The most effective approach to developing a great online store is to start with a feature-rich, extensible software platform and then add any enhancements you need.
The best platform for custom eCommerce available today is called Magento. Magento is Wine Country Web Design's preferred platform for custom eCommerce installations. I thought that it would be useful to explain exactly why we made that choice.
By the end of this article, you should have a good idea of whether a Magento-based online store is right for you.
It helps if your eCommerce platform already has most of the features you need. Magento fits the bill with a strong set of standard features. Here are some of the most important.
Product Catalog Features
The first thing that your visitors are going to want to do is find the product(s) they're looking for.
Magento offers lots of help.
- Flexible product display: Magento handles everything from stores with just a few products to those with tens of thousands. The basic organization is by product category. There can be multiple levels; for example, the top level could be the major categories, with subsequent levels going into more detail.
- Product search: customers can use product search to find a specific product or a set of products matching keywords.
- Faceted navigation: For even finer-grained product selection, Magento provides what is often called "faceted navigation" (see example above right). Customers can specify criteria and see only products that fit those criteria.
- Reviews: Product listings can show how reviewers have rated the product. Customers can read reviews by previous purchasers, as well as submit their own.
- Wishlists: Customers can add products to their wishlist, and then share the wishlist with others.
- Product comparisons: Customers can pick multiple products and have their features and prices show on a comparison grid.
- RSS feeds: Customers who are a little more tech-savvy might appreciate Magento's ability to provide RSS feeds. RSS is the same protocol used by blogs, and allows new information to be "pushed" out to the user rather than forcing the user to come look to see if something has changed. Examples of how RSS can be used in Magento are to get updates on order status (e.g. order has shipped), new products and promotions.
Of course, as the owner of the store, you'll want to have lots of marketing options.
Magento has you covered there also.
- Custom landing pages: If you prefer, clicking on a category can display a custom landing page instead of a product listing (or along with a product listing). This allows you to fine-tune the marketing message for each product category.
- Coupons: You can create almost any type of promotion that you like (see "Fine-grained promotion management" below) and assign each a coupon code. Customers can then enter these coupons at checkout to take advantage of the promotion. For example, you might offer free shipping on the first order for customers who sign up for your mailing list.
- Upsells: Magento allows you to display "upsells" on the product page. These are items that you suggest your customers buy instead of the product they’re viewing. You might choose these based on your own considerations (for example, higher profit margin) as well as considerations like product quality or popularity.
- Related products: Related products also show up on the product page. They are often accessories purchased in conjunction with the product the customer is viewing. For example, if the customer is looking at a mobile phone, the related products might be a belt-clip, a hands-free earphone, etc.
- Cross-sells: Cross-sells show up when the customer looks at their shopping cart. They are based on the products the customer has in their cart, and give you one final chance to suggest additional purchases.
- Newsletters: Magento has a built-in email newsletter module. Customers can signup for your newsletter via a signup block on your store display. The Magento admin interface lets you manage your mailing list and send emails to them. Customers can manage their subscriptions, including unsubscribing.
- Polls: Similarly, Magento has a built-in module for simple polls. This module lets you create polls, display them on your store and compile the results.
Checkout is the most critical stage of the online purchase, as it's the stage at which shopping cart abandonment is highest.
Magento has two features that are important for a successful online store:
- One-page and multi-page checkout: People seem to have strong feelings about whether a one-page checkout or multi-page checkout flow is better. I think that a one-page checkout is less cumbersome and increases conversions, but Magento lets you make your own choice.
- Guest checkout: Having to register before checkout scares off some customers. This may not be entirely rational, as they will need to provide most of the same information either way, but for some people registering is a commitment that they're reluctant to make. I think that it's best to allow shoppers to check out as a guest if they want, but again Magento lets you choose whether to allow guest checkout or not.
- Multiple websites and stores: A single Magento installation can support many websites or stores. For example, a business with multiple brands might choose to have a separate website for each brand. Or a business with a very large product catalog might divide up their product categories among several stores to simplify product administration.
- Fine-grained promotion management: Magento lets you define almost any type of promotion you want. Furthermore, it doesn't take a developer to define one. Promotions can be specific to a product (for example, sale prices) as shown below or based on the contents of the buyer's shopping cart (for example, "buy two sweaters, get one free" or "free shipping with $100 purchase").
