E-commerce Step 4 of 4: Optional Features/Enhancements

If you’ve been following along with this e-commerce series, you now know how to sign up for a free PayPal account to be able to receive online payments, create an online catalog of products/services, and provide your customers with more information by creating product detail pages. So if you are ready to start an online business, you have everything you need to get started.

However, since everyone’s situation is different, the steps outlined in my previous posts may not work for all of your needs. In this post, I want to introduce you to a few optional ideas or services that can be used to enhance your catalog.

Additional Checkout Options

Google Checkout:

Google recently launched its own online checkout service to allow people to sell items from their Web sites. Much like PayPal, sellers can create an account to allow people to purchase items from their Web site via Google Checkout. The principal difference between Google Checkout and PayPal (In my opinion) is that only people who have a Google Checkout account can make purchases this way. There is no option for people to use their own credit card without an online account. On the other hand, it seems fairly easy to sign up for an account using a major credit card, so I can’t say for sure how much of a hindrance this would be for shoppers.

As with PayPal, sellers can build HTML snippets to embed into their sites to produce a Google Checkout “Buy Now” button. This script can be configured much like the PayPal snippets. I’ve included a sample below (Items shown in red will need to be customized to your account/needs):

<form action=”https://checkout.google.com/cws/v2/Merchant/{Your Merchant ID}/checkoutForm” id=”BB_BuyButtonForm” method=”post” name=”BB_BuyButtonForm”>
<input name=”item_name_1″ type=”hidden” value=”{Item Name}“/>
<input name=”item_description_1″ type=”hidden” value=””/>
<input name=”item_quantity_1″ type=”hidden” value=”1″/>
<input name=”item_price_1″ type=”hidden” value=”{Price}“/>
<input name=”item_currency_1″ type=”hidden” value=”USD”/>
<input name=”_charset_” type=”hidden” value=”utf-8″/>
<input alt=”” src=”https://checkout.google.com/buttons/buy.gif?merchant_id={Your Merchant ID}&w=117&h=48&style=white&variant=text&loc=en_US” type=”image”/>

You can use Zoho Creator to customize this script as I described in E-commerce Step 2 of 4. Although there is no way for non-Google Checkout users to pay this way, it might be a nice option to include if many of your customers do have a Google Checkout account, or if you want to encourage them to create an account.

Mercantec E-Commerce Express:

While searching for ways to build a shopping cart to use with my PayPal account, I ran across a fantastic service from MercantecE-commerce Express. This service is completely free of charge, and allows you to generate a list of products/services to sell on your site. You can generate add-to-cart buttons for each item using short JavaScript codes that can be included in your Web pages for each item. In addition, you can create JavaScript codes that will allow you to embed the users’ shopping cart items directly into your own Web page, and even a script that shows the user how many items are in their cart (useful at the top of your catalog/product detail pages). In fact, E-commerce Express is much easier to use than PayPal. If you want to change the price of a product, or your shipping charges, you can do so directly through your Mercantec account and you don’t have to create new JavaScript codes – the prices of your products are updated automatically (PayPal requires you to re-create the HTML codes for your products if you change a price, which is what prompted me to start using Zoho Creator in the first place).

I found only one disadvantage to Mercantec’s E-commerce Express service…Your shoppers must have either a PayPal or a Google Checkout account to make a purchase. I did not see any options for people to simply pay via a credit card. For this reason, I chose to stick with Zoho Creator for my catalog.

However, if you can live with this (If you are confident that most of your potential buyers will have either a Google Checkout or a PayPal account), Mercantec E-commerce Express is a fabulous service to use. In addition, if you’re unwilling to go into the scripting details that I have done, E-commerce Express may be a viable alternative. Please note, however, that you will have to configure E-commerce Express to allow the service to access your PayPal and/or Google Checkout accounts. Fortunately, Mercantec provides detailed instructions (once logged in to your account) to walk you through the process.

Special Items

If you have special items in your catalog (such as files available for immediate download), you may need to create a few exceptions to the automatically-generated PayPal/Google Checkout fields in your Zoho Creator application. This can easily be done by adding a new field that can hold any customized PayPal/Google Checkout codes you need. Then, in the script for the catalog, you can just add an if/then statement something like the following:

if(input.PayPalOverride != “”)
input.PayPal=”<form method=’post’ action=’https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr’ target=’_blank’><input type=’hidden’ name=’cmd’ value=’_cart’><input type=’hidden’ name=’add’ value=’1′><input type=’hidden’ name=’business’ value='” + input.Seller_s_e_mail + “‘>”;
input.PayPal=input.PayPal + “<input type=’hidden’ name=’item_name’ value='” + input.Item_name + “‘><input type=’hidden’ name=’item_number’ value='” + input.Item_number + “‘><input type=’hidden’ name=’amount’ value='” + input.Item_price + “‘><input type=’hidden’ name=’shipping’ value='” + input.Shipping + “‘><input type=’hidden’ name=’shipping2′ value='” + input.Shipping2 + “‘>”;
input.PayPal=input.PayPal + ” <input type=’hidden’ name=’handling’ value='” + input.Handling + “‘><input type=’hidden’ name=’currency_code’ value=’USD’><input type=’hidden’ name=’undefined_quantity’ value=’1′>”;
input.PayPal=input.PayPal + “<input type=’image’ src=’http://images.paypal.com/en_US/i/btn/x-click-but22.gif’ border=’0′ name=’submit’ width=’87’ height=’23’ alt=’Make payments with PayPal – it is fast, free and secure!’></form>”;

Managing your money

If you are selling items that need to be shipped (as opposed to downloaded software), it will be essential for you to maintain good records to ensure your customers stay happy. Both PayPal and Google Checkout have some built-in functionality that will allow you to track orders. I have not personally sold anything through my online catalog (Hard to believe, I know, since I have only one item available for sale, and it can be downloaded free of charge elsewhere!). From reading the documentation, it sounds like Google Checkout has a more robust set of management tools available. However, I feel that PayPal remains the best option because it allows non-account-holders to make a purchase with a major credit card.

If you feel the need to maintain more accurate or more thorough records, however, you may want to try out some other services. Microsoft offers a free accounting software package named Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007. This free software package requires both .Net Framework 2.0 and MySQL to function, both of which are available free and can be installed during the Accounting Express installation. Essentially, the software can provide you with all of the tools you need to start a small business to track expenses, manage clients, and generate reports. I found it to be much more than I need for my “practice” catalog, so I haven’t delved deeply into the functionality yet, but I did notice that you can synchronize Accounting Express with your PayPal records. Unfortunately, you have to do this manually by downloading your PayPal records and then importing them into Accounting Express. But, if you really need all the tools, you can’t beat the price!

Alternatively, Zoho CRM offers you the ability to manage sales orders and/or create invoices (for people who want a product, but don’t want to order online). I have not used Zoho’s CRM solution yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it stacks up against PayPal or Google’s integrated order management systems or against Accounting Express 2007.

That’s all for today, and that wraps up this e-commerce series. I want to thank everyone for their comments about my idea to combine Microsoft Office Live Basics, Zoho Creator, and PayPal to build a completely free e-commerce solution for individuals or small home-based businesses. While researching this topic, I ran across several related sites and ideas. In my next post, I’ll try to summarize what we’ve done over the last few weeks as well as share some of the ideas and resources that I’ve come across while writing this blog.

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