Q&A: BI and Your Shopping Cart

As the complexity of e-commerce grows and security demands escalate, more companies are turning to ready-made “shopping cart” applications instead of building their own. Such products can use business intelligence and security, among other things, to process e-commerce transactions online.

Shopping cart applications are purchased products (some with BI capabilities) that facilitate online commerce. They can include a vast array of other features, and with a wide variety of options to choose from (including open source applications), it’s tough to know what features are most important. To learn more, we spoke with Kevin Sproles, CEO of Volusion, about creating your feature list, knowing what’s essential, and where open source fits in the mix.

BI This Week: What should a good shopping cart application include? What are some key things to watch for?

Kevin Sproles: The most important issue is to focus on the shopping cart itself, which can be a very basic but integral part of your store. A main point in choosing a shopping cart is scalability. It’s much easier to scale if you choose the right platform and stay with that from the start. It’s important that businesses avoid getting caught on the wrong platform -- it’s time- and cost-consuming to move to a new platform and convert existing data.

One interesting new trend in shopping cart applications is the use of e-commerce on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, where online retailers allow product purchases directly from their MySpace or Facebook page.

One thing to watch out for in selecting a shopping cart application is that many online ecommerce platform vendors simply aren’t interested in medium to large businesses and simply don’t service enterprise-level clients. Make sure your vendor can scale, and will remain a good choice if your business grows.

How big a concern is security in these products?

Security can’t be taken lightly. You can spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars making your online store secure yourself. And if you’re hacked, you may be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. It’s important to be familiar with industry standards such as PCI certification for Visa and MasterCard, and to choose e-commerce software with security in mind. Look for a vendor CISP (Cardholder Information Security Program) and PCI (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) certifications -- those are specifications developed and used by credit card companies to help ensure secure transactions.

What about content management and inventory management? Should that be a consideration?

Yes, definitely. Content management is the ability to manage, edit and organize all of your content from one interface. Without built-in content management, you would have to access several sections of your site’s backend programming just to complete one task. The same applies to inventory management. The ability to efficiently manage your inventory from a single area of your online store is key. A content and inventory management integrated platform makes the overall process much easier to oversee. It also makes it easier to execute orders, which is important in providing speedy and reliable customer service. Both are integral features for larger enterprises that have both “brick and click” and “online only” businesses. Online merchants should look for services that include these elements.

How do shopping cart applications typically interface with the backend database or other BI and data warehousing tools in use at an e-commerce site?

Today’s shopping cart tools vary significantly in their ability to support business intelligence processes. Many solutions don’t provide the basic data capturing necessary to perform reporting and analysis, leaving merchants to find other solutions to capture that data and analyze it.

Of the solutions that do provide some level of reporting, the capabilities are generally basic. Additionally, this basic reporting is available only for specific metrics; the rest is locked by the software and inaccessible for reporting or analysis. In turn, these tools only provide data on processes that pass through the checkout process, and in effect completely overlook key marketing data needed to gauge the success of marketing campaigns that get customers to a store.

In today’s increasing competitive environment, data is critical for merchants to understand the complete lifecycle of their business and their customers. Any solution that doesn’t provide this flexibility significantly reduces a merchant’s ability to be successful.

What about open source shopping cart apps?

There are some open source e-commerce products, but online merchants should be aware that they generally require setting up your own hosting, writing programming code, and managing the site. It’s not an easy task, and certainly not for everyone. Also, support isn’t typically included with an open source platform, so you may spend more in getting a contractor to assist with support for the application.

What’s ahead for this technology?

The online market is constantly changing and evolving, so there are a lot of exciting things ahead. Social networking has begun to take a new place in the ecommerce industry. There are now tools available for online merchants to create a retail space on social networking sites and a lot of social aspects being introduced to online shopping, from placing comments on a retailer’s site to sharing products with friends. Mobile payments are also making their way into ecommerce. Mobile banking is already available as well as mobile vending abroad. With the rise of Smartphone devices and the use of mobile Web, mobile is in need of an easily integrated mobile platform for existing online sites.

Given the points discussed here about shopping cart applications, what specifically does Volusion offer?

First, Volusion offers an all-in-one hosted model, which means that everything needed to launch e-commerce on a Web site is already set up. We discussed the importance of scalability: Volusion is extremely scalable, and clients range from mom-and-pop shops to Barack Obama’s official campaign Web site.

In June Volusion released its Social Store Builder platform to assist online merchants create a safe and secure presence on social networks, with shopping cart options.

Finally, regarding the ability of shopping carts to integrate with BI and DW tools: Every Volusion store has complete and unrestricted access to every single piece of data. As Volusion provides integrated backend tools such as a CRM ticketing system, inventory management, and order management.

Also, integrated into the backend is a robust BI system that includes reporting, dashboards, exportable data, and the ability to generate reports using custom SQL. A custom SQL report allows a merchant to create a custom report utilizing data across the business and supports advanced SQL functions as well as statements. A Volusion store also expands business intelligence capabilities beyond the core store functions by providing marketing campaign management and a built-in ROI tracker.

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