Test shopping carts yourself
Once you select a couple of potential e-commerce providers, nothing is more valuable to your decision-making process than trying their shopping cart yourself.
First, try them out as a customer. Require that your vendors provide links to a couple of e-commerce websites they built. Then go use those web sites to try out their work. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it easy to browse through the catalog?
- Can I search for a product quickly?
- Can I easily add or remove products from the shopping cart?
- How effective is the help section?
- Does the look of the store match the rest of the site? (Note that the actual look of the store isn't that important - if it matches the rest of the site you're looking at, chances are that the developers will be able to make it match your site, too.)
Take detailed notes of your impressions of the experience so you can ask questions of the developers later. Keep in mind that if you don't feel comfortable using the e-commerce system, your customers won't either.
Don't forget to actually place an order. (Order something inexpensive if you can't find something you need.) That way, you can see how shipping charges are calculated and displayed. Also, to ensure that orders are handled securely, look for a https (instead of http) prefix on any page that requests credit card information: the https prefix indicates that the website is encrypted for security.
By ordering online, you can also get a sense for how your account is managed after the order is placed. For example, are you sent an email receipt after the order is placed? Can you track your orders online? Do you receive an email when your order has been shipped? Finally, what merchandising opportunities are there to cross-sell or upsell related products?
Keep in mind that some features can be turned on and off, so if a feature you want is not in use at the sites you check, don't worry. It may be available, but disabled at the site that you are visiting.
Try managing the store
Some providers will provide you with a demo version of the software, which will allow you to try the management aspects of their system. Go through all the basic tasks: creating new products, changing prices, adding images, changing inventory status, setting up categories, creating discount codes, and viewing reports and activity. You'll be able to get a sense of how well the system fits your business and your skills.
This is another area you should investigate when checking references. Ask how easy the system is to manage and whether the vendor trained them how to use it.