How to build an effective e-retail site
- By Eric Hammond
- May 28, 2001
So you want to move the business part of your agency to the Internet? Why
not? Despite the wave of high-profile dot-com failures, it's clear that
the future lives on the World Wide Web.
Before trying to kick-start your e-retail site, give careful consideration
to design. And keep in mind each of these areas, which are critical to the
success of your e-retail site: security, payment processing, database and
application integration, usability and customer service.
Security should be your biggest concern in any e-retail undertaking.
You have no business selling on the Web if you can't take the basic steps
needed to secure your data and the data of your customers.
Ensure that the server environment that hosts your site is secure. This
isn't a one-time deal. Continually test the security of your systems, applications
and databases to ensure that no security holes have been introduced.
Also, the transmission of data between you and your customers must be
secure. This means using strong 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption
for all sensitive information sent between you and your customer. You may
need to provide weaker SSL encryption for international users and others
without 128-bit encryption, but you should explain the ramifications of
using the weaker security.
The most sensitive data to handle will be your customers' credit card
numbers. Store this information encrypted in your database. Access to full
credit card numbers should be granted only to those members of your staff
who absolutely need it, and such access should be logged and controlled
by a unique user name and password.
Card information should be stored on secure servers behind your firewall,
never on your public Web servers. Visa has an excellent checklist of best
practices for securing card transactions and data in its Visa Merchant Resource
Center (www.visabrc.com), which contains a wealth
of information for folks setting up an electronic storefront.
Of course, as with any IT system, you need an effective backup and disaster-recovery
The final component of your security plan should be a clearly defined
privacy and security policy that is communicated to your customers and your
staff. It's foolish to believe that you can create a 100 percent secure
Web site, especially as time passes and new holes are uncovered and changes
are made to your systems, software and databases. By following the practices
outlined above, however, you can ensure that security problems are rare
and that their impact is minimized.
Processing the Transactions
Payment processing can seem scary until you've set it up once or twice.
It really is just a matter of jumping through a few technical and administrative
hoops and forking over some cash.
If you already accept credit cards via more traditional purchase methods,
you're halfway to being able to accept credit cards via the Internet. If
you don't have a merchant account, which allows you to perform card transactions,
you'll need to set one up. Once you have an account, you can use an Internet
card processing service such as RTWare or VeriSign Inc. to accept and process
transactions. RTWare offers a good overview of card processing basics at
Typically, you will obtain a snippet of code that takes the card information
entered by your customers and transmits it (encrypted, of course) to the
card processor, which then processes and confirms the transaction and reports
the results back to your system.
Fitting It Together
Database and application integration is a critical component to e-retailing.
You can conduct business fairly simply via the Internet using e-mail or
by submitting data via simple CGI- or ASP-based forms. However, the benefits
of integrating your e-retail site with your existing databases and applications,
as well as the added security of not relying on plain-text e-mail for transmitting
sensitive information, mean that you'll likely want to integrate your e-retail
site with your existing systems.
There are several ways to do this. You can write your application from
the ground up, which gives you the most flexibility and easiest integration
with your existing systems, but this is likely the most time-consuming and
Another option is to integrate third-party products such as Cart32 by
McMurtrey/Whitaker & Associates Inc. for your shopping cart and RTWare
for your card processing. This gives you less flexibility and control over
the look and feel of your site, but it saves development time and comes
with solid out-of-the-box functionality.
You also can use a complete, hosted
e-commerce service, such as a Yahoo storefront, which you can get up and
running in an afternoon. These options, however, may provide little or no
integration with your existing systems.
For many e-retailer wanna-bes, the second solution may be the most appealing.
You can quickly integrate third-party solutions with your existing Web site,
customize them a bit with applications built from ASPs, CGIs or Java, and
be up and running with a credible e-retail site.
Keep Users in Mind
Decisions that you make about usability can greatly impact the level
of effort needed to construct your e-retail site and can have an impact
on how complete your integration with your existing systems needs to be.
