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Background info to set the stage for my questions:
I have been picking up "some" knowledge from reading articles on the net. But I'm struggling with what makes up an e-commerce software package. At first I thought it was a separate entity from the "shopping cart" componment. But then I read in places where the shopping cart is part of the e-commerce package. But then I also read that you can choose among several shopping carts, that they were somewhat stand alone and cross compatible with the e-com SW packages(in a loose sense of the concept). If the later is true (they are separate choosable items), then how do I find the e-commerce SW and the shopping cart that would be the best fit for me, and such that they are compatible. Also, I heard similar conflicting stories about the "catalog" (part of the e-commerce SW product or not?).
And I'm finding nothing that would give me an overall e-commerce picture. I'm not looking for an end user's viewpoint, but rather from a developer's/builder's perspective. I'm finding nothing that fully lists and explains the set of features for online storefronts; nothing that gives me an overview of what software components make up an e-commerce site; no table that shows the e-commerce packages and the features they offer, so that I can easliy compare them and narrow them down; no table of providers and what e-commerce software packages they offer.
I'm trying to get my hands around 'what software' do I need to obtain/access in order to build/launch/run an web shop, that has
(A) a database of inventory/orders/etc that the website dynamically accesses and renders pages (catalog perhaps) to the user (or reports to the owner),
(B) can process credit card purchases,
(C) do order tracking, etc?
Do the e-commerce SW products also provide inventory capabilities, or do I need to build and populate a separate database and hit that database to render inventory/quantity/pricing info?
With so many of everything out there, I've found it impossible to
(1) find a complete/current list of e-commerce hosting features,
(2) search for e-commerce software packages that provide the features (chosen in item 1) I need, and
(3) search for e-commerce service providers that offer the features and software support that I need.
Also, from the list of provider candidates that offer the features I need, I want one that is known as a reliable, top end provider; stable company, great track record for offering quality service and VERY low downtime, etc.
I'd also like to stay away from web-based builder tools. I need to have much flexibility in design and don't want to be forced to use templates, etc.
Anyone have any good pointers/suggestions/recommendations to get me moving forward? A great book? An incredible website? Etc...
I hope that all made sense.....
>> I'm finding nothing that fully lists and explains the set of features for online storefronts
I'm going to break your heart here; I don't think there is one sorry
The ecommerce software market is still very immature, new products and new features crop up every month. There is no set feature list you can point to and say "this will make a successful e-comm package" yet, IMO.
You've raised quite a few good points here, and I'll address them one by one
>> I'm struggling with what makes up an e-commerce software package.
There is no single good answer to that, or any of your questions. I am going to shamelessly paraphrase some excellent stuff from Crazy_Fool, in a current, similar thread (link here [webmasterworld.com]) throughout this post, in addition to my own stuff
As a bare minimum, an ecomm package has to let you do the following :
1) Display your products/services (Catalogue)
2) Take orders (Shopping Cart/Basket)
3) Collect Payment (Payment System)
Additionally, more advanced setups will also allow customers to track order progress, and their sales status with you, permit full blown online credit authorisation at 3), and perhaps also deal with multi-currency ordering and account settlement, provide varying degrees of integration to your internal business systems (ie sending details of orders placed through the website directly to your Sales Order Processing system back at base, notify your fulfillment systems, be they internal or external etc)
These are just a selection of common functions from the packages I personally tend to work with. Many people like to use combinations of fairly small, specialised software packages, that each deals with one fairly narrow aspect of the ecommerce process (using separate cart and payment systems for example). My personal preference is for more complete packaged type solutions, particularly where you can get quite deep into the guts of the software to mod it when necessary, effectively toolkits with a bunch of standard stuff built it, but the freedom to customise as required.
I prefer that approach as it reduces the risk of compatibility problems occuring, due to the smaller number of independent software components involved, but thats not to say it would be the correct approach for you. Note also that some combinations are quite tightly integrated by intention. This is fine, if that combination is right for you.
>> how do I find the e-commerce SW and the shopping cart that would be the best fit for me, and such that they are compatible
Cribbing from the other thread :
You need to find the answers to several questions
1) Who are your customers?
2) What product(s) are you trying to sell? Why should anyone buy them from you?
3) What systems (hardware and software) will we need? Which do we already have?
4) Whose input and "buy in" in the client company does the project require?
5) Timescale? Budget?
6) Whose responsibility is it to oversee the project and make sure everything happens?
7) Should we use a packaged solution? Or a custom developed one?
For more ideas, I would recommend that you also read the whole of the other thread.
Essentially, you need to do some heavy duty research. There are several threads on this board, which you can find using the site search feature [searchengineworld.com] which cover specific packages and our members experiences with them, good and bad, which provide a good starting point.
You need not do all the research yourself. A good ecommerce consultant will be able to help you sort through the profusion of solutions, compose a good requirements list, and identify packages/combos that satisfy it. I can't tell if you are UK based or not, but if you are, there are several Government-sponsored agencies that can offer you good advice and guidance, point you in the direction of competent consultants, or development companies etc. Even if you aren't, I'm sure there will be comparable bodies wherever you are
List of URLs :
You need to identify those features that you need (including price), and line that up against the offerings in the marketplace. Again, if you aren't too confident about doing it all on your own, getting an experienced consultant to provide some guidance and recommendations may well pay you in the long run.
The most important thing is to keep an open mind. Don't just blindly pick a solution because of its reputation, or confuse price with value. Some excellent products can be had at a low price (even free), and conversely, just because something costs thousands, it doesn't mean that it is necessarily worth the price.
