When you have an idea for an online store — especially if it feels like a killer, never-been-done-before, “I’ve got to do this right now” type of idea — there’s definitely some temptation to set things up as quickly as possible.
The reality of selling online, however, is that the best stores take time, effort, and plenty of technical preparation to set up. In fact, if you rush too much, you’re likely to miss one of the six most crucial technical aspects that go into any eCommerce website. The results could either hurt you immediately… or catch up with you in a few months, right when you can least afford it.
Today, we’re going to cover the six most important technical factors eCommerce newbies should cover before they add even a single product to their new store. From site software to security to payment gateways, here they are — plus how you can decide which provider or software is the best fit for you and your own unique situation.
Your actual store software
What would an online store be without the software to power it? A catalog, that’s what.
Though selecting a content management system (CMS) or store software provider doesn’t have to be the first step you take, it’s a crucial technical aspect of any eCommerce experience. Your store software also helps narrow the range from which you can choose compatible add-ons (like payment gateways or shipping suites, which we’ll cover shortly), and determines whether or not you need separate hosting. So it’s best to get this set up and out of the way quickly.
If you’re brand new to eCommerce, here’s a quick primer on what you’ll be choosing between. There are two basic types of online stores:
- Hosted — essentially store software run on a server provided and maintained by the same company, with one monthly payment; and
- Self-hosted — you pick and pay for the server, and download, install, and maintain the eCommerce software yourself.
There are advantages to each. Hosted sites are often preferred by new store owners due to ease of setup, but they lack the same kind of control over add-ons, bandwidth, etc. that self-hosted sites do.
Choosing between hosted/self-hosted eCommerce and picking the platform that’s best on top of that is a weighty decision, and it takes time. We have some suggestions about the most important features of a CMS, but don’t be afraid to ask friends or fellow business owners for their opinions as well.
Of course, any eCommerce site is nothing without a server to power it. And unless you have a server farm in your basement with daily backups, quality redundancy control, and 24/7 maintenance, your best route to get the space and support your store needs is through a quality host.
(If you do have a server farm in your basement, well, kudos. Clearly you don’t need our advice for this part.)
There are quite a lot of things that make up a quality host, and finding one — even if it’s not for yourself — can take a ton of time and energy. Here are a few of the most important things to look for:
- Features — Nearly any host can promise 99% uptime and daily backups. But beyond that, you probably have a wishlist of “must-haves” or “nice-to-haves,” like one-click software installs, 24/7 tech support, specific hosting environments (Linux/Windows), and so on.
- Reviews — Hosting reviews are fairly easy to find, so if you find a few hosts that sound promising, have a look at what others say about them. It also doesn’t hurt to ask people you know for their unbiased opinions or recommendations, either.
- Price — You don’t want to get caught in the “race to the bottom” for the cheapest hosting possible, but you don’t want to spend more than you have to, either. Look for reasonably priced plans that correspond to features given, or monthly plans that scale up or down without contracts.
- Ability to grow — What works for your store now might not work in six months. Look for a host that gives you room to grow and expand without emptying your pockets or breaking contracts. You should be able to add more RAM, get more bandwidth, add storage, etc. without being punished — or your store being disabled.
Going the hosted route? You don’t need to find a server. However, it’s worth looking into any upgrades that your provider might offer, such as increased bandwidth for busier stores or larger packages for more products. Remember to take these costs into consideration before making a final decision on your CMS or plan!
A full security plan
Quite a lot of sensitive information flows into and out of eCommerce sites. Credit card numbers, billing addresses, and other personal details need to be kept secure — otherwise, you might gain a bad reputation.
Many eCommerce platforms now come bundled with security essentials, but you’ll still want to double-check that you have these technical aspects before you sell a single product:
- A SSL certificate, which secures credit card and other sensitive transactions
- No permanent or plain-text storage of sensitive customer data, like credit card numbers or security codes
- Secure password requirements and storage, meaning you don’t allow “1234” as a valid account password, nor do you store it in plain-text
- Server protection like a firewall or a host-provided maintenance service
You should also keep an eye out for critical updates to your eCommerce software, which are usually made available in the event of bugs or newly discovered vulnerabilities. Patching these quickly can prevent your site — and your customers — from being exposed to a potential threat.
Accidents happen. Even the best hosts and most well-meaning store owners delete files they needed, or wipe out customer records with accidental button clicks. We’ve all been there, right?
Ideally, you should set up routine, automatic backups for your online store before you sell a single product. This will allow you to swiftly recover from even the largest catastrophe (no matter whose fault it is). And if the backups are set up from the very start, you won’t even have to think about it — they’ll always be there, just in case.
“But I’ll be careful,” you might say, or “I don’t want to waste the space.” Consider this: would you rather spend a few dollars a month to have peace of mind, or possibly spend a hundred hours setting your store up from scratch again… and losing sales in the process? It should be an easy decision.
Once your customers place an order with you, how are you going to get your products to them? And how do you plan on sending them tracking information, or even printing out the appropriate labels to place on their boxes?
For most store owners, the easiest answer to all of these questions is “with shipping software.” From simple web interfaces provided by your local carrier to more robust, multi-carrier software suites, shipping platforms can provide:
- Automated management of outgoing shipments
- Creation and printing of shipping labels for packages
- Import of tracking information for your orders and automated customer emails
They can also save an immense amount of time, since you won’t need to enter tracking information by hand or generate labels one-by-one via a clunky website.
You’ll probably want to select shipping software after you choose your site software, because compatibility can vary by CMS. However, most store platforms will be able to interface with your country’s major carriers of choice — like the USPS and UPS in the United States — so that’s a good starting point, and often the most affordable to boot.
A payment gateway
Finally, with all of these other technical aspects sorted out, your store should be taking shape. But it won’t be functional until you’re able to accept payments from customers!
A payment gateway is the piece of software you need to accept credit card payments from customers online. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of gateways compatible with each platform out there, and the gateways available also vary by region and currencies accepted.
Not certain how to choose the right payment gateway for your store? Here’s a guide on doing just that. What it all boils down to is this:
- If you need a merchant account to use the gateway you select, apply for one right away to reduce the waiting period
- Whether you go with integrated or hosted should depend on customer preference and how much time you have available
- Nearly all gateways have fees, but keep in mind that up-front costs could negate higher monthly ones, long-term
- If you’re planning to offer bookings or subscriptions, keep an eye out for gateways that offer automatic billing — not all support this feature
There’s a lot to prepare before you sell online
To recap, before you start selling online, you’ll need to spend some time setting up these six technical aspects:
- Your eCommerce software or CMS
- Hosting or plan upgrades
- Site security
- Site backups
- Shipping software
- Your payment gateway
By getting these out of the way up front, you’ll be better prepared to create a solid, sustainable store that runs well and can scale easily. You’ll also be able to withstand almost anything that is thrown your way, be it loads of traffic, data loss, or even a sly hacking attempt or two.
Have any further recommendations for technical items to set up before you add products to your store? Or any questions about the six tasks we recommend getting out of the way prior to selling? Let us know.