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I remember when the Internet was first introduced to the public. Most were scared of it, many predicted that the public would not shop on line, and finding product, any product was hit or miss. Gone are those days.

Today, a large percentage of the population does most of their business and a good portion of their shopping on the web. Now, everybody with pair of socks to sell is launching a website. And therein lays the problem. Two scenarios that separates the merchants from the wannabees:

The first scenario is the entrepreneur who gets Publisher or Front page and tries to simulate an Ecommerce site. Most of them spend a lot of time learning how to make a nice looking site with reasonable displays of their product. Now they are ready for business. So, now they have to let the customer select some products and reserve them for themselves (a shopping cart), and then they have to be able to pay for them and get them shipped. This is where the amateur misses the Ecommerce bus. I find several of their solutions that either keep me from buying, or insure I don’t come back.

(1) they give you an email address to send your order to after you have cut and pasted the product ID, whatever it is. Then you can mail a check.

(2) They sign up for a hosting system that offers a build-it-yourself and a generic shopping cart. Most of these work fine, but the newly christened store owner doesn’t understand all the bells and whistles that come with it, they don’t know they need them, or they can’t make them work.

(3) So, the consumer in need of that product finds themselves wrestling to put an item in the cart, then trying to go back to browse, then (heaven help them), trying in vain to modify their order, check on it or check out. Somewhere in the development of these sites, these do-it-yourselfers lose sight of “make it easy and a good experience for the consumer” so they want to come back. It’s kind of like shopping a clothing store, finding just what you want, but standing at the cash register for 10 minutes trying to find the clerk to ring you up. I usually don’t go back to them either. On many amateur sites I have been on lately, I could put an item in the shopping cart, but never find the cart again to either modify or check out. No links. On one of them that I absolutely had to have their product, I ended up emailing to find our how to do it. Silly me, you just add another product to the cart, then, while you are there, delete it and check out. Now why didn’t I figure that out! On another site, I finally got through the check out process, but there was no notification of shipping and no tracking system – it was pray and wait.

In both cases, I don’t go back. I end up shopping at another site that isn’t the cheapest price on even the brand I was looking for, but the ease of shopping and the feel-good when it is done brings me back. Maybe every new Ecommerce entrepreneur should have to pass a course in the “dollar store vs. J.C. Penney’s” theory. I used to berate my friends who would still go to one of the major department stores when I kept pointing out that Walmart had the same thing at 10% less. Now I understand their motive.

In my humble opinion, the second Scenario is worse, because the new entrepreneur tries to do it right. They research their product, find a supplier, test market and things look good. But the web designer they finally choose either does not understand Ecommerce or doesn’t have the tools to do it correctly. Your primary concern at this point is to hire an expert in the web design and Ecommerce field to build your store.

So where do you find such a guru? Let’s see. There’s cousin Bruce, he has built several for other people and is a self-professed Geek, and then there’s the old school buddy that keeps pushing to let him at it. Nope, we need a real professional, so far so good. The Yellow Pages has some real established local firms that always deliver a top-notch product. A few visits to them educate you to the price of good business. If they are out of your reach at the moment, you continue to search. Next there is the Internet. A search brings up tens of thousands of Gurus. Everyone can do you a slick looking Ecommerce site and it includes a shopping cart and credit card gateway. Prices range from “$500 and I’ll have your site up and running tomorrow” to $1500-$3000 and a couple of weeks, on up to the prices you got from the local established firms. The problem that you will soon discover is that artistic ability doesn’t translate to functional.

So many new entrepreneurs are forced out of ignorance to make bad choices. Not only do these developers have to have artistic ability on staff, but they must completely and deeply understand Ecommerce and have the tools in their tool box to make it work. Due diligence will turn over companies that can deliver for the low-end ($1500) and just as surely turn up individuals masked as big outfits that charge the high-end and deliver a poorly functional product. It takes due diligence and if you can borrow one, a crystal ball.

My advice is to pay extra attention to your research before you decide. If you have the funds to go with the local, well established company, do it. If your budget doesn’t allow for that at this point, then make sure the Internet based Guru you hire isn’t just another pretty screen. Get a list of sites they have done. Make sure that the list includes Ecommerce sites. Then don’t get caught up in the visuals, shop these sites. Buy products and take the system all the way out to where you have to click on “submit” for your credit card. Was it easy to get where you wanted to go? Were there always enough links on each page to take you where you want to go next? How many unnecessary screens (drill downs) do they take you through? Was the product displayed in a “come and buy me” format? Was the Shopping Cart available from any page on the site? Could you modify, add or delete items in the Shopping Cart at any time? Was the check-out system explained well and easy to do? The more yes’s you answer to these questions the closer you are to choosing a web designer for yourself. Looks are important, but functionality is foremost. You can change the look and feel with some ease, but to fix functionality, you have to tear it back down to its root.

As a website developer, I am constantly amazed at the volume of clients that get anal about the color, design, fonts and images on the home page while ignoring my advice to discuss functionality. If the draft of the home page (which will then be used as a template for the rest of the pages) is, in general, what you were looking for, then pay close attention to what your web designer is doing with functionality. Fonts, verbiage and pics can be tightened up as a final walk-through. A good Web Designer sets the look-and-feel up in include files, which means that when they make changes to that file, it affects all pages.

The point to all of this is, be very careful on your selection of web designers. Educate yourself to what will make your site as functional as your competition and make sure that’s what gets delivered to you. Keep in mind that look-and-feel is an individual thing. Don’t get boxed in by your vision of “a great looking site”. If we all had the same idea of beauty then all art would look the same, all houses would look alike and many, many men and women would never find a mate because they didn’t fit the mold. I shop a lot of websites I find ugly, but the functionality is designed to make my experience easy. I have also taken many off my list because, even though I found them to be gorgeous, they were a bear to get around. And, of course, there are a few I am forced by my vocation to still shop, even though the lack any thing near functionality. I get the Grrrrr’s every time I have to go to one of those sites. Be careful not to have a website that potential clients find to cumbersome to use. You will never know how much business you have lost because of lack of functionality. They only clue you will have is that your competition is selling more than you are.

I am always happy to answer questions concerning website design and Ecommerce. I can be contacted at http://www.TheDPSGroup.net

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