The tools we recommend for online merchants fall into three categories: ecommerce tools, analytic tools, and advertising tools. Though you might not need ecommerce tools if you choose to sell to a third party, and while we have yet to encounter many online merchants who actively use or benefit from online ads, you will still be on more sound footing if you understand what your options are on all fronts.
Though some online merchants choose to sell through third parties online, such as Etsy, eBay, or Amazon, many others utilize ecommerce tools to sell products directly through their websites. The most accessible and easy-to-use ecommerce tools that have been recommended to us by online merchants are discussed below.
WordPress eCommerce Tools
The benefits of using a WordPress plugin for eCommerce include the ability to create and update product listings in much the same manner one would create and update a WordPress post. Top WordPress commerce plugins are also reinforced by a robust body of helpful online guides in the form of forum threads, video tutorials, written instructions, and FAQs. Our favorite WordPress commerce plugins are WP e-Commerce and WooCommerce.
WP e-Commerce is a very popular commerce plugin for WordPress sites that is known for its excellent support and diverse array of payment gateways. Beyond the basics of an online commerce solution (product listings, shopping cart, and checkout functionality), WP e-Commerce offers:
- Flexible pricing rules, sales (that can be product specific), and discounts
- Support for donations
- The ability for customers to enter customization information with purchases
- Helpful shortcodes and template tags, making one's online store all the more easy to customize
- Compatibility with WordPress Multisite (should you utilize that feature with subdomains)
- Easy integration with Google Sitemap, Google Analytics, Google Merchant Centre, and Google Base
- Social media sharing options on products
- Various checkout options (including Guest Checkout)
- A shopping cart that includes tax and shipping estimates
- Built-in shipping rate calculators and a variety of shipping rate types
- Integration with UPS, USPS, Australia Post, and Shipwire for real-time shipping rates
Payment: In its basic version, WP e-Commerce accepts payment through checks, money orders, PayPal (Payments Standard, Pro, and Express Checkout), Google Checkout, and Chronopay.
Fees: Premium plugins can be added to give WP e-Commerce additional functionality. They range in price from $17 to $97. The Gold Cart plugin, presently $47, unlocks a sizable suite of additional features as well as one-on-one support.
WooCommerce is another free WordPress ecommerce plugin that packs a powerful punch. In addition to enabling you to add a product catalog, shopping cart, and checkout functionality to your website, WooCommerce enables you to:
- Set unique product attributes
- Associate multiple images with products
- Associate multiple types of a product with one listing
- Easily sell physical products, intangible services, and downloads
- Easily view and editor order details, plus add notes, from one attractive interface
- Work with different tax and shipping configurations
- Offer various types of discounts
- Analyze on-site statistics regarding product sales
- Integrate customer reviews and social media sharing options
- Offer personalized account dashboards to shoppers that enable them to keep tabs on their orders' status
WooCommerce has the added benefit of working well with a wide number of other WordPress add-ons, as it is created by WooThemes, a company that makes plugins and themes for WordPress sites. For Example, Gigaverse presently uses WooCommerce as well as WooSensei (a learning management system that helps us present our courses). Though we do not charge for our courses, WooSensei integrates very well with WooCommerce, making it possible for those using WooSensei with WooCommerce to provide paid courses through a WordPress site.
Payment: The basic, free version of WooCommerce supports credit cards, PayPal, direct bank transfers, check payments, and payment upon delivery.
Fees: Though WooCommerce is free, WooThemes offers premium ecommerce WordPress themes and extensions. WooCommerce extensions add functions that range from subscription payment options to CSV uploads of hundreds of products, and range in price from $0.00 to $199.
Checkout by Amazon
You do not need to be a seller on Amazon to utilize their checkout tool, which enables people to buy products through your independent website using their Amazon accounts. Using Checkout by Amazon enables customers to work with a trusted, familiar brand and spares them from having to re-enter credit card information.
In addition to a nice, mobile-friendly checkout tool for shoppers, Checkout by Amazon offers order management features, which make it easy to print shipping labels and packing strips, search through, filter, download, update, and cancel orders. Because it leverages Amazon Payments, Checkout by Amazon is also accompanied by fraud protection.
