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Choosing Your Ecommerce Infrastructure

An article for IT Donut

As reliance on web sales grows, many merchants are finding that their current ecommerce platform, or set of services may not be as scalable as they initially imagined. Many merchants originally began with very low cost solutions. While this is completely appropriate for the startup, the growing merchant needs the capability to scale, both with the software they have chosen and the related eco-system of services. 

Choosing the right architecture (or service provider) for the long term is a difficult task. I speak to hundreds of merchants and web designers and the story is the same: it’s not easy. The biggest challenge is to base a decision on both the current requirements, plus the often ambitious plans for the future. The key is affordable scalability.

So, what are ecommerce services? The simple answer is, they are the supporting infrastructure you need to sell online:

Hosting
Support
Integrations – Payments, accounting, stock control, etc
Compliance – PCI DSS, Data Protection Act, Distance Selling Directive, etc

There are many ecommerce packages that can offer you everything from one source. My company, offers a hosted product (Actinic Express) as well as desktop applications, and there are many others. The advantage of taking a web-based option means the technology is not your problem; everything you need to sell online is provided. This is often the way many merchants get started. After all ecommerce can be fairly confusing, especially for traditional retailers moving into this space. However, as I said before, will it grow with you and cope with whatever you throw at it?

Hosting and support

Choosing the right hosting is one of the most important decisions an e-tailer can make. Any store, regardless of the features, will live or die by its hosting. To put this into context, your store is only as good as it’s capability to handle its peak traffic, e.g. before Christmas. Slow loading, or worse, an unresponsive site is a quick way to be ignored by potential and existing customers. The problem also affects your SEO. If your site is slow your search engine ranking will tumble because Google now penalises poor response speed in its algorithm. Likewise when you are just starting out, you must keep costs low. Unfortunately, the two objectives contradict each other. So my tips are:

  1. Look for a host that knows about ecommerce; not just as a cheap after thought, but one that has a detailed knowledge of what it takes to keep your site running.
  2. Packages are important. A good host will be able to upgrade or downgrade your infrastructure requirements quickly and easily.
  3. Pick a host that is local to your core demographics. It might seem cheaper to rent that box in the USA, but if your customers are in the UK expect trouble.
  4. When it all goes wrong you need to know things can be put right and quickly. All hosts, regardless of how good they are, suffer downtime. It’s what they do when there is an outage that's important. So check the service agreement for  their guaranteed response time.
  5. Support is critical. Nothing beats picking up the phone and talking to someone that knows what they are doing.
Payments

The ability to take payments online is another critical ecommerce service all e-tailers require. In the UK there are many PSPs (Payment Service Providers) ranging from the ubiquitous PayPal to our own Actinic Payments and long-standing companies like WorldPay. Most share a number of features so check for differentiators such as anti-fraud services and the level of integration with your ecommerce package. 

Every online merchant regardless of size should accept PayPal; the barriers for getting started are low and potential customers like and trust the brand. However, when a merchant grows, cost considerations need to be evaluated. As a rule of thumb PayPal charges its merchants 3% per transaction. While this doesn't sound a lot when you are turning over a small amount, as your store grows this becomes a big issue. 

Data security

Likewise with compliance, the UK has a fairly strict set of rules for handling card data known as Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). My theory has always been to keep things simple: make it someone else’s problem. By using a compliant PSP your ecommerce store never sees customer card data.

In conclusion

Ecommerce services are the lifeblood of a successful store. The absolute top performers all have the same things in common. They are responsive and most importantly safe. Choosing the correct services for your store may mean the difference between success or failure, so it’s well worth considering carefully.

How to accept payments online

Something I wrote for IT Donut.

In my job I come into contact with a lot of ecommerce businesses and the range of sites is quite staggering in terms of both products and company size. However there is one common factor: they all have to be able to take card payments.

Accepting payments online can be a fairly daunting process, especially for the first time merchant. There is a lot of jargon, bureaucracy and confusion about how to get started. In this article I’ll attempt to demystify the topic.

PayPal

In the 12 years since its launch PayPal has become one of the most successful online businesses of all time. There is huge trust in the brand and most importantly it’s incredibly simple to set up. To me, every merchant, regardless of size, should accept payments via PayPal. Independent research has indicated it may also increase orders by as much as 10%.

There is a downside however: the fees. As a rule PayPal charges 3% per transaction. This may not sound a lot when you are starting out it can become fairly painful in the long run, especially if you are successful.

Merchant accounts and PSPs

Eventually everyone selling online will want to take more control and accept card transactions directly. If you want your bank to handle your card transactions the starting point is an Internet Merchant Account (IMA). Many people selling online come from a traditional retail environment and may already have a merchant account. First step is to contact your existing bank as often this is the quickest and most cost effective way.

Once you are set up with an IMA the next step is to sign up with a Payment Service Provider ( PSP). Well known companies include RBS WorldPay, Sage Pay and my own company’s Actinic Payments.

The PSP is the bridge between your online store and your bank. Think of it as an electronic till. Check how well a PSP will integrate into your ecommerce solution and whether it offers additional services such as anti-fraud.

PCI DSS

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a worldwide standard created to help prevent credit card fraud and has become a requirement for anyone that holds, processes, or exchanges cardholder information. If you are taking online payments, or holding card data somewhere you have to be compliant. Breaching this standard carries heavy fines that, if enforced, would put the majority of small companies out of business.

However PCI DSS needn’t be a huge hurdle. If you are using a PSP, it has to be compliant, not you. Then a customer shopping at your site is transferred seamlessly over to the PSP to input card data and take payment. The PSP has all the headaches of compliance and your ecommerce system holds no sensitive data.

Conclusion

Taking payments online doesn't need to be complex, the process itself is rather simple but it’s important you get it right. Depending on the size of your operation there is a solution that will fit. Isn’t it time your electronic till started ringing?

Do you really know what you want?

Something I wrote for my friends over at Business Zone

Recently I have become completely obsessed with usability. For my day job I am a product guy, my company produces ecommerce software, so the decisions I make have some fairly huge implications for our user-base, both new and old. So with all that in mind you might think my new found obsession is a good thing? Well it is, largely, but I have discovered a downside.

Dave’s Insanity Sauce

Fantastic! A present from a friend in the States, I bet its insane!

Thanks Daniel Popp!

Sent from my Google Nexus One

Victorian Tea for three at Osborne House

Sent from my Google Nexus One

Birthday Surprises

I love it when people know you so well that buying presents isn't so much a choice, its instinctive.

Present Win = A bottle of great single malt and £1 Tangfantastics.

Genius

15 Things you should know about caffeine