Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About E-Commerce…but Didn’t Realize You Should Ask

Have you ever stopped to consider what makes an e-commerce website successful? Is it good planning? Investment? Good user interface design and consideration of usability? Security? I think it’s a combination of all of these things and more. Beginning with investment and working our way through checkout, I’d like to go through the essential issues that make good e-commerce possible. It’s going to take some time, though, so find comfortable spot and let’s get started, or feel free to hop around the topics as you see fit.



E-commerce development requires significantly more technical expertise to properly plan and implement than development of a typical website. More time + more people + more technical complexity and programming = more cost. But, anything that you expect to makemoney should be expected to take money, too.



Every business must have a merchant account. A merchant account is distinguished from a regular bank account by its ability to accept payments by credit and debit cards. But not all merchant accounts are configured for e-commerce. If your business is a new one, be sure that — before you do anything else — you confirm with your bank that your merchant account is qualified for internet transactions. Seems like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a project halted at an embarrassingly late stage because this was never investigated beforehand.



A payment gateway serves as a financial intermediary between your customers and your website, taking care of approving credit card transactions and capturing funds without interrupting the user experience unique to your website. The same process that occurs in just seconds after a customer’s credit card is swiped at a point-of-sale terminal in any store — where transaction details are passed over to the merchant account payment processor, then to the credit card’s issuing bank for approval, then back to the merchant where the funds are requested — is handled by payment gateways in online store purchases. In other words, a payment gateway is like an invisible point-of-sale terminal (i.e. cash register).



Every e-commerce website must have security protocols that protect consumer information (e.g. credit card numbers) using encryption. The standard form of security for e-commerce is known as a secure sockets layer, or SSL for short, which is an encryption protocol created to protect information as it is communicated over the internet.

To validate that this security is in place, the website must have its own SSL certificate, which must be set up by applying with a Certificate Authority (CA), likeThawte. SSL certificates require advance registration, a recurring fee, and a unique IP address. There are various types of certificates that offer advanced levels of security. You have probably seen some of them in action; in addition to changing the HTTP to HTTPS, they will also change the color of your browser bar to make the secure environment more apparent — which comes at a higher cost than standard certificates. Prices vary by the issuing provider, of course. But remember: without a SSL certificate in place, users being directed to a secure server would be alerted by their browser that the URL cannot be trusted, and would have no way to be sure that their information is protected, even if it is.



Calculating shipping can be a real pain in the neck. The first thing you need to do is decide which shipping methods (e.g. USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.) you will offer to your customers. Each of these offer configurable calculation tools that your website can integrate with in order to automatically calculate shipping cost and time estimates for your customers when they are checking out.



There are plenty of low-cost third-party shopping cart tools that you could install on your site and use. But no matter how cheap, the price for this sort of solution probably won’t be money well spent. The most effective stores are designed specifically for the products they contain, and the customers — the specific customers — expected to buy them. This requires thought, about how to best organise the products based upon what they are and how they relate to each other, about what kinds of tools customers will need to find the products they’re looking for, about what information a product’s page might need in order to help customers in their purchase decision, and about what sort of steps you and the customer will need to take after that decision has been made.



In general, the broader the product catalog, the more complicated IA can get, though the complexity is not necessarily directly related to inventory size. Some stores sell a huge number of the same kind of product — t-shirts, for example — so rather than many unique category landing pages, subsets of products, or varieties of product detail pages, they just need good search and filtering tools. The big, generalist stores struggle with information architecture because they’re relying upon one interface to contain a huge number of different kinds of products.



If you know your products and your customers well, you should be able to design a search tool that will work really well for them. In addition to general sorting options in the websites menu structure, like “Browse All Products,” “Browse New Products,” “Browse by Product Family,” etc., we  haeve to create a specific filtration tool that allows the users to sort the entire product catalog by the attributes that matter to them.