Payment: Amazon Payments can be used with bank accounts and credit cards. Because customers place their orders through Amazon, your payments will come through Amazon Payments.
Fees: Use of Checkout by Amazon is accompanied by a fee of 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction (for transactions of $10 and above), however there are volume discounts for purchases above $3,000.
Implementation: Sites with product catalogs containing fewer than 25 items that do not require a shopping cart can utilize the "Buy Now" button and be set up in hours. Those with more products or who would like to utilize Amazon's shopping cart functionality will need basic programming skills and spend 2-5 days on setup. There are several service providers with tools and plugins that integrate Amazon Payments, some of which are discussed below.
Other Popular Commerce Tools
XCart is a mobile and social friendly ecommerce solution with a wide range of features. Its responsive design (available in some versions) works well not just for mobile devices, but for a wide range of screen sizes.
For an idea of the experience XCart can provide, view their showcase of users and poke around their online stores.
Payment: XCart's supported payment providers include PayPal, Authorize.net, Quantum Gateway, Skrill, and 2Checkout.
Fees: XCart is purchased up-front; depending on the functionality you desire, you may pay anything from $299 to $1,795.
Magento offers ecommerce solutions that are suited for both small businesses and large organizations. If you do not need special support or security features, you can download and use their Community edition for free. Should your site run on WordPress, there are plenty of plugins and extensions that will help you easily integrate the solution into your site.
Payment: Magento's free community edition handles payment through various PayPal gateways, Amazon Payments (both Checkout By Amazon and Amazon Simple Pay), Authorize.net, Google Checkout, checks, saved credit cards, money orders, and purchase orders. Customer store credits, gift cards, and certificates as payment options are available to enterprise and professional customers only.
Fees: Magento's Community edition, which is open source and lacks hosting, built-in security, and technical support, is free. Paid plans with additional features and support start at $15 per month for small businesses (who would work best with Magento Go) and $15,550 a year for medium to large corporations (who would more likely need the functionality and support that comes with Magento's Enterprise edition).
Amongst other things, Cashie Commerce makes it easy to sell through WordPress, blogs, custom sites, Facebook, and mobile devices, as well as Cashie's own Marketplace (should you not maintain a storefront of your own). Visit Cashie's Success Stories page to find and browse online stores using its software.
Payment: Cashie accepts PayPal and credit cards
Fees: Cashie charges monthly subscription and transaction fees, which range from $9 and 2.5% to $39 and 0% depending on the plan you select.
Analytic Tools for Online Sales
Google Analytics is the most powerful free analytic tool on the market and can make a huge difference in helping you determine how to tweak your online store(s) to ensure their optimal performance. While there are plenty of other ecommerce analytics tools available, chances are you would not get more out of them than you could get from Google Analytics. By all means, make use of the in-house analytics offered by whatever ecommerce solution(s) you end up using, but consider using Analytics as well.
For guidance on using Google Analytics in conjunction with ecommerce, check out this series of four short tutorials from the Google Analytics team.
Advertising Tools for Online Sales
While we have yet to encounter an online seller who has seen significant success through the use of online ad campaigns, this does not mean that online marketing should not factor into your work as an online merchant. So that you can make a more informed decision about whether, when, and how to promote your store and advertise online, you should be aware of the major options at your disposal.
Content Marketing, Community Management, Blogs, and Trending Social Media Platforms
Lately, "content marketing" has become a widely-discussed marketing tactic; it more or less involves using content to augment a brand, strengthen engagement, augment interest, and drive sales. When online merchants say they get most of their customers "naturally" thanks to their great products and genuine engagement with customers over social media, they are probably leveraging a mixture of content marketing and community management. The approach may feel natural, but in reality, getting "natural" word-of-mouth promotion and attention online requires a significant amount of effort.
Whether you buy into marketing trends and specific lingo or not, engaging directly with customers through original, useful, high quality content presented via your site and social media channels has proven to be one of the most useful approaches for online sellers. Actively engaging with customers in a genuine manner is far more likely to help you cultivate customer loyalty and encourage word-of-mouth promotion than running online ad campaigns.
