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Reinventing the (eCommerce) wheel

In 1912, if you wanted one of those new-fangled horseless buggies (a car in today's vernacular), you faced some daunting challenges. First was who to buy from. The auto industry consisted of hundreds of small artisan shops, where craftsmen painstakingly built each car from the ground up. Pick a good shop, and you'd have a finely built auto that performed well and was relatively reliable. But how did you know which company to put your trust in when the industry was so new?

Then there was the issue of maintenance. Regardless of how well built your car was, it would still break down often, as is the nature of such a young industry. That meant you either had to possess a mechanic's skills, so that you could fix it yourself, or hire a chauffeur who doubled as a mechanic. And just picking up a replacement part for your car was not an option. Standardized auto parts hadn't been invented yet, so each car's parts were unique. Such were the problems with this "Artisan Age" of the car industry.

Beginning of the line

Then, in 1913, the Model T was put into production using an assembly line and standardized parts. Nearly overnight, the entire auto industry changed. Suddenly, the public could buy a reliable, thoroughly tested vehicle. And, when it did break down, there was a network of support, both in mechanics who already knew how to work on it, plus the availability of standard parts.

Web design in the Model T era

Just what, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with eCommerce (shopping cart) websites? Well, a lot can be learned from history, and there are many similarities between events of the Industrial Revolution and the still-youthful Internet Age. Right now there are many standardized Model T "components" available to the Internet, yet many web developers are still stuck in artisan mode, custom building their "vehicles" (in this case, eCommerce sites) from the ground up.

Building a better wheel?

Way back in the Artisan Age of the Internet, say 1998 or so, if you wanted to sell products over the Internet, you pretty much needed to hire a web development company to custom build all the pieces of the website. For a sophisticated site, that took a lot of programming to do things such as: display products and their pictures, search the product inventory, accept credit cards in a safe and secure manner, send confirmation e-mail after the sale, look up real-time shipping costs, etc. And that was just on the public portions of the website. Behind the scenes, you needed administrative capabilities, such as processing those credit cards, fulfilling orders, adding, updating, or removing products from inventory, and so on. Did I mention that it required a lot of programming?

While the basic programming code to do bits and pieces of these eCommerce tasks were available and shared among some web developers (e.g. how a credit card was processed), fitting them altogether, and then thoroughly testing them, was still a haphazard process. Plus, the whole web shopping experience wasn't standardized yet. Today the buying public has the expectation that sophisticated eCommerce sites will all behave more or less like Amazon.com or Overstock.com. For instance, we expect to receive an order confirmation via e-mail, or the ability to look at our past orders from that site. But back then, the shopping experience varied greatly from one site to another.

And, once the site was built there was the issue of maintenance. The only people who were intimately familiar with, and therefore could efficiently work on, your website were the people who built it in the first place. Your ability to leave them and switch to another web developer was fairly restricted.

Standardized "parts"

Nowadays, things are different. Full-featured, state-of-the-art eCommerce programs are available for web developers to purchase from third-party companies, implement into their websites, and then (if even needed) customize to their specific needs of their clients. Like the Model T, these programs are reliable and widely supported. They've been rigorously tested with different web browsers, on different computers, and in different situations (e.g. they'll work with 10 products, as well as 10,000).
Knowledgeable web developers can implement one of these high-end eCommerce programs into their clients' websites, often in less time than web developers stuck in "artisan mode" who still build their eCommerce sites from scratch, with fewer features.

And afterwards, your site built the new way would be well documented (online help and user manuals available), widely supported (many other web developers can step in and take over your site if you part ways with your old developer), is reliable, profitable, and even a pleasure to own (that last point amazes web owners who've had websites built the old way!).

You can get some, satisfaction

Now that you know that you don't have to cut corners on your potential eCommerce site, be sure to check around and ask questions when you're looking for a web developer. Have them show you demos and documentation, so that you fully understand what you are getting – both how the shopping cart will look and act for your site's visitors, as well as how easy it is for you to make administrative changes.

Your need: A site that sells products or services at a profit. It needs enough users to visit it and then make purchases to make a profit.

Your want: A site that's also easy for visitors to use, confidence-inspiring so that they'll feel comfortable providing the credit cart information, reliable, flexible enough to be customized to your particular needs, and yet still easy for you to administer (update inventory and process orders).

Well, Mick Jagger may be a legendary musician, but he's not necessarily a fount of wisdom, and so he might have gotten it wrong. You just may find, sometimes, that you can get what you want and what you need!

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