Nearing Completion on my First Magento site…

Over the years I’ve done a few e-commerce things with commercial systems like Miva Merchant and with PayPal carts and the PayPal API… to name a few.

I was asked by a client how best to do a 1200+ SKU e-commerce site, and I suggested Magento… then they said ‘OK, let’s do it’. A couple months later we’re almost ready to go live… with the first 350 or so products.

I’m reminded of a trip to Aruba, when my wife and I, and our friends, said we wanted to rent a ‘Jeep’ (we got a Suzuki Samurai) and drive to the Natural Pools on the far side of the island. The windward side. It’s like Mars over there. They said, “drive down this road then that road then go past the white house onto the dirt road… and then your adventure begins“.

Magento is like that. The destination is awesome, but the markers are hard to find, the routes are multiple, various and nefarious, not much is obvious… but in the end, you get a site that has everything you need to compete with the big dogs… product comparisons by attribute, ratings, surveys, multiple store fronts on a single database, direct support for major payment systems, Google Base, Google XML Sitemaps, etc. and an upgrade path for when you start making millions in sales (I dream big).

Underneath is the PHP framework called “Zend Framework” which is extensible and comprehensible and logically defensible (if you know this stuff) but not for the faint of heart.

But here’s the thing to think about: Are you ready to merchandise your products?

There are a ton of useless e-commerce sites out there that don’t provide useful information, have blurry pictures (more on this later) and don’t really support the buyer’s decision. The reason is that it takes time and effort and expertise to make what is essentially a mini-site all about each product line, manufacturer and category. Companies that open brick-and-mortar store fronts spend hundreds of thousands on signage, window displays, staff training, and store fixtures… then set a budget on their e-commerce site of a few thousand bucks, and virtually no staff-time… If it’s worth doing a window display for your products so passers-by walk in the front door, why is it not appropriate to present products on the web with the same care?

For a small company, there’s another side to the story: The minimal e-commerce site you know you can afford may not pay off, so you don’t invest much. This is understandable, but if you don’t put enough effort in, it’s almost guaranteed not to work. You might try a small number of products where there’s not much e-commerce competition, and put more energy into presenting each product. But do put in the energy to make each product look the best you can and the content about the product as useful as you can, rather than shovel bad images and product id codes without descriptive text onto a cheap or free cart and then call it done. It ain’t likely to work.

For this site, we’re not doing it all at once… we’ll go live with the most important products. We’ll have product descriptions in. We’ll have the best images we can find (legally). But it won’t go live in a perfect state… it will evolve into a (near) perfect state over time. This is the same as a WordPress site… it’s designed to grow and improve over time… and that’s actually a good thing. You want your site in a state of change with new discoveries appearing each week. You want people to shop. To browse, explore, learn, try things on (virtually)… yes: Shop. It’s the national pastime. Play it!

A note about images: Most people now have broadband. Manufacturers that still don’t supply adequate images on their websites for fear of download speed issues (or some other excuse) need to wake up and smell the coffee. Their online, catalog and brick-and-mortar retailers need good photography and those that don’t provide that service are blowing it, big time. Every product should be shot from every angle and web retailers should be given access to the these in sizes sufficient for a print catalog! The bandwidth is there. The browsers aren’t going to squawk. The cost is truly worthwhile. Good images are made with good Photoshop skills. Don’t shoot your products with your cell phone in a dingy yellow light, crop it to 128 pixels square and then JPEG it to death to make it even tinier. Seriously: Half the e-commerce I see is exactly that, and every e-commerce site selling that widget got their photos (mostly exactly the same photo) from the Manufacturer’s website.

I’m always shocked (shocked, I say!) to see a medium to large company that still has a ’90s-era website… Maybe it’s just a lack of understanding about what sells, and why. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to realize that — even though people aren’t going to buy directly on your site — they will buy based on how well you promote your products on other sites, which is largely about imagery, and those images need to come from you, the manufacturer.

I just had to get that out of my system… thanks for listening.

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