The promise of easy, installation-free e-commerce is almost as old the e-commerce industry itself. The reality, though, is that it's only recently that solid, robust, reliable and relatively inexpensive hosted e-commerce services have begun to appear. A hosted e-commerce service is supposed to solve an online merchant's non-product needs, offering a combination of shopping cart technology, merchandising, payment, shipping, marketing smarts and, of course, hosting.
Choice can be good but it can also be confusing. Just about every major hosting company today offers some form of hosted e-commerce package. Here on ECommerce-Guide.com we've reviewed a number of hosting companies' offerings including: Interland, 1&1, GoDaddy, Hostway and Yahoo! among others. So how do you choose?
In Part 1 of this series we'll look at what's important in choosing an e-commerce hosting provider; In Part 2 we'll apply those measures against the vendors we've reviewed.
The first step in choosing which service to choose is first deciding and understanding what's important. Not all services are created equal. Though, in my experience, the basic needs of online merchants are almost always the same.
1) Full Wizard-Driven Setup Not half way and not half fast
You've chosen to go with a hosted e-commerce solution because it's an all -in-one solution and is supposed to be easier right? Then why would you want to struggle with setup?? A proper wizard should be able to take you from start to finish in the completion of a fully operational, production-ready e-commerce storefront. Anything less than that is hardly a wizard and ends up being far more frustrating than not having one in the first place.
2) Choice of templates Not just customizability of templates.
One size does not fit all, one design one template is not good enough for myriad of businesses and their products. No hosted e-commerce vendor will ever tell you that they don't allow you to customize a template, design or style. Well, whooptie doo! That's just not good enough! If the vendor doesn't offer a strong selection of template to begin with, you're still up a creek without a paddle.
3) Catalog import/export features Can you say carpal tunnel?
Every e-commerce storefront will allow you to build a catalog; but not all of them will allow you to import the data you already have. You don't want to have to type everything in again do you?
The ability to easily export data is equally as important. You may, at some point, want to change hosts and move your store to a different vendor's solution. It would be a real shame if you had to manually re-enter all of your precious product catalog data again, wouldn't it?
4) Additional marketing capabilities If you build it, will they come?
It's not enough just to build a store; you've got to market it as well. Some vendors will include a mailing list capability, which is certainly a start. Others will also include optional incentives such as gift certificates, coupons, and the ability to run promotions and run an affiliate marketing program. Integration with XML-based shopping feeds such as Google's Froogle - engine is critical.
In my opinion, the more the merrier. Use as much marketing panache to attract visitors to your site, and within your site, to optimize sales.
If they can't find you (or the product you want to sell), they won't come.
5) Payment PayPal is good, but it's not good enough.
PayPal is an excellent payment gateway and serves the needs of many. It isn't the only payment gateway, though, and it doesn't meet everyone's needs. The best hosted e-commerce vendors know this and offer several payment gateways.
Shipping has always been, and will always be, the lynchpin that holds e-commerce together. For a hosted e-commerce solution to be of any practical use, it MUST include automated and robust shipping calculation tie-ins to the major shipping companies (i.e. USPS, UPS, FedEx).
7) Analytics - If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.
Understanding where your business is coming from is critical to e-commerce success. Some of the hosted e-commerce sites include reporting and some include more advanced web analytics like Urchin. Frankly, I think the better you understand your visitors' online behavior, the better off you'll be.
What I Take for Granted
Service, support and the actual hosting for the major hosting companies and their respective e-commerce offerings is a given. That's not to say those elements are not important - they are. It's just that the hosting companies are, for the most part, all really good at service and by definition they're hosting companies. Among the four hosts that I personally reviewed (Interland, 1&1, GoDaddy and Hostway), perhaps Interland stood out a bit because they were exceptionally fast. But, by and large, all of the services provide excellent support and service.
Who's the Best?
So where does that leave us? The above info is all fine and nice, but which vendor offers the best solution? The answer to that question is not nearly as easy as I would like it to be.
The reality is that the hosted e-commerce solutions offered by the hosting companies are in a state of constant flux. New features are constantly being added to these services which make it difficult (if not impossible) to make a finite recommendation. The reviews that we've done here on ECommerce-Guide.com are only snapshots of those solutions at points in time. I've written reviews of solutions that I knew to be accurate as of the day I wrote them only to become somewhat inaccurate only a few days later due to an upgrade that significantly altered or improved the solution.
In part two of "Choosing a hosted e-commerce solution," I'll pull out the noted and noteworthy from the reviews of hosted solutions we've done to help you make an informed choice. We'll also include a chart that will break it all down based on what the vendors are currently saying.
Choosing a hosted e-commerce solution isn't an easy choice, but it is one that offers a great deal of choice.
Sean Michael Kerner is a regular contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com.
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