You’ve shopped online enough to know exactly what a product detail page needs. And yet, many of them lack those very things or get them very wrong. Much of this stuff is really straightforward, so rather than explain it in great length, I’m going to list out the essential attributes of a product detail page in order of importance:

  1. Product Name
    Duh. But really, don’t make a customer guess what they’re looking at. Also, be specific. Large Athletic Fit Cotton Blend Grey T-Shirt is better than T-Shirt or even The Monterrey Shirt. Especially if your page doesn’t have…
  2. Images
    Originally, I had price next on my list, but the reality is that if a customer can’t see it, then a low price will scare them, not encourage them to buy it. Lots of images. The more the better. Also, zoomable.
  3. Price
    But please don’t make it look like a product is on sale if you always sell it at the sale price. People catch on to that sort of thing.
  4. Buy Button
    This is not a text link. It’s a big, clear button that has some sort of active state. As for colors, wording, and location, test them.
  5. Description
    If there’s no additional text on your product page, it’s not likely to show up in any shopper’s search results. You need to give Google something to work with, but it also needs to serve the customer. Include info that they’ll care about, like what makes it different from similar products you sell, especially if the images don’t make that clear. Once a user starts asking “Why is this one more than that one?” you’ve probably already lost them.
  6. Other Details
    Sizes, Materials, Pages, Length, Weight, Colors, etc.
  7. Quantity
    Let the user identify the number they want before they’re in the checkout process (but let them change it later, too).
  8. Number Available
    If you have limited stock of something, indicate that on the page. It’s a great motivator. If you have multiple points of sale, you’ll need a system that reconciles inventory and a way to integrate it with your website.
  9. Delivery Information
    If you know a product requires a particular amount of time to prepare for shipping, display that information (e.g. “Ships in 2 Weeks”).
  10. Related Products
    This is your opportunity to display accessories or similar products, but do it with restraint. A focused page for a smaller retailer is more likely to sell than an unfocused one.
  11. Social Media
    Give customers an ability to share your product and they probably will. Especially Facebook and Pinterest. I might reserve Twitter integration for those that complete a purchase — I doubt many people are as likely to Tweet something on the basis of window shopping as they would “like” it or “pin” it. But that’s just my opinion.



The shopping experience is obviously important, but so is the buying experience. Unfortunately, this is often where online stores fall apart, or at least default to generic settings that don’t always fit the product or customer well. Here are just a few things to consider as far as the checkout process is concerned:

  1. Accounts
    In preparation for this article, I asked people about what made e-commerce experiences good and not-so-good, and the most common answer I received had to do with the frustration they’ve experienced when an online store forces them to set up an account before they can check out. With generalist stores like Amazon, it makes a lot of sense to require customer accounts. The more often a customer returns to shop, the more important it will be to them to have the fastest checkout process possible. But with niche shops, where customers are less likely to make frequent and additional purchases, requiring an account is simply an obstacle. Account systems are often created so that customers can return to see previous orders and/or track packages, but if you can have the account setup happen as an optional part of the process, rather than interrupt it and require users to divert to a new account setup procedure where they will enter the same information they would have entered while checking out, that would be much better.
  2. Cart Detail:
    Provide as much detail about the contents of a customer’s cart as possible. This should include the name of the product (that links back to its detail page), an image, a brief description, the price, and quantity.
  3. Order Adjustments
    It’s always best to allow customers to adjust their orders — especially the quantity of items in their cart — during the checkout process. Giving them access to the quantity field and a button to “Refresh” or “Update Cart” is expected.
  4. Progress Indicator:
    If your checkout process is broken up into multiple steps, always display a visual indication of where the customer is currently.
  5. Chat Support
    The more customers your website has, the more likely that some of them are to become confused — no matter how good the design is. Often, that confusion leads to abandoned carts (though second-thoughts are also a major factor here, of course). One way that some online retailers handle this is to capture cutover email addresses as a first-step in the checkout process, so they can email them if they drop off before completing their purchase. This is not the ideal way to go. Instead, set up a live-chat tool that users can engage with if they run into trouble. You can also configure it to ask if the customer needs help if they are idle on the page after a set amount of time. That’s a whole lot better than chasing them out of the store, right?
  6. Keep it as simple as possible!