28 June 2008

Selling Comics Online: the Basics

There are 3 basics ways of selling items online.
1) Web Pages Linked to a Payment Method
2) Hosted Solutions
3) Complete Solutions Hosted on Your Server

This option is you having a web page with your product and a buy it now or add to cart button. Generally, clicking this button initiates the buying process by either direct the user to purchase the product and/or adding the product to a cart provided by a payment gateway.

A payment gateway is web site like PayPal.com or 2Checkout.com where you (the seller) have an account and they collect credit card (and other payments) from your customers. Gateways usually charge a fee per transaction, a percent of the transaction (including shipping costs), and/or a monthly fee. In return, they collect money for you, disburse the money to your account (when you request or on a schedule), and/or provide you with a means to linking to there payment systems.

Linking to a gateway in this manner is the most basic manner of selling online. It's quick, simple and easy. Most can do this by simply following the instructions laid out that the gateway. While being quick, simple, and easy, it's also the hardest to maintain. As you get more and more product, it requires you to maintain more and more code. As product is sold, it requires you to keep track of your stock and remove products when unavailable. This is a great solution if you only have 3 or 4 products that are always in stock. Once you grow beyond that it's time to look at the other options.

Hosted solutions are solutions made available to you on a another business's web server. Leading the pack in hosted services are eBay (with eBay stores) and Yahoo! (with Yahoo! stores). Hosted solutions are generally a one size fit all solution. They supply you with an e-commerce solution that fits the needs of most people and you make the best of it. Generally, there is a monthly fee associated with most hosted solutions. If you're interested in this path, then I suggest going to your handy-dandy search engine of choice and searching for hosted e-commerce solution. You'll get a plethora of results and hopefully one will be right for you. I'm not going to spend too much time talking about hosted solutions because ultimately they are too varied.

With hosted solutions, you want to avoid those that are just tie-ins to a payment gateway like PayPal or 2Checkout.com. These payment gateways offer their own carts, so you are paying for a service you can get direct from the gateway for free.

You also want a service that will bring additional traffic to your store. Think of a hosted solution as a mall. Retailers want to be in a mall because malls have significant foot traffic. Someone is out to buy one thing, but stumble upon your store because it's there. What you want from a hosted solution, the web equivalent of foot traffic.

You also want
- inventory tracking : product is removed as it is sold
- options : the ability to list one t-shirt with 3 colors (red, green, blue) and 3 sizes (S,M,L) instead of 9 different shirts. (Ideally, the options has inventory tracking as well)
- integration with PayPal and at least one other payment solution

Avoid (if possible)
- monthly fees
- per product fee

Complete solutions are packages that you can buy and download for installation on your web server (or web hosting account). These solutions are generally a series of database driven pages that allow you to:
-add, edit and categorize your products
-receive orders
-calculate shipping costs
-manage customers and orders
-keep track of inventory
- connect to a payment gateway

Think of this option as you own little Amazon.com. There are other options out there, but I like CandyPress (for ASP web servers) and OsCommerce (PHP web servers). ASP is Microsoft's Active Server Pages which is available almost exclusively on Windows web servers. PHP is available on almost any web server (including Windows servers).

This option is really for those control freaks (like me) that want to be able to tweak every aspects of their online presentation. They take having someone that is capable of maintaining the code and making required updates, and allow you to have infinitely more control over your products, customers, and order receiving abilities.

I got a little ahead of myself when I talked about CandyPress in an earlier posting. You can read more about CandyPress in my earlier review of it. You can see it in action at my online store (BullCityComics.com). It's versatile and easy to edit if you (or someone you know) have moderate knowledge of Microsoft's ASP technology (which I do) this is the best $80 you can spend.

OsCommerce is an open source e-commerce solution that utilizes PHP and MySQL. There is an active community of developers and lots of templates (free and for sale). Oscommerce will do everything that CandyPress does and is free. I prefer CandyPress, but that's really just because I've spent the last 10 years as an ASP web developer. If I was a PHP web developer, OsCommerce would be my solution of choice.