Ecommerce Spot

An In Depth Look at ProductCart

An In Depth Look at ProductCart

Introduction

ProductCart is an ASP shopping cart made by Early Impact. I've had dealings with Early Impact and have been impressed with their professionalism. A while ago I interviewed Massimo Arrigoni, the CEO of Early Impact. You can read his thoughts on ecommerce. They do two main products. Product Cart is a "standard" shopping cart, and Product Cart Build to Order for customisable products. They also sell several add ons for Product Cart. This review looks at Product Cart with the "Apparel Add-on", an add on designed for selling variations on a product, eg, multiple sizes and/or colors as commonly found in the apparel industry. 

Installation

Installation was relatively straight forward. There are two database options, Microsoft Access or SQL Server. I chose Microsoft SQL Server which has a slightly more complex setup, for anyone familiar with SQL Server it's nothing unusual. Overall, the setup was pretty straight forward. Complete technophobes may struggle with it, but anyone who knows how to FTP a file should be ok. Using Microsoft access as a database definitely simplifies things. 

As I am using the Apparel Add-on I had to install that after I'd setup ProductCart, that install was very simple.

Initial impressions

The first thing I did was explore the administration interface. The interface is simply and intuitive. I spent a while thinking "I wonder how it handles X", most of the time I could find how to manage that function within seconds. It's not the prettiest administration interface I've seen but it's simple, uncluttered and easy to use.

The administration homepage contains sensible links that you are likely to use regularly such as find a product, find an order, or look at recent sales. General setup such as changing the shop name, preferred currency, etc, are easy to do.

Setting up and managing products

The first step is to create some products. The product interface is simple but offers comprehensive features such as list, wholesale and cost prices, back order of products, ability to have products not for sale, etc. It's this degree of sophistication that impressed me about ProductCart. Context sensitive help is offered throughout. Bulk import and export of products is supported. 

Payment, shipping and taxes

It's not the sexiest subject, but this can make or break for a shopping cart. There is a comprehensive collection of supported payment gateways, and many non-credit card options. I set up a payment gateway and an offline payment method easily in 5 minutes. Shipping is straight forward, and I found the handling of taxes especially easy to use.

Checking out

The checkout process is critical - mistakes at this stage cost sales. How does ProductCart stack up? It's not the shortest process, but the importance of few steps is often over rated. The emphasis should be on clear, easy to understand steps and ProductCart does this will. Each step is simple, it is clear where you're at in the process, and a good summary page. One nice feature is the ability to purchase without having to register, this has been implemented cleverly.

One thing I didn't like about the checkout is that it uses the same template as the rest of the shop. You should remove all distractions during the checkout process. Why do you still want to show links to your best selling products when a customer is about to buy? I'm sure this could be modified but it's a pity it's not done by default.

Skinning

ProductCart has a 16 page PDF manual called "Integrating product cart v3 with your web site". I was disappointed to find that the default skin doesn't use valid W3C code. It would be possible to make it W3C compliant, but the effort would be significant.

There is an extension available for Dreamweaver which will apparently add the appropriate ProductCart code to your Dreamweaver page. As this extension isn't available for ProductCart v3 at time of writing I didn't test it. It promises to make the skinning process very simple.

Anyone with a decent knowledge of HTML should be able to make a template easily enough. A basic knowledge of ASP would be helpful but not essential. This gallery of live ProductCart stores gives an idea of the skinning capabilities.

Marketing tools

Marketing tools is an area where ProductCart does well. There is a real depth and maturity in many of the tools, and usability is good.

Product features

Creating multiple images per product with thumbnail, detailed views, etc, is straight forward. It's also easy to configure the homepage with specials, featured items and top sellers.  

Discounts

There is a lot of flexibility in creating discount coupons. Fixed price discounts, percentage off and free shipping are all supported. Standard features like number of uses per coupon and expiry date also work. It also supports limiting the coupons in a range of useful ways - minimum amount, restricted to certain products and categories, etc. This allows sophisticated promotions such as "20% off all orders over $50 of brand X during November".

Emails

The newsletter wizard has some of the nicest features I've seen, allowing you to send out targeted emails. For example, you can send to customers who have purchased a particular type of product or to customers who purchased during a certain time frame (a great way to remind old customers of your store). Support for newsletter templates would be nice, as well as a way to automatically add products to a newsletter - almost all newsletters will have featured products and creating these by hand can be time consuming.

Search engines

ProductCart doesn't use what many people would call "Search Engine Friendly URLs". A typical product cart URL looks like:

http://www.yourstore.com/productcart/pc/viewPrd.asp?idcategory=&idproduct=231

Where a search engine friendly URL would be:

http://www.yourstore.com/productcart/pc/yourcategory-yourproductname.html

It's generally accepted in the search engine optimization community that these types of URLs are acceptable to all major search engines and so shouldn't be a problem. Some statistics packages do have troubles reporting on query string based URLs so your mileage may vary. It does support automatic sitemap creation as well as Google sitemap creation and submission, a feature which makes it easier for Google to crawl your site.  

Other marketing tools

ProductCart includes a comprehensive set of other marketing tools. Amongst these are:

  • Gift certificates
  • Quantity discounts
  • A reward points program
  • Wish lists
  • Affiliates programs
  • Export to Google Base (formerly Froogle)
  • Gift wrapping
  • Gift certificates 

Reporting

ProductCart has a respectable range of reports. The sales reports are very thorough, allowing you to view sales reports by multiple methods such as by date, product, payment type, top products, etc. This should be a real boost to the savvy marketer to support a range of business decisions.

There's a range of other basic reports such as orders and customers. One nice report is a drop off report which should help increase conversions. I would have liked to have seen a search report, showing what terms are searched for using the ProductCart search engine.

Extensibility

There is no formal plug-in architecture, no way for end users to write plug-ins. ProductCart is written using ASP with VBScript, and all source code is included. The code is clean and well documented, I found it very easy to follow. I wanted to make a minor change to the image uploading functionality and managed to follow the code easily and make the change quickly. There seem to be no third party add ons. Having said that, the software is quite complete and so there is little need outside of very business specific add ons. Early Impact do make several commercial add ons available for people with specialised needs.

Support

I had to deal with support on two occasions. They have a comprehensive manual, and easy to use knowledge base and a customer forums which gets a little traffic. The link to raise a ticket wasn't buried 5 pages deep as with some sites, and was easy to use. Once submitted, it promised a reply within 1 business day. I got the reply within 24 hours which is particularly impressive as I raised the ticket on Saturday. On Sunday evening we had several emails back and forth and resolved the issue. The support was a breath of fresh air - fast, courteous, no annoying canned answers, and support staff who clearly understood what they were talking about, asked sensible questions and offered reasonable solutions. The problem turned out to be a configuration issue on my web host and not a problem with ProductCart, but they didn't leap straight to the "blame the other guy" as many support teams do, that conclusion was only reached after a thorough investigation of possible ProductCart issues.

Other features

There are lots of little features that while in themselves are not earth shattering are nice to have. These include:

  • Gift wrapping
  • Gift registries
  • Customer helpdesk
  • Drop ship support
  • Quantity discounts
  • Good wholesaler support
  • Customisable customer fields

And many others. Most of them you probably won't use, but there'll probably be one or two that will be a life saver for you.

Conclusion

ProductCart is an excellent product which is showing it's maturity as a version 3 product. It has a lot of attention to detail and small features which are missing from most other products which are a breath of fresh air to many shop owners. While there is certainly room for improvement, the strong existing features and excellent support make this a cart that belongs on most people's short list.

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