In one sense E-commerce (or electronic commerce) is nothing new. Computers have been used to process credit-card payments since the 1960s (and automated teller machines have been common since the early 1980s). But that's not what most people mean by "E-commerce" nowadays. In a nutshell, E-commerce is: Every thing involved in selling things online It's about how you use the Internet - from your website to your email strategy - to enhance sales and your customers' buying experience. You can have varying degrees of E-commerce on your site. For example,
- You might want to start off quite modestly, by having an order form online, which customers can then print out and post (or even fax) to you;
- Or you might give a simple facility for customers to email their orders to you. Again, no big deal, and particularly useful for some business-to-business transactions;
- Or you might want a "full E-commerce" system, where customers can look for products, order and pay for them online by credit card.
We will look at this third option, a full E-commerce system, and the stages involved for a typical customer.
The reason why you will probably want to opt for a full E-commerce system is simple. As more and more people go online, they expect to be able to use online payment options. Forget about ordering by post (although your site should also have a form giving this option for customer’s who prefer this). Accepting credit cards only by fax or phone isn't a proper long-term solution either. If you are serious about selling through your website, then sooner (rather than later) you will need to accept credit cards online.
The Web's big attraction as a shopping channel is its immediacy. There is no such thing as impulse buying when you have to write a cheque, stuff it in an envelope and post it. An increasing amount of your online customers don't want to have to mess about posting cheques and order forms. They want to buy your products there and then, online.
The four stages
Think of a traditional, physical store. It includes shopping trolleys, displays of goods, and the cash registers. An online store is slightly different - you use software to provide for the store's main operating sections:
- 1. the storefront
- 2. the customer's shopping trolley
- 3. the cash register
- 4. the back room or "back end"
Your E-commerce system has to work for both your customers and your company. From your customers' perspective, it must be intuitive and easy to use. It must also integrate with your organisation so that orders are processed effectively and payments are collected efficiently. A full E-commerce system has to be able to deal not only with your customers but with financial institutions, with your stock control and your dispatch department.
1. The storefront
When customers enter your website, they have to be able to search for and browse through your products. The information about each product is arranged in a "catalogue". This can either be created as "flat HTML", fixed pages for a relatively small number of products. Or for a much larger range of products you will probably need a database-driven catalogue. In this case, instead of being fixed pages, each page is created "on the fly" from information stored in a database - it's similar to how a search engine such as AltaVista creates a results page. It means, for example, that the website can serve up a page containing a particular combination of products, of a specific type and in a price range chosen by the individual customer.
2. The shopping cart or trolleyWhen you pop into your local supermarket in the physical, "offline" world, one of the first things you're likely to do is to grab a shopping trolley or shopping basket. On the Web, "shopping carts" (excuse the American) perform a similar function. Your customers can use them to add or subtract items as they go through your site. The shopping cart keeps a tally of the items it contains, and automatically calculates any sales tax and shipping charges applicable. Then when the customer has finished selecting items he or she hits the "Buy" button and proceeds to the "checkout" or cash register.
3. The cash register
The cash register accepts the customer's payment information, obtains authorisation for the purchase amount, and carries out the transaction. Your cash register may consist of either a set of what are called "CGI scripts", or a way to connect to a transaction processing service such as Cyber Cash, or both.
Even though we're looking at a full E-commerce system, it's a good idea to accept customer orders in as many ways as possible at your online store, not just through clicking items into shopping carts.
These other options include
• Taking orders by phone or fax;
• Taking orders by email;
• Letting customers print a form from your site and fax or post it to you.
When your customers "check out", they'll want to know when they can expect their nice big package in the post. They'll probably want an email to confirm their order and tell them exactly what they bought. Then they'll want to know when it has been shipped.
4. The back room (or "back end")
The "front end" of your online store is your website. The "back end" might be mostly hidden from your customers, but it's where a lot of vital work goes on. It's where you handle
Customer data for registered or repeat customers. This is kept in a database for your own use, and can also be drawn upon to "personalise" the shopping experience, offering customers tailored adverts or discount offers.
Ordering and fulfilment. This usually involves another database to track orders as they arrive and go through the process of being dispatched and delivered. The customer's shipping address (from the fulfilment database) can be linked to your customer database - this is a good way of creating a list of what individual customers have ordered and get an idea of other products that may interest them.
Your site traffic statistics. These logs reveal how many visitors you get and where they are coming from. The information gives you a good basis for targeting your ads or soliciting ad revenue from sponsors on your site.
And that's about it. The bottom line is that E-commerce is still commerce, and still about human beings.