If you have products to sell, then your number one reason for starting a website is likely to be promoting them. Have you considered, though, that you could sell your products directly, online? This is e-commerce basically like a much better version of mail order, where the descriptions can be any length and your customers can communicate with you as much as they like before they buy. To start up an e-commerce ‘web shop', however, you need to take a look at e-commerce software.

The Free and the Expensive.

E-commerce software, more than any other kind of web software, varies massively in price. There are e-commerce solutions out there that cost thousands of dollars, but at the same time there is open source software like osCommerce that you can download for nothing. What's the difference? In my experience, very little.

If you want to make a good profit from your website, then, you should really be looking at the free e-commerce solutions, or alternatively writing your own. It's madness to pay thousands for e-commerce software when you can get software custom-built for your website for a few hundred or, of course, for free, if you're a programmer yourself.

Integration and Templates.

One of the most important things about an e-commerce shop is that it shouldn't appear separate from the rest of your website: you should make sure to keep its design consistent with your site's overall look and feel. In most e-commerce software, the way to change the design is with templates: you should look into how difficult it will be to turn your site's design into a template, or get a template version of it made for you. In some cases, you might even find it easier to come up with a whole system of your own instead of producing templates, if you have a lot of unique information about your products that you want customers to be able to see.

Hosted Solutions.

The idea of going to all that trouble and setting up e-commerce on their site only to make a grand total of zero sales is what puts a lot of people off. In this case, you might appreciate hosted solutions such as Yahoo Stores (smallbusiness.yahoo.com) that offer you a ready-made e-commerce store to drop your products into and link to from your website. The monthly fees and setup fees can be a little high, but it at least gives you an opportunity to dip your toe in the water without getting too burned if it all goes wrong. If you really want to try things on the cheap, take a look at eBay Stores (stores.ebay.com), which lets you list products for roughly the same price as listing them in eBay's auctions section.

Things to Do and Avoid.

When you're opening an e-commerce store, there are some things that you should always remember to do, and some things that you really shouldn't do. Here's a little advice.

Describe products well. You're not limited by space here: put in every detail that you can think of about every product you sell. If you don't take the time to put in all the information you can get your hands on, don't be surprised when nothing sells.

Make searches work. Any e-commerce site needs to be easily searchable at an absolute minimum, someone should be able to type in the name of any product and have the product's page appear. You should never, ever say ‘no results found': display a selection of your most popular items instead, with a message saying “we couldn't find that item… maybe you were looking for one of these?”

Sort results by most popular first (that is, best selling first). Whatever you do, don't sort by price unless the customer asks for it: sorting by lowest price first makes your customers look at the cheapest items before the rest, while highest price first make you look like you're trying to fleece them.

Have pictures. It's commercial suicide not to attach a picture to every single item description, and preferably more than one. Make them small, but make sure users can click them to display a bigger version, if they want to this saves on both screen space and bandwidth.

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