- Data loading from spreadsheet: For situations where you need to load a lot of information, Magento's ability to load from a spreadsheet is very handy. Examples of typical uses are loading large product catalogs and loading zip-code-specific sales tax rates.
- RSS feeds: Store administrators can also take advantage of Magento's RSS "push" capability. For example, an administrator can use an RSS feed to be notified of new orders.
- Reports: Magento comes with a large number of pre-defined reports covering sales, products, customers, shopping carts (for example, abandoned carts), reviews and what shoppers have searched for.
A few of Magento's useful features are visible primarily to those managing the operation of the store(s):
- Support for most common payment methods: Magento comes with built-in support for the most common payment methods used in the U.S. and U.K. These include credit card, check/money order, PayPal, Google Checkout and Authorize.net. In addition, extensions (see below) are readily available for just about any other payment method you might imagine.
- Design flexibility: Magento has a very flexible approach to specifying which features the customer sees, what pages those features appear on and where on the page they are placed. In addition, the look and feel of the site are defined in "themes" that are independent of the Magento software. This means that your designer can easily create or modify the design of your online store.
- SEO built-in: Complete treatment of eCommerce SEO would require a full article (or a book). Let's summarize by saying that Magento gives you a lot of control over the SEO parameters of your store's webpages. For example, you can specify the page "meta" information (title, description, keywords) for each product individually. You can also set up your store to use "Pretty URLs" that are more search-engine-friendly (and people-friendly). For example, instead of having the URL for a page be some meaningless string like:
www.mystore.com/index.php?store=3&cat=7&subcat=42&id=126you could have a human-readable URL like:
- Google Website Optimizer support: One of the keys to successful online marketing is testing to see which marketing messages, content, images, design, etc., are most effective. The preferred approach is "A/B testing", where you create two version of what you're testing (A and B) and randomly present them to site visitors. Once you have a statistically significant sample, you can get real data about which works better. Magento has built-in support for Google Website Optimizer, one of the most popular tools for A/B testing.
I hope that the previous section has convinced you that Magento has a lot of useful standard features. But no matter how extensive the standard features set, there will always be additional features people wish it had.
Magento has an excellent approach to adding features. The software architecture allows any number of "Extensions". An Extension can add functionality or modify standard functionality in almost any way you can imagine. Furthermore, the Magento software can usually be upgraded without affecting the installed extensions.
Magento has a "marketplace" for Magento Extensions called Magento Connect. Magento Connect has hundreds of free and commercial (not-free) Extensions.
In addition, web developers like Wine Country Web Design can develop custom extensions in cases where no appropriate Extension already exists.
Magento has both a "Community Edition", which is free, and several commercial versions. You might think that the Community Edition, being free, would have limited functionality. In fact, all of the functionality I describe above is available in the Community Edition.
The commercial versions do have some additional functionality (primarily suitable for very large retailers), but the biggest difference is support. The company Magento provides no support for the Community Edition; all support needs to come from your developer or the online forum of Magento users and developers.
If you do an online search for Magento, you'll find articles faulting certain aspects of Magento. While Magento isn't perfect, I think it's the best option available right now, so I'll give my perspective on some of the most common objections:
- "Magento's admin interface is complex." It's certainly true that there's a lot to Magento's admin interface. The reason is fairly obvious: Magento has lots of features. The admin interface can be intimidating at first, but it's pretty well laid out and most administrators seem to learn their way around fairly quickly.
- "Magento's software architecture is too complicated." First, this is relevant only for web developers, since the administrators running the store and the customers never see the software architecture. Second, this is simply a matter of opinion. Magento is built using techniques that many developers consider current "best practices" for software architecture. Developers who are not up-to-speed on those techniques can find the learning curve steep.
- "Magento is slow (or requires premium hosting)." It may be true that a dirt-cheap hosting plan, designed to allow people to bring up their personal or home business websites, is not be the best hosting plan for a Magento online store. After all, Magento is a substantial, feature-rich platform, and does take a certain amount of computer power and memory to run. But Magento has a number of features designed to increase performance, and is not slow when properly set up.
I hope that you have found this overview of Magento useful.
As I said at the beginning, Magento is the preferred eCommerce platform for Wine Country Web Design. We have experience developing Magento stores and have developed a number of custom Magento Extensions.
Contact Us for your eCommerce needs.