As a frequent visitor to forums in which people ask for critiques of their new ecommerce sites, I have seen the best and the worst of small business Web development. For the first 1000 posts or so, I was helpful, kind, and supportive when gently pointing out each developer’s site issues and how he or she could make the site "the best it could be".
Funny thing though: I found out that this approach doesn’t really work. Maybe the developers think their sites are somehow different, or that the basic rules of good online commerce don’t apply to them for some reason. Site after posted site, I see the same errors in judgment and design. The following 10 tips now represent my standard advice to every budding Website entrepreneur.
1. Use your Ecommerce Software’s Default Layout
Whatever shopping cart you use, the "stock" or default look is fine. After all, if it wasn’t the best layout of all time, why would they distribute it as "stock" in the first place? Never mind that your site will look like every other lazy shop owner who decided that product presentation was overrated. Never mind that it has no flow, coherence, or style. And you might as well just ignore the fact that it makes you look like some high school kid in a basement trying to take their money and run.
You lack design talent? We understand. After all, if you could make nice Websites, you wouldn’t be trying to sell whatever it is you make online: you’d sell nice Websites instead. Sure, you could get a ready made, beautiful drop-in template from one of hundreds of sites that specialize in that sort of thing — some of them even custom-made for your cart platform — for less than $200.00. But hey, you picked a FREE cart, and darn it, this site is going to be free if it kills you (or your chances of success). Those people that say you have to spend money to make money are all full of garbage, right?
2. Don’t use Thumbnails
Why would you want to speed up load times for slow connections, or make your product shots look better? Good looking images are the sign of professionalism and class, and you surely don’t want your site to have either of those. Sure, successful shop owners say better images sell more products, but you don’t have to listen to those people. After all, what does a successful shop owner know that you don’t?
Forget the fact that every cart on the planet either has the ability to use thumbnail images built in, or a free and easy-to-install contribution that handles them beautifully. Keep posting 800k images to your site, and laugh at those people who talk about "site optimization" and "load times".
3. Don’t optimize your Images in Photoshop
Optimizing your images in Photoshop or some other image editing program takes time — your valuable time. Leaving pictures at their original, huge dimensions and making the customer download 3MB of images for each page in your site takes time too — the pesky customers’ time. Everybody knows customers love to wait to buy your products. Play a game! See how big you can make your images, watch how your load time suffers, and then see how your conversion rates fare!
Challenge yourself to approach dialup speeds over your cable modem using your stellar layered, uncompressed image design. I’m sure your customers will love it!
4. Don’t smooth the Checkout Process
People love filling out 8 pages of forms before they can buy stuff. Better yet, add in a couple more pages to surprise the customer just when they think they’re finally through! You really do need the customer’s age, gender, and the name of his first-born son before you can sell him your hand-painted dishrags.
Whatever you do, make it as hard as you can for the customer to complete a sale and pay you money — that’s how you can tell if a customer is truly dedicated (or if they love pain).
5. Ignore the Market you’re "Targeting"
Sure, there are 50,000 computer stores online, but yours is going to be the best! Market research is for people who don’t know what they want to sell, right? You never researched for a term paper in high school and you passed. Why should an online business be any different? Don’t invest time or money in unique products or services, and don’t even think of developing some sort of unique selling proposition. Just bang out a site with the exact same products as your competition, only make yours more expensive, lesser known, and harder to deal with!
6. Don’t add an SSL Certificate
All that junk about customers "Caring about their privacy" and being "Worried about identity theft" is unfounded. Just ask my friend "John" from Indonesia. Hey, by the way, he has $30,000,000.00 he wants to send you. He just needs your credit card number along with your name and billing address.
Never mind that SSL certificates enable the 128bit encrypted tunnel between customers’ computers and your payment processor. All that stuff can just be sent plain text across the Internet. SSL certificates cost money, and you’re on a budget. Sure, the customer can sue you after your Website is found responsible for their identity theft, but that’s not very likely to happen. You treat your customers like they’re dumb and their personally identifiable information is worthless, so they probably don’t have the smarts to hire a lawyer to sue you all the way to the poor house. After all, $50 is a lot of money for security and peace of mind!