Different e-retail applications have different critical requirements
based on the products sold, the logistics involved in delivering the products,
and the type and number of customers buying the products. A site with five
products shipped directly to 1,000 or so customers will probably look very
different from a site with 500,000 products and 1 million customers who
sometimes buy for themselves and sometimes buy for others.
Find a site that approximates the level of complexity you're expecting
for your own site. If you're looking to deliver a large number of products
to a large number of users, you might want to look at Amazon.com. Obviously an e-retail behemoth, Amazon offers many of the features
that any aspiring e-retailer would want to build into his or her site, but
these features aren't for everyone.
First, check out the site's navigation tools. Amazon sells literally
millions of products, so this requires a somewhat sophisticated interface
for users to browse. Simply putting up a text field with a "search" button
wouldn't give customers access to as many products as possible. Amazon breaks
products out by "stores" and then by categories and provides many different
ways to view products. Amazon includes comparison shopping features in many
of its stores and also provides ways for users to rate products.
Clearly, all of this functionality would be extremely time-consuming
to duplicate. If you already have a product database with complete product
information and the tools already built for updating the database, then
the e-retail site developer can focus efforts on the functionality that
the site's users will want.
Think about what you are selling and how people would want to browse
it. Don't put in complex search and retrieval functions that will only confuse
the end user, especially if they are so complex that you won't be able to
implement them correctly the first time around. Keep it as simple as you
can to still present the catalog information in a useful way.
Also, keep in mind that you don't have to do everything in the first
release of your site. Focus first on making it easy for a user to add an
item to the "shopping cart" from the online catalog.
Shopping Cart Protocol
Shopping cart functionality is an area where you can make your users'
experience positive and move them toward the ultimate goal of closing a
sale. While Amazon's shopping cart is informative and moves the user toward
closing the sale, it feels a bit cluttered to me. A site with a shopping
cart that I really like is PC Connection,
which includes all the information you need to see in the shopping cart
and also includes a handy shipping cost calculator that updates on the fly.
This is a nice feature that gives visitors a clear idea of the total cost
of the items they are purchasing.
The important thing to remember about shopping cart functionality: Most
shopping carts work one way, and whenever you depart from that basic functionality,
you risk confusing and therefore losing customers. Keep it simple. Keep
the customer moving toward closing the sale.
The final piece of the transaction involves entering the payment, billing
and shipping information. At a minimum, this phase of the transaction will
need to be conducted via an SSL connection.
If you provide your shoppers with a user name and password, you can
store billing, shipping and even credit card information. But think about
how the site will be used and by whom. Building this type of functionality
is pointless if users will buy from you only once.
Take Care of the Customer
The final piece of the e-retail puzzle is customer service. Simply putting
up a catalog and a shopping cart isn't all there is to running your e-store.
There are a few key points to good customer service on the Web.
First, provide your customers with many ways to resolve problems. Ideally,
customers should be able to contact you any way that they feel comfortable
to get a problem resolved: via telephone, e-mail, Web-based forms and perhaps
Clearly state your policies regarding privacy, security, shipping, sales
tax and returns. If customers see that you have thought about these issues,
they will feel more comfortable pressing the "buy" button.
Make sure that you've set up your card processing to deal with the array
of situations that you will find. Your customer service team will need to
be able to issue refunds, check the status of charges and delete charges
that are wrong. In some cases, you may need to build administrative tools
to help with these tasks. Don't forget to account for this effort when you
plan the project. These tools shouldn't be an afterthought.
Finally, your e-retail system should communicate to the consumer the
inventory status of the items they're buying and give them a clear idea
of when they can expect the product to arrive.
Clearly, there are many things to consider in building an e-retail site.
The task can appear daunting from the start, but if you think about what
you're selling, to whom you're selling it and how you're selling it, the
path to building your e-retail system will become clear.
Hammond is a Denver-based freelance writer and a program director at L7,
a company that specializes in building IT infrastructure.