliant functionality should check out their product features and weigh the options. It won’t be a simple task to learn the Magento backend, however if you are familiar with PHP or a similar programming language you should be very comfortable within 2-3 weeks.
This is one company which provides a lot of support for users. Aside from the free edition there are many alternative options which you can pay per licence. Enterprise and Professional edition stand out as the two best-featured scripts. If you’re torn check their charts on the comparison page and choose what you think is best suited for your business need.
To get started with your learning spend a bit of time learning about their system, which includes screencast videos and some technical documentation. One area the Magento system isn’t lacking is in documentation.
Classic WordPress CMS has stood among many challengers in its day. Yet today there are millions of websites powered by WordPress, both static content and live blogs. So it only makes sense that over time a team of developers would create one spectacular e-commerce solution tied into WordPress. I believe WordPress eShop provides everything an e-commerce site would need, from orders to shipping to discount codes, all running within the WordPress admin.
If you’re a bit confused browse through a few of their tabs. The developer has provided amazing documentation and examples. Their installation process is also very simple, yet an elegant way of handling such a complex task. They have included a brief FAQ tab demonstrating some of their finer features.
With this method you will have to concern yourself with security and updates. It is of the utmost importance that your website stays secure and hack-free. SQL injections are all too common, and in this day personal user information and credit card numbers are much too important to lose. If you’re looking for a place to start on this, WordPress hosts support forums with many related topics. Try out their search feature to see if anybody has asked similar questions before.
Interspire is an Australia-based web development company. They create custom scripts with administrator backend support and CSS3 templates. These products include a general CMS, email marketing software, and a powerful shopping cart featured here. They do charge a hefty fee for their software out of the box ($295 per license), but you’re given amazing possibilities for customization.
Interesting enough the software which powers Interspire Shopping Cart is the same which powers BigCommerce discussed earlier. The only difference with them is a paid hosting account and you don’t have any access to editing the server files. But Interspire is such a complex system it may be a lot easier this way. For developers, Interspire is a goldmine of creativity.
They have released some brand new features in version 6 which will blow you away. They have hundreds of modules and templates to choose from. And their list of accepted payment gateways is enormous in comparison to many other scripts.
If possible try out their demo install, both frontend and administrator panel. You’ll fall in love with the features immediately and recognize if this is truly the best option for you. Your ideas will change depending on the needs of your shop, but for the average web developer the Interspire Cart is easily the best solution.
Taking Merchant Payments Online
Credit card payments are possibly the largest out of any other style. Many digital sources like Google and PayPal have started to corner the market, but credit card companies are still raking in the profits. And it’s obvious as credit cards provide a simple solution for your customers and you to pay online.
You’ll probably want to sign up for two different accounts and include your new business name on file. An Internet merchant account is used to receive funds over the web for goods or services. Similarly a payment gateway or payment provider is a service which connects your store with your merchant account. This means you’ll be able to accept instant payments via credit card whenever your customers buy something.
To sign up for a merchant account you may try checking your local bank. Banks offer a signup process to credit your website and create an Internet-based merchant account. But if this isn’t an option try a merchant account provider. These 3rd parties work as the middle man transferring payments from your site to the bank of your choice. There are a few merchants to choose from. I’ve listed the most popular companies below:
After you have successfully created a merchant account you’ll have to choose a gateway. These are companies which securely transfer the data your customers input into your merchant account.
Sometimes banks will provide you with the gateway, although there are plenty of options to choose from otherwise. The most credible company for those based in the United States is Authorize. Their website includes some standard information and forms which should help clear up any questions you have regarding their services. Additionally eWAY is a new launch targeting the international audience.
Alternative Payment Methods
If you won’t be taking such direct payments from clients, it may be easier to work in the short term. Digital payment methods have become a lot easier to work within the past decade. PayPal is the obvious leader among the pack and can be featured on almost all of the most popular e-commerce empires, with strong assisting guides laying everywhere, even from Hongkiat. Amazon and eBay are another two best known for this feature.
Many of the runner-up services work just as well as PayPal but haven’t gained enough attention. Specifically Google Checkout offers a very secure and speedy transaction process. If you’re already using Gmail or have a Google Account it’s simple to tie into a new Google Checkout account. Their backend supports widgets which you can add onto your page for a nicer design.
Both PayPal and Google Checkout support solutions for invoicing. This can be useful if you’re planning on purchasing modules or further domains. Try staying with a single account and use this for all your business transactions online. It’s a lot quicker than waiting for payments or working through shady non-secured payment pages.
Add Content and Products
After you’ve got a domain, hosting, and you can view your script live online then you’ve really made it far! Moving past this process you’re merely required to perform some maintenance and building of website structures. Not too bad for a first e-commerce setup.
Familiarize yourself with the administrator panel and how to work with product pages. It’s important for your viewers to receive the best user experience on your website and hopefully land the sale. If you notice any image size limits or set proportions consider spending some time pre-cropping your product images. Or at the very least standardize the image size so your products will display evenly in rows/columns.
Marketing and Beyond
After this point your first shop should be online and full of new content. Congratulations! It’s a difficult process to build and launch a full-scale e-commerce solution. But now the fun really picks up as you start taking orders and marketing.
Nobody is going to find your website without some form of marketing. If you haven’t signed up for a Google account yet I highly recommend creating one for Google Analytics. They provide completely free tracking software which boasts some incredible features you can’t find anywhere else! With their tools you can find your most trafficked pages and biggest referring websites. Alternatively you can also try out some worthy analytic tools to find the one which best suits you.
If you feel that a professional marketing strategy would provide some prosperous results I recommend joining with a few publishing agencies. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are the top 3 contextual ad publishers in the whole Internet. Google AdWords is obviously very well known and trusted amongst hundreds of marketers – and for good reason! Google AdWords provides large traffic numbers and laser-targeted click results for whatever products you’re selling.
Additionally Microsoft’s AdCenter and Yahoo! Advertising Solutions have really taken off the ground in recent months. These are viable options for smaller online stores with a much smaller marketing budget. You’ll be able to afford a lot more ad clicks and garner attention from a wide audience. Once you’ve run a few successful marketing campaigns your traffic numbers will slowly raise and you are sure to grow success in your online e-commerce shop.
This guide provides a conclusive walkthrough of the major steps to creating your first e-commerce store. It’s not an easy process to complete start-to-finish. Even professional web designers struggle when sitting down to create new e-commerce stores. But once you’ve gone through this a few times things seem a lot more efficient and will flow easier.
The solutions offered here are just some of the many opportunities for e-commerce developers. In addition if you have tips or strategies for launching an online store please share them in the discussion section below, we do appreciate them!
Here are more e-commerce related posts we previously published:
- E-Commerce Design Resources
- E-Commerce Shopping Carts (Open Source)
- Glossy E-Commerce Icon Set
- Hand-drawn E-Commerce Icon Set
Author: Jake Rocheleau
Jake is a user experience designer for both web and mobile platforms. Having over 4 years of freelance projects under his belt, he frequently writes articles on topics of modern design trends and social media. You can check out some of his work on Dribbble or follow his tweets @jakerocheleau.