The top tools you will use to utilize this approach include:
- A blog hosted on your website (or a stand-alone blog, should your store be presented through a third party site)
The tools you ultimately choose to use will vary based on your target audience and the type of products you sell. If, for example, your products have a big visual component and are targeted at female audiences, Pinterest is a great place to post content, share others' content, and engage with others. If your product has a big customer service component, you may use Twitter a as a part of your customer service solution and actively help people troubleshoot over tweets while also building a reputation for responsiveness and great customer support.
Though the use of blogs and social media channels is, on the surface, free, it can be incredibly expensive in terms of labor. While you may pay for ad campaigns, they mostly run themselves. The creation of high quality content and maintenance of social media channels is all on you.
Also keep in mind that not all channels will give you optimal coverage. Many online merchants utilize Facebook pages to promote their online stores, however posts made through a Facebook page (if not sponsored) reach only 16% of a page's followers. Much of the effort you may make on social media channels may fall on deaf ears.
To avoid wasting time and effort:
- Establish where your customers hang out online
- Determine how and why they would want to hear from you
- Experiment with some methods (e.g. maintaining a blog sharing tips related to your products and engaging wtih customers through accounts on Pinterest and Facebook)
- Measure the impact they make
- Drop methods that do not work; maintain and constantly tweak and improve the methods that do work
Let us say, for example, that you sell hair accessories. Your target demographic may consist of educated women in their mid twenties to their mid forties. You therefore decide to experiment with a blog (which offers hairstyle tutorials featuring your accessories), a Pinterest account (to which you pin visual summaries of your tutorials linking back to your blog), a Facebook account (to which you also post tutorials and occasional product listings), and a Twitter account (through which you share updates and one-off hairstyling tips).
Let us say that your blog ends up getting a lot of organic traffic and your pins on Pinterest get repinned quite a bit, but that your Facebook page does not seem to be driving much traffic to your store and your Tweets are garnering little interest or engagement. It may therefore be wise to scale back time spent in Twitter and Facebook (just post once or twice a week to maintain a basic presence) and invest more time in your blog and Pinterest.
Paid Advertising Online
There are three primary paths you can follow when placing ads online:
- You can place ads in search results for important, relevant keywords
- You can place ads on sites that are relevant to your online store
- You can place ads on social media channels
Search ads are best for products that solve a specific problem for which people know there is a solution. If someone will not think to search for the solutions your products provide, you will not gain much attention from paid search ads.
Ads on a specific site are excellent when your products are highly related to that site's content (same goes to a collection of sites related to a theme, which you may access via AdWords). If someone has a popular blog on hair accessories, for example, you may wish to advertise your hair accessories on this person's site. People visiting that blog are far more likely to be interested in buying hair accessories than people just poking around Facebook.
Ads on social media sites such as Facebook are better if your goal is to educate people about your products or solutions. They're good for general branding or the introduction of a concept with which people are not yet familiar. Ads on social media sites are not typically good at driving sales. When people log on to Twitter or Facebook, they are more likely to want to kill time and catch up with friends than make some purchases (Pinterest is an exception to this rule; people often visit the site intending to eventually make a purchase).
Google AdWords offers a wide variety of ad types, placement options, and targeting choices. It is the most accessible, widespread, and robust advertising network online. A full tutorial on the use of AdWords is outside the scope of this course (plus we think it's better that you get your know-how from the Google AdWords team directly), however should you be interested in learning more immediately, check out the following resources:
- Intro to AdWords
- How to Create a Campaign
- Tips for Creating Successful Text Ads
- Overview of Essential Tips to Improve Your AdWords Results
Platform-Specific Ad Programs
- Facebook Ads: Facebook ads have extensive, granular targeting options and work closely in concert with Facebook pages, though they can lead people to external websites in addition to one's dedicated Facebook page
- Twitter Ads: Twitter's advertising options include sponsored tweets, promoted accounts, and promoted trends
- Search ads on Etsy: Etsy enables you to pay to feature specific products within results for targeted keywords (be sure to choose products and keywords very carefully)
For more guidance on determining which sites are relevant to your target market, visit our guide to choosing a social network that attracts your target market.
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