Now that we have setup domain and web hosting, we can move forward to actually build an e-commerce website. The key component of an e-commerce website is the shopping cart, which is also the difference between a shopping site and a blog, a news site, or a forum. It is the shopping cart that lets your customers pay you, and tells you what your customers pay for. Shopping cart can be integrated with a variety of payment methods which you have to set up separately.
There are a few free (open source) shopping cart software that can be installed without involving too much technical difficulty. Examples are osCommerce and zen cart, which is what I have been using for years. You can also use the wooCommerce plugin with WordPress which is the famous blog creation tool. The latter is convenient if you want to have a blog and a store on the same site. Installation of WordPress takes just a few minutes. My personal experience though does not favor wooCommerce because of its performance issue. Website speed is also now a factor in Google ranking.
Installation of zen cart is easy. If you have cpanel and fantastico (usually at the bottom of cpanel), you can simply go in fantastico and choose zen cart to install. if you do not have fantastico, you can download zen cart from the link above, unzip it, and upload the entire file structure using FileZilla. Then you edit the file configure.php in the /includes folder, with your database name, database username and password, upload the file back. You might need to change the permissions of some folders and files. That can also be done through FileZilla. For detailed instructions, see zen cart support forum.
Zen cart is a data-driven e-commerce website builder. One of the most useful plugins for zen cart is EasyPopulate which allows you to populate all of your products simply by uploading a product-feed file (a text file). The file contains detailed information of all of your items for sale, e.g., product SKU (SKU is just a number or string for your own inventory management purposes), title, description, weight, price, image URL, inventory, category, etc. Each row in the file represents one product. You can use the file upload to add new items, remove items, update inventory and prices, etc. Even better, you can modify the feed to fit Google merchant center template to create a feed to upload to Google Shopping, or market places such as eBay and amazon.
You can use OpenOffice (just like Microsoft Excel, except that it’s open source free software) to create a spreadsheet of your products, and save it as a text file. Spreadsheet has some nice functions that allow you to do some simple calculations easily even if you have tens of thousands of lines (items). For example, you can mark up all items by, say 30% from their wholesale pricing or your current retail pricing. They usually have a limit of 65,000 lines. You’ll have to use multiple files if you have more items than that. When the file becomes too big, it becomes hard to manipulate anyway. The file takes time to create if you have your own products. If you use dropshipping, you can simply download their product feed, rearrange the columns, change the prices from their prices to your retail prices. All dropshippers I have used provide updated product feeds for you to download.
A common problem in uploading the product feed is the item title length. Upload can fail because your server settings do not allow enough length. If you are using a Linux server and have SSH access, you can easily change that part of the server settings.
Zen cart has a pretty sophisticated back-end admin panel making order processing very easy. It has a shipping module where you can set up different shipping methods such as UPS ground, USPS priority, etc. It comes with a payment modules in which you can connect your Paypal account (Paypal express checkout) or credit card merchant account. You can mark orders as shipped and enter tracking numbers, which in turn sends email notifications to customers. You can even send Paypal refund directly from zen cart admin panel.
Plugins & Themes
There are many theme providers that you can use to replace the default theme for a price. There are some free themes available too. Themes are mostly for cosmetic purposes, although some do integrate with certain back-end functions.
Over the years, many plugins have been developed to add more sophisticated features to zen cart. Examples include lightbox (which zooms your product images), XML sitemap (to create Google sitemap), Ceon URI mapping (for SEO friendly URLs), etc. There is also a plugin that can generate a Google feed for you. Personally, I think EasyPopulate is the only plugin that’s a must-have. You will have to explore the other plugins to see if they are useful to you. Beware though that some plugins will modify some of the zen cart core files. Proceed with caution.
wooCommerce and WordPress
wooCommerce is a free e-commerce plugin for WordPress. It comes with a shopping cart that can be easily integrated with Paypal. According to my experience, it is particularly useful if you want to create a store for affiliate products. For example, you can link your products to Amazon for commissions (after setting up an affiliate account with them). The wooCommerce shopping cart can delay the redirection to Amazon if customers want to add multiple items to cart, making it smooth in transition.
Installation of zen cart is pretty straightforward. However customization either in features or design can take a lot of time. It also takes time for you to learn all the functions, as well as manipulation of the data feed.
After you build the e-commerce website, you will have to let people know about your store. There are billions of websites out there. 99% of them are practically non-existent because nobody knows about them. No matter how nice-looking your website is, it is worth nothing if nobody knows about it. This brings us to the next topic: marketing and advertising your store.