E-Commerce & Me (My Zen Cart experience)

I am not new to the world of E-Commerce and IT. For years I have worked as a freelance web designer, building other people’s business websites from scratch. During that time I have also created and run multiple of my own websites, however due to circumstances outside my control, my pet project of a couple of years ago; an e-commerce website, never really took off. Basically I built it, designed it, coded everything myself, added products to it and people ordered before I even expected it! My concept was as follows: Sell Indian ayurvedic/herbal beauty products which I would source from local shops, package them and send them off to my customers.

The main issue was, that living in India at the time, I had a very hard time dealing with the post office. They somehow refused to help explain their charges for overseas shipments. Therefore I was not able to calculate the shipping rates properly. Two other problems I faced contributed to my decision of taking the site offline; 1. Product availability problems; whenever I added a particular product to the site, chances were, when the order for it came in, it was near impossible to source it because of supply issues. 2. The tiny scale on which I was operating meant I could not invest in buying packaging material in bulk, so packaging became a very time consuming and expensive affair. Bottom line: I made losses on orders that came in, took a very long time getting the products together and packaging them and faced issues with some orders getting stuck at customs.

Most online businesses abroad do not face the same issues. Shipping costs are very transparent in most of the world. Product supply is handled by a wholesaler; people would rarely buy from retail shops and sell online because they would be too expensive. Packaging might still be an issue; but even that can be solved; selling through a dropshipper rather than a wholesaler, can be more convenient because you do not need to worry about the hands-on process of getting the products packed and shipped yourself.

So because I felt quite comfortable with the idea of building and managing my own e-commerce website, a few months back I decided to give it another shot. I found a dropshipper, researched some open source shopping cart scripts (honestly; if a team of people has already done all the scripting for you, gone through various versions and upgrades, why would you reinvent the wheel all over again?!) and got started on my latest project; www.alteregouk.com

It’s always a steep learning curve, dealing with a new system. I have had to do this a couple of times already, when asked to develop templates for various content management systems during my time as a freelancer. But Zen Cart I found a little bit different. It is not as user-friendly as some of the other systems I have tried. But it seems to be quite versatile. It has quite a few options right out the box, but certain other supposedly simple tasks can be time consuming and frustrating: the configuration settings are vast and it’s easy to get lost in them. Also, the way the language system works is quite complex; there are numerous files strewn around the directory structure of the site which allow editing of various wordings and phases used on the site. It would’ve helped to have a nice user interface to allow quick&easy access to the words/sentences people most commonly want to change.

With the help of some Third Party additions to the main software; I think my online shop is taking shape quite nicely. I can add products in bulk with the help of the Easy Populate Addon, create Google XML Sitemaps with just a few clicks, display my full size product images in a neat looking hovering box

I could really only ask for one more thing; SEO Friendly URLs, but as I’m on Windows Hosting, that is never going to happen I’m afraid…

So now, after around two months of working on the website, I have over 2200 products, and am scheming my marketing campaign. My To Do list is getting shorter each day. I cannot wait to launch properly.. then play the waiting game to see if anybody actually orders! But don’t think I’ll just be sitting idle waiting for this site to take off; there are a few more ideas up my sleeve. Because in today’s online marketplace; you should definitely NOT put all your eggs in one basket!

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