Some might say that customers like to know who they are dealing with, but those people are full of it. Customers don’t care about your return policies, what to do if they receive a broken product, or what to do if the size they ordered is wrong.
Likewise, they don’t care what you’re going to do with the personally identifiable information you collect. I know for a fact there are people who love SPAM mail: I received an email about it just the other day. Oddly enough, it had a link for cheap "V I AG RR A" in it too, whatever that is. Forget that mumbo jumbo about how providing privacy and terms of sale information is a legal requirement in most jurisdictions — like I said, your customers are hardly going to get a lawyer! Everybody knows that people don’t like to sue lazy, complacent companies for easy money, right?
8. Completely leave out Product Descriptions
All your customers need is a browser-resized, jagged picture of your product. They don’t need to know its features, limitations, or comparisons to other products. Hey, if they knew all that, they’d probably go buy your competitor’s widget right?
Don’t describe your product at all. Be sure to use your own arbitrary part number scheme too, so customers can’t search by the manufacturer’s part number to find the products they already know they want to buy. Oh, and use some random picture for the product with a note at the bottom that says, "Picture is a demo, actual product may vary" so the customer never really knows what they’re going to get.
9. Add Flash. Lots of it. Throw in some Java, too.
Flash intros rock. Add two of them, and make sure you don’t put one of those annoying "skip intro" links at the bottom. Heck, if you did that, nobody would get the chance to experience your Uncle Joe’s mediocre Flash skills. When you finally do let the three customers who are willing to sit through your tedious intros into your store, make sure you have a Flash product menu, a Flash header, and random Flash buttons all over the page. Page animations and moving text equate directly to quality and usability, and don’t you ever forget it!
Now, if all that Flash doesn’t slow your site down to a crawl, don’t worry: you can always add Java. Sure, most professional developers and customers refer to Java as "That Damn Dirty Java", but your customers are different. Put random Java image switchers and scrollers on every page. Put that neat-o Java water ripple effect thingy on your homepage, because that wasn’t old and tired enough in 1993. And make sure you require users to have Java installed, along with Flash, Windows Media Player, QuickTime, Comet Cursor, and goodness knows what else, in order to use your site properly. Maybe throw in an ActiveX dialler installer for good measure — customers love to wait endlessly for compulsory ad-ware-laden downloads while trying to spend their money on your products!
10. Never post your Address or Phone Number
Customers never want to get a hold of you: that’s why they buy online! Plus, if they have a complaint, they have no way of getting in touch with you other than email, and we all know how easy to ignore that is. Just think — without them knowing who you are, where you are, or how to contact you, your customers can never send product returns, make complaints, or cause waves. It’s brilliant! You can claim customer satisfaction is 100%, because nobody will ever be able to contact you to tell you otherwise.
Sure, this might put off about 90% of your potential customers, but don’t let that stop you. That still leaves you 10% of the Internet, and trust me, the Internet sure is big. Make sure you ship your items from the shipping store or the post office so there is never a return address on the box. When the credit card company calls you about a chargeback, make sure you tell them the customer never called and complained, and you never received a return.
How Horrible is your Ecommerce Site?
While these "tips" were written in good humor, the above pointers cover serious advice that is not so much related to the technical nature of an ecommerce site as it is to product and company presentation.
Sometimes, the negative aspects of not taking certain actions have more impact than extolling the virtues of doing it right. This article is not designed to be a punch in the face to those diligent, passionate store owners who really care about the service they provide, but as more of a wake up call to future and existing shop owners and developers.
Jason is the Online Product Manager for a company that manufactures and distributes specialty firefighting chemicals and equipment. He manages the day to day business operations of numerous ecommerce sites and consults to small businesses on developing online selling strategy. He posts advice and discussion for SMB business owners and developers on his site at http://www.jccommerce.com.