E-commerce online shops

E-commerce is an easy way for photographers to market their images. There are of course a number of sites offering a complete package and the advantage is that they provide all the tools to upload images, tag them, present them and sell them. Some sites will even print and deliver the image for you.

photoshelter, digital railroad, and smugmug are examples.

The problem is that once one is locked in to this kind of site, there is an ongoing and recurring fee for maintaining a presence on the site.

For a high profile photographer this may not be an issue because they have lots of ways to drive traffic to their page on the website. But for someone sticking their toe in the water, the cost may be simply far more than is acceptable bearing in mind the risk that there may be no return at all on the investment.

So the idea of having one’s own website is appealing. Once it is set up, the ongoing costs are minimal. If the photographs do not sell, the experience will not have been too painful.

Now there is lots of information out there on the web addressed to people who are already computer-savvy, but it’s another thing to find an overview in layman’s terms, and it is to these people that this article is aimed.

Blogs
The easiest way to get on the web of course is to make a blog using a blog provider such as Blogger or WordPress. it is worth considering for a moment, just what these companies provide, which is that everything is pre-configured. The background colour, the heading, the sidebar: they are all there.

When you want to type, you type: when you want to add a photograph the software takes care of putting things where you want them to go – but there are limits. You are not free to put every graphic element exactly where you want onto the page.

Of course accepting advertisements on your blog is a way to make revenue. Each person who advertises on your blog pays the blog provider (Google or whoever) each time a visitor to your blog clicks on an ad that takes him to the site of the advertiser. This is called pay-per-click, and for bloggers who have sites with lots of relevant content and large numbers of visitors, it can pay very well.

But what this is, is ‘selling’ the content of your blog. It is not a way of selling your images. Nor is it possible to sell your images from your blog – either because the blog provider isn’t happy for you to do make your blog into a commercial site, or because there is simply no way to get someone to buy something there and then on the page. You might have a ‘contact me’ button and you could tell someone how to let you know which image they want, etc., but it is not e-commerce. It is not going to move buyers from thinking to doing.

Make your own site
if you want more control, make your own website. And that means you have to figure out how to write the thing. Unlike Blogger, or WordPress, you cannot just start typing because there is no handy box to type in and no menus and no sidebar and no background colour and no nothing.

Of course there are more fundamental things you need, like a domain name (e.g. http://www.whatagreatwebsite.com), which are cheap to buy – just a matter of a few dollars for the right to the name for a year or two (and the right to renew it for ever after).

And you need a host – somewhere to put the domain name and all the content you are going to put onto the site that bears its name. It is technically possible to host your site on your own computer but why do it when commercial hosts have big servers and lots of useful programs installed on their servers. $100 a year will get you hosting with a reputable host.

One thing to watch is that if, for example, you are in the U.K. you may not want to have to pay for a transatlatic call to telephone the support people at your hosting site in the U.S. But unless you are going to be calling a lot, the ticketing system and email support that good hosts offer customers, means it does not matter where you host. And U.S. hosts often offer much more bandwidth – the number of pages of your site that visitors can view in a month for a given level of hosting fee – than hosts in some other countries.

Fine, now how do I make my site?
Well you could learn HTML (hypertext markup language), which is a code that basically consists of two bits. One bit (called a tag) tells the page to do things and the other bit of code tells the page what particular thing to do. So for example a bit of code could instruct the page to make a background colour, and the other bit of the code tells the page what colour to put.

Which is OK for the background colour because, by definition, that goes all over the page, but how do you put the various bits of information you want to put on the page, precisely where you want them to go?

For example, how do you put a photograph halfway down the page on the right. Where is (in coding terms) halfway down the page on the right?

Pagetutor has good tutorials on html) but there is still a lot of ground to cover, and HTML and its successors are not standing still and the web is changing all the time.

Or you could use one of the text editors that have a graphic tool that helps you put what you want, where you want it without having to know all about the HTML coding.

Or you could use one of the progams such as Dreamweaver or ImageReady.

Or one of the more ready-made web-building programs such as Rapidweaver and Freeway4express for Mac, or NetObjects Fusion for Windows. And they may do the job in that you can build a website with them.

But the central idea was to be able to sell images from the website, so we have to consider whether these tools or these programs will do the job.

The answer is that it depends on whether you want to sell sell a few different things or a lot of different things, and whether you want to sell variations of the same thing, e.g. different print sizes or finishes and perhaps framed or unframed, or just one option for each product.

If all your products are the same price then you just need one BUYNOW button, some way to make that button work so it accepts payments, and some way for you to know which product the customer has chosen. Lots of the web-bulder programs can take plug-ins that would allow you to do that.

But if you want to sell lots of products at different prices and even more so, if you want to sell variations of the same product then you would really be making hard work for yourself to build a website and then spend hours putting a unique BUYNOW button for each product and each and every variation.

Apart from the mammoth task of putting the buttons in place, there are likely to be so many buttons on the page it would barely leave room for information about the product itself, or for the photograph you are hoping to sell.

