If you are considering opening up an online store, here is some basic information about how they work and what your options are.
All online stores have the same basic functionality:
- You need to have a website where the products you are selling can be displayed.
- You need to have a shopping card system, where people can select products for purchase, select the quantity, perhaps color or size, etc. calculate shipping costs, and perhaps other appropriate functions.
- You need a way to securely process payments - usually that means processing credit cards, acknowledge payments, etc.
- And you need a place for received payments to come to you - usually a business checking account.
Each of these 4 subsystems need connections with the other pieces so that they can work together, yet be secure.
One of the simpler and least expensive approaches is to use PayPal. Payments can be made through the users PayPal account, or using their credit card. The store owner can maintain his own PayPal account and control many features of his / her store without involving the website designer. This approach definitely has a cost advantage, but its downside is a less professional user interface and a limited amount of flexibility as to what the PayPal part of the system looks like.
A more flexible approach is to integrate a commercial shopping cart package into your website, and link it to a payment processing gateway. We have taken this approach using AppleCart software for the shopping cart and Authorize.net for the payment processing. This requires that you set a merchant as your bank account. This approach allows much better integration of the shopping cart into your website, so that it appears that the shopping cart is completely a part of your website (not the case with PayPal).
Still another approach is to us Google's or Yahoo's complete store system. This approach again has some cost advantages, but limits your flexibility. No matter what you are selling or what you want you store to look like, it is going to look and act like other Google or Yahoo stores.
We still haven't talked about whether you are selling physical products that need to be shipped, services such as training, or online subscriptions. Each has its own special needs in designing your website.
We also need to consider how many products you are selling. If you only have a few products to sell and their price does not change frequently, then your website can be built around hard-coded purchase buttons. This approach is quick and easy, but doesn't work very well if you have hundreds of products and are changing them all the time. In that case, you will need a database approach, where you, the merchant (instead of the web designer), can add products, upload pictures of products, change prices, change shipping costs, etc. Setting up the database and programming your website to work with it can be expensive, but will save you a lot of money in the long run, if you have a lot of different and changing products.