>> Do the e-commerce SW products also provide inventory capabilities
Sometimes, but its rare to find one that offers real stock management. Many will provide links with one or more accounts packages, from which they can draw stock information. Almost all will allow connection to an ODBC data source now, so the process can be automated to some extent. I find that this is one area where the larger packaged solutions tend to score, as they usually handle this sort of thing far better
>> With so many of everything out there, I've >> found it impossible to
>> (1) find a complete/current list of e-commerce hosting features
>> (2) search for e-commerce software packages that provide the features (chosen in item 1) I need, and
>> (3) search for e-commerce service providers that offer the features and software support that I need.
No surprise there, I'm afraid. Any such list would be out of date almost the second it was published.
>> Also, from the list of provider candidates that offer the features I need
This bit is ringing alarm bells with me. Don't be fooled; the best solutions almost never come as part of a hosting-and-ecommerce-and-domain type deal (IMHO). I would advise you to get your e-commerce set-up sorted so it is independent of the host. If you have problems with your host, it is then comparatively easy to move.
True, many of the more popular packages do have hosts who offer hosting space specifically tailored for a given package; I've never been comfortable with those kinds of arragements, it too easy to become a captive audience
> 7) Should we use a packaged solution? Or a custom developed one?
What criteria would you base this decision on?
And are there some packaged solutions that you could recommend that I take a look at to see if they provide the features we need?
> This bit is ringing alarm bells with me. Don't be fooled; the best
> solutions almost never come as part of a hosting-and-ecommerce-and-
> domain type deal (IMHO). I would advise you to get your e-commerce > set-up sorted so it is independent of the host. If you have
> problems with your host, it is then comparatively easy to move.
> True, many of the more popular packages do have hosts who offer
> hosting space specifically tailored for a given package; I've never > been comfortable with those kinds of arragements, it too easy to
> become a captive audience
I agree with working toward being host independent. But I'm not sure what you mean by a couple things:
1) hosting-and-ecommerce-and-domain type deal?
Are you saying serve up your web pages on one host, while the e-commerce services in your site are being provided from another host? 2) hosting space specifically tailored for a given package?
I've no clue what you mean here.
Second question, but related, is ASP.NET just the next generation of ASP? If a host claims to support ASP, does that "generally" mean they'd also support ASP.NET?
>> What criteria would you base this decision on?
Basically, you need to first identify your "must have" feature list, then start comparing it to various e-comm packages. If you have some unusual requirements, you may well find that the only packaged solutions that offer the facilites you are after cost several thousand pounds, without even being an especially good fit for your ideal system. In that case I would be sorely tempted to look into custom development.
The benefits of custom work are :
Exact fit for your requirements
You control the upgrade/development cycle
Excellent relationship with developer
Drawbacks are :
Costs can spiral out of control
Dependence on one, usually quite small supplier
Lack of "portability" ie if the developer becomes unavailable, its hard to find a replacement
Really, it depends on how much you need/want a hard to find feature or feature set, and whether you can find a good developer to code for less than the packaged cost
>> 1) hosting-and-ecommerce-and-domain type deal?
>> Are you saying serve up your web pages on one host, while the e-commerce services in your site are being provided from another host?
No, I'm referring to the rather incestuous relationships that have sprung up between certain large hosting companies and popular e-commerce houses. If you look at the hosting companies sites, they will offer e-commerce facilities, but only from one or two of the bigger ecomm players. Similarly, when you look at the ecomm company sites, they will often advertise "hosting partners", often 2 or 3 of the larger hosting players.
The hosting companies often have banks of shared servers set up for the sole purpose of hosting sites set up in the ecomm packages they are reselling for, as the intricacies of server set-up can make it well worth their while. It works for smaller online stores, but if (like me) you want to do something a bit different from a straight "out of the box" installation, they can be a right pain.
Taking the time and trouble to find a host who will do your bidding on server setup, and actually learn the damn product before blaming you for everything that goes wrong is priceless. We spent 2 days working with our major hosting partner, starting with a clean server, getting it configured to EXACTLY our spec to take a custom version of a very popular e-comm package, and it works like a dream now :)
>> 2) hosting space specifically tailored for a given package?
>> I've no clue what you mean here.
See above. Big hosts will set up servers that do nothing but host one ecomm package. You benefit from economies of scale, but you get locked into a "one-size-fits-all" hosting environment
>> know if there are any industry leaders when it comes to e-commerce hosting?
AFAIK, basically all of the big hosting players have deals in place with one or more of the "standard" e-comm outfits, and will sell you the e-commerce software and hosting in one big package, often with domain/DNS, and possibly online c/c authorisation, going for the "one stop shop" thing. They may or may not also offer some consultancy type servcies as well, site design, whatever
They all offer wildly varying service mixes and prices, so its hard to pick leaders, because you tend to be comparing apples and oranges
>> If you have any suggestions, I'd appreciate them. And of course, on the flip side, if there are some hosts who should be avoided, that would be helpful as well.
Experiences vary greatly, and are highly subjective. What one person considers tolerable service may be considered totally lax by another. Or you can catch tech services on a perticularly good/bad day, and form a totally inaccurate picture of the general level of service. As with so many things "you get what you pay for" is a good rule of thumb, but there are many exceptions, good and bad.
>> Second question, but related, is ASP.NET just the next generation of ASP? If a host claims to support ASP, does that "generally" mean they'd also support ASP.NET?
.NET is a funny old beast. The .NET forum charter [webmasterworld.com] has some good basic definitions, and the .NET forum [webmasterworld.com] is an excellent resource for all things .NET related. If you have specific questions about how to achieve certain goals, that would be a good place to ask them.
As for hosting, proper .NET hosting is (in the UK, at least) quite hard to find. I think there are about half a dozen UK hosts who offer good .NET hosting currently, plus a few .NET developers who do app hosting for their clients