The eCommerce Business System: Guidance for Beginners

I often get the question, or some variant of, “Which shopping cart works best with CartSpan,” or “Which shopping cart works best with XYZ accounting system?” To which I always reply, “It depends…” A ‘squishy’ response to a question that, for most people stepping into eCommerce for the first time, would appreciate a more affirmative answer.

This is where, at a minimum, I encourage people to take a step back and consider their own business processes; where current and future requirements might be matched to an appropriate eCommerce platform. And if possible, take two steps back and consider the end-to-end business system that they envision themselves operating within. This is important as the decisions that are made can involve considerable investment, possibly limit an organizations capability, and be costly to undo.

If you are just getting started, to the point where you have no legacy accounting system or eCommerce platform, then the world is your oyster. The key consideration in this circumstance is to fully understand how all products function within a given architecture before committing to any individual component. As a biased advocate of the CartSpan eCommerce integration, this blog content assumes that you are (or intend to be) a user of either QuickBooks or Sage 50 accounting.

When it comes to accounting: “To ‘Cloud’, or not to ‘Cloud’, that is the question”

Architecturally, the most important consideration a new user faces is where to host their accounting system. This decision will largely determine the subsequent options available for eCommerce integration and support of internal business processes. At this point, it is assumed that the accounting system has been selected to support these business processes. What should not be assumed is that any decision going forward will fully support the capabilities of your accounting system.

The hosting decision is rather binary; either run a desktop version of the software in-house, or run a hosted copy in ‘the Cloud’. To be clear, cloud hosting is no more than having another company host the same software on web-based servers for you to access remotely; albeit much more securely. The lure of web-based accounting is understandably strong and leads to what seems a common oversight in making the hosting decision, particularly with regard to QuickBooks. Intuit offers ‘QuickBooks Online’, which is their own offering of cloud hosting around their own product. One would believe that a product of the same name (i.e., “QuickBooks”) would be largely indistinguishable, independent of the hosting platform. But this is not the case with QuickBooks and represents an important decision in designing the business system.

This article does not delve into the differences between the desktop and online versions of QuickBooks, but only serves to point out that there are significant differences that need to be evaluated before a decision is made. In his blog post, Comparing QuickBooks Desktop with QuickBooks Online. , Charlie Russell points out some of the more important differences in core functionality that may affect your decision. Russell states that, “They are different products with totally different database structures and approaches to solving problems, even though both were developed in-house by Intuit. I sometimes think that if these were named “ABC Desktop Accounting” and “XYZ Online Accounting” that people wouldn’t be complaining about the differences.” 1. Beyond the differences in core functionality, you should even consider the longer-term aspects of access to your data and any switching costs if the need arises. Another insightful blog post by Russell that deals with this issue can be found at QuickBooks Online Data Access and Security.

If you determine that QuickBooks Online will serve your business needs, you should then consider the options available to you with respect to integrating your shopping cart. This decision will dictate the communication protocol that must be used to pass information between QuickBooks Online and your target eCommerce platform. All communications conducted with QuickBooks online must be accomplished using the QuickBooks Web Connector (QBWC).

This necessitates that you identify an eCommerce platform that supports reliable integration via QBWC. While Intuit has committed a significant amount of resources to the development of QBWC, its effectiveness is still a point of debate in the marketplace. In his blog post, at In-search of the Perfect QuickBooks Shopping Cart Integration , Jim Savage states that, “The Web Connector has been plagued with issues and is not widely supported by Intuit.2 and points out alternative methods of integration that have been around longer and enjoy a stronger reputation for robustness and reliability.

Many cart providers have taken advantage of QBWC to provide rudimentary