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e commerce sitesThe Devil’s definitely in the details when it comes to building an eCommerce website. I have 10 general questions that I like answered before starting any build. Having answers to these questions makes it easier for me, the designer, to estimate accurately and achieve benchmark goals. Answers to these questions are also helpful to clients in raising awareness to potential issues as well as clarifying the project scope and parameters. More often than not, answering these simple questions can mean the difference between a successful launch and a nightmare process that leaves the client unhappy and over budget.

Most clients new to eCommerce simply want a website that gets a lot of traffic and sells a lot of products. Duh! Every website owner wants that, but what actually needs to happen just to get the site up and running? The first thing any designer will probably do is find out what niche your website fills and who it needs to target. Those questions are pretty standard for the design process, but when it comes to eCommerce there are some really basic things that can throw a pretty big wrench in the works. The following questions address some of these pitfalls.

1. How do you plan to market your website?
Right now I’m just focused on getting my site live. Once my website is up, I will generate enough sales to focus on other things like marketing. Wrong! Seriously, what do you expect from your website if no one is going to see it? I personally believe this is the most commonly overlooked question for any new website design project. A successful website needs a good marketing strategy, unfortunately far too many website owners choose to ignore this question until several months after the website launches and they haven’t seen any return on investment.

2. Do you have a merchant account and payment gateway?
Many people entering the eCommerce world have no clue how online transactions take place. To them things are as simple as creating a website and having people buy their goods. Before starting the job it’s a good idea to specify things that the client will need to accomplish in order to “go live” otherwise you will hear a lot of, “oh, I didn’t realize” and “why didn’t you tell me I needed to do that?” If you’re going to have an eCommerce store then you will need to register a merchant account and payment gateway in order to process transactions. Having PayPal or Google Checkout is always a good option, but having your own secure payment processing such as Authorize.net adds credibility and trust to your site that shouldn’t be undervalued.

3. How do you plan on shipping?
I haven’t really decided yet, but I have a while before I need to make a firm decision. Shipping plays an important role in successful online stores. For sellers shipping can really cut into the bottom line and shoppers are pretty savvy when it comes to knowing what are fair shipping rates. Sometimes, business owners want to create tiered shipping rules that can be pretty complex like; if you order “x” amount of products you get free shipping, or orders over “x” amount triggers a specific shipping rate. I’ve encountered several complex shipping requirements that are not supported by some eCommerce platforms and that’s exactly why it’s good to understand how the client intends on shipping.  It’s a total bummer to go through the entire development process only to be foiled by shipping rules.  By figuring out how to streamline your shipping methods you can save time and money for both you and your customers. Not only that, but offering things like discounted or free shipping improves your rate of conversion significantly.

4. How many categories and products will the site have?
The number of categories and products can have a huge impact on the overall structure of the site as well as the project budget and time-frame. It’s always a good idea to have the client approve a site map structure of the main categories, sub categories and initial products for launch. That way there is a clear delineation for your initial bid and what will be additional when they come back to you and say, “We really need to add in 5 more categories that we forgot about.” If a website is moving to a new platform, determining if a bulk export and import of products can be done could mean a difference of thousands of dollars in cost.

5. Do you have any product options?
This is a good one. I’ve bid on several sites where there are only a handful or a couple dozen products and at first glance the site seems like a pretty straight-forward bid. Then when the product options start unfolding, the site starts looking more like a 2,000 sku website than two dozen.

6. Does this site require Custom Programming?
It’s always a good idea to bid on what the client envisions even though it isn’t always easy figuring out what that is. Often time clients have been looking at other websites for reference and it’s a good practice to get a list of those sites because what a client describes as simple and clean could in reality be super complex and out of their budget. Without fail, I receive at least one inquiry every week that reads, “I just need a simple clean site – nothing too complex” followed by, “I just want it to look and work exactly like REI.com, but our own”. Usually the filtered search alone is out of a start-up company’s design budget.

7. Will I be able to manage my content?
Many clients want the ability to take over and manage their website. This could mean updating products, categories, pages, shipping, etc. There are several open source and paid eCommerce platforms with great CMS systems to choose from. When choosing a platform make sure that you choose one that is well supported with the ability for expansion and growth. I get a ton of inquiries from people who start with an open source platform to save money only to start over on a different platform when they realize they can’t get support to make updates or modifications.

8. How are you handling tax?
Setting up tax rules and zones is no easy task. California and New York have some pretty complex tax zones if you want to do it right. It can also get pretty complex if your client is shipping from multiple states. It’s always good to have an idea of what needs to be done on the front side to handle tax.

9. How are you handling email?
Email can be a pain as well. If a site is being transferred from one platform to another you should know how email is currently being handled, if it is going to remain where it is or if it needs to move. It’s never good to get a panicked call from a client wondering why none of their mail is working.

10. Are there going to be any additional costs?
Additional costs tend to upset clients – it’s weird, I don’t mind them. Here are some common additional costs that the client may not be aware of:

• an ssl certificate – if you have an eCommerce store you will need one – $79.95/year
• additional hosting – if you choose a hosted solution like BigCommerce your client may need additional hosting on top of the monthly hosting for the store for custom forms, a WordPress blog, or even email depending on their needs.
• 3rd Party integrations – Most eCommerce sites will require some type of 3rd party integration ranging from newsletter subscriptions and email marketing such as Constant Contact to custom shipping management tools.

Every client has their own requirements, but having answers to the questions above allows me to determine budget, time-frame and suitable platforms that are right for each of them with the added benefit of keeping me from fielding statements like; “how come I can’t have it work like this?”“it should be easy, all I need it to do is. . .”, and “I thought this was included!”

Author: Chris London is the art director for www.pixelproductionsinc.com, a strategic graphic and web design company where his focus is to continually find creative and innovative strategies to implement with businesses who need brand design and marketing with impact.

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2 Comments

  1. Marie

    Excellent post! Recently I have been surprised when talking with web site designers that do not have an understanding themselves of these basic questions – especially custom coding. You can not build a site like REI.com without it.

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