Content Management Systems
That is where a Content Management System (CMS) tailored to ecommerce – with an integrated shopping cart – comes in.

A CMS is program. It is a link between you and the information that appears to customers on the website. It is stored on your server at your host company, along with your the part of your website that the customer sees. The two sit together like the actress and the make-up artist.

Customers do not see the CMS, and they cannot get into it because, as the adminstrator, only you have the password.

There are various CMSs tailored to ecommerce. What they have in common is that they are designed so that the product information can be ‘filled in’ by merchants. They do not require that you know HTML or coding of any kind.

You make changes in the CMS, such as adding a product or changing a price, and it updates the site that visitors see.

Well, there are lots of ecommerce CMS products out there – so which do you choose?

Open-Source Content Management Programs with integrated shopping carts
The good news is there are people who believe in developing programs that are open-source, (which means you don’t have to pay to use them) and and which have a good range of features. The guiding principle of open-source developers is that people should be able to share in the use of products that are designed for the benefit of everyone. And so there are communities who develop, share, use and ask questions about these programs, and contributors who develop add-ons to give additional functionality to the programs.

This translates into products that are tried and tested by the people who use them. This may mean that an open-source program is as good as a paid-for one, or it could mean that a bunch of amateurs have gotten together to make a second-rate program. And equally, some of the paid-for programs might be second-rate. The bottom line is that there is no automatic rule that paid-for programs are better than open-source programs or vice versa,. But if there are good open-source CMSs out there then they are by design, free.

OSCommerce, phpNuke, Mambo, Joomla. Plone, and Zen-Cart among others, are open-source.

Zen-Cart, for example has a large user base, good documentation (an actual hold-it-in-your-hand manual is now available) and an active forum. Several hosting companies are set-up to instal zen-cart and run it with simple one-click installation. And it is built to link to Paypal.

Payment Gateways, Merchant accounts, and alternatives
Besides having a CMS with a shopping cart, you also have to think about how the customer’s money gets to your bank. You need some way of accepting payments and allowing money to be accepted and sent through to your bank or stored for you where you can move it to your bank when you want.

With a payment gateway and a merchant account, the customer pays via credit card on your website and the funds are transmitted to your bank via the payment gateway, which is provided by a provider that offers this service for a fee.

This sounds complicated and reading some of the literature from the providers you would be forgiven for thinking it is, but it isn’t.

But the thing is that not all CMSs work smoothly with all payment gateways. So, a person has to look at these things – CMS, payment gateway, and merchant account – as an interactive bundle and choose a combination that gives him what he wants.

There are companies that offer a package. The advantage is that the package is complete and all offered from one contact point. The disadvantage is that these companies often want to tie you into a recurring monthly fee, and sometimes also a set-up fee. I am not talking here about the fees the credit card company charges per transaction. I am talking about a monthly fee the ‘package’ companies want to charge you for using their product. If I wanted to spend $40 a month on a method of accepting payments, I could use Yahoo Small Business.

And the bottom line is that you have to set-up a merchant account. And for a new business that can be difficult. From which it is easy to see why Paypal is so popular because you don’t need to do any of that.

Paypal works differently. You can apply for a Paypal account as an individual, link it to your ordinary bank account (no need for a business account) and then apply your on-line store to your paypal account. Then when money comes in from customers you can send it on to your bank account as and when you want.

So it comes as no surprise that most of the open-source CMSs are built to work with Paypal. And all the more so since WebPaymentsStandard from Paypal does not require you to take any credit card information from your customers. It is all done on Paypal’s site to which your customers are directed as soon as they click the BUYNOW button, and can then be autoredirected back to your site. Simple!

So now we have a free open-source CMS that is built to accept money by credit card online; lets you set up your product line with lots of options (sizes, finishes or whatever) and we know we can buy a domain name and set up our site on a commercial host for very little cost.

Now how do we make the site? Well zen-cart for example, comes with a number of ready-made templates. And if you are a little adventurous you can read the manual and tweak your chosen template to the look and feel you want. And if you are not adventurous you can get someone to tweak the site for you. get a freelancer, rent a coder, and other similar sites offer buyers (you) the opportunity to accepts bids from coders worldwide who will tweak your site, be it zen-cart, oscommerce or whatever. And because the overall design of the CMS has already been established, the cost is comparatively low. And it is of course a once-only expense, unlike the packages I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

3 thoughts on “E-commerce online shops

  1. I started my own web-based balloon business a few years ago. Here are a few helpful points.

    We use Nochex as a payment provider instead of paypal (they are slightly cheaper). Google checkout is also completitavly priced although slightly harder to setup.

    To create an online shop we purchased a web-site template from templatemonster.com and added extra modules from ecommercetemplates.com and http://www.nochex.com

    Put all these programs together using frontpage or dreamweaver and upload to a web hosting company such as http://www.34sp.com

    Hope this helps

    balloons

    Like

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