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Sara Black
12-03-2003, 11:27 AM
Could you please help me? (sorry if this is a bit off topic) I am not
technically minded, but I would like to start an online store. What
should I start with? Are there any pitfalls that I should be aware
of? Thank you

FH-John
12-03-2003, 01:14 PM
A lot of people like to using osCommerce for running online stores.(It runs best on Unix/FreeBSD.)

It's hard to determine what pitfalls you might face. What exactly do you want the e-store software to do? E.g. Do you want it do the credit card processing, etc.

val
12-03-2003, 06:14 PM
Sara,
Respectfully, if you're not technically minded, I suggest you hook up with someone who is. Hosting your own cart takes a moderate degree of technical savvy, as I'll detail below.

An alternative is not to install your own package, but to use a hosted service, like Yahoo Stores. You're more limited in how you can customize them -- but that's a good thing! It means you get done faster, rely less on technical geeks, and don't have the opportunity to confuse users with new cool ideas that are hard for users to understand and are buggy from a rushed implementation and inadequate testing ;-).

If you do want the extra flexibility provided by hosting your own shopping cart package, I agree with John -- osCommerce is a good starter package, and the price is right (it's free). But installing and configuring it, while easy for a hacker, is *not* easy if you're not technically minded. It requires a basic understanding of FTP, unpacking files from the command-line, setting file permissions, and establishing a MySQL database. That's just to get it up and running. To do any customization -- say, to change the way the pages look -- you have to be comfortable both with HTML and with PHP.

None of the above technologies are used in any particularly complex ways; for people who are comfy with them, osCommerce is easy. But you have to get the software installed and running. And once it's up, if you want to look at all different from the generic out-of-the-box appearance, you need to hack the code.

Note that this is pretty much the case with any e-Commerce package you run on your own. The packages that cost a lot aren't any less complex to set up -- just the contrary, you're paying for a lot *more* complexity.

My wife and I have launched a few sites with online stores, and just last week switched from osCommerce, which ran our stores for about a year, to X-Cart, a low-cost cart made in Russia (read about the thought process behind the switch here http://forums.fluidhosting.com/showthread.php?s=&threadid=270 and http://forums.fluidhosting.com/showthread.php?s=&threadid=376 -- basically, osCommerce had some limitations that we eventually had to get past.

While I have a lot of experience with both technology and design, she mostly handles the specification of how things will work, I do the implementation, she does graphic design (generates layouts that I implement, or individual graphic elements), she handles most of the administration and customer service, and I handle technical admin and bug-fixing.

I suggest you find a geek to help you with the technical part, and work somewhat in this way:

First, have a general discussion about what you want to accomplish, and how much money and time can afford to spend to get there. E.g., she says, "I want to sell a few lines of T-shirts, stickers, surfboards and other such items to the surf community that gathers at www.sanosurf.com", and launch in early spring. Here, she's started to define what activities she needs to conduct, who her customers will be, and a general timeframe.

We dig deeper -- do we need to keep track of inventory levels? If so, is it adequate to do it at the product level (# of Old Guy t-shirts), or do we need it at the product-option level (# of Old Guy Blue M, # of Old Guy Blue L, # of Old Guy White M, ...). How many product images do we need to display? how should they be laid out? If I click on an image, what happens?

Get the main things you want to do down on paper -- make a list. Prioritize it -- what items MUST be in place before go-live? These are showstoppers if they can't be accomplished. Of the rest, rank them Low, Med, High. As time and money get tight, this will help you know what you can drop or push off to later.

Next, have the geek select and install a shopping cart package that will be suitable for your requirements. E.g. If lack of per-option inventory tracking is a showstopper for you, then osCommerce is out (or your geek will have to do custom development to implement it). As part of this setup, have the geek create a couple of dummy products so you can test the system.

Once the basic package is installed, both of you sit own and go thru the main functionality. First play the customer role: browse for a product, ad it to the cart, sign up as a user, check out your cart, look at the confirmation emails. Then play the store admin role: add some new products, see what the customer's order looks like to the admin, fulfill the order, etc.

Take notes thru all this about things you want customized. Group them (look-and-feel, email formatting, category hierarchies, etc.) Prioritize the lists and decide how to split the work (if you're a designer, perhaps you can generate the graphics, while a coder makes them appear in the right place.

Create a tracking spreadsheet out of your lists, so you can keep track of all the tasks that need to be done before you can go live. At minimum, you should track: task name, responsible, status, priority, notes.

Create a test plan -- a simple list of things to test whenever you make changes. You'll want to test all the major functions of the store before going live, the test plan means you don't have to think hard to remember what all to test, and helps you avoid missing small, critical things.

If this looks like a lot of work, you're right. I work full-time, so I do this some nights and most weekends. My wife works at home, and during development she spent a lot of time on her part of things. on osCommerce, it took the two of us -- both very experienced producers and technologists -- about 3 months of part-time work to go from evaluating the right package to use, to launch.

I hope this helps -- feel free to follow up! (Mods, if this thread is more appropriate elsewhere, feel free to move it!)

- Val

FH-Dave
12-04-2003, 01:40 AM
Val,

That's a very great review/reply your wrote. We appreciate your spending the time to write it :)

James Klark
12-05-2003, 10:07 AM
Try this - http://www.ecommerce.com/?pg=products. very good impression!

nvphone
12-07-2003, 12:07 AM
Great post Val.
Very kind of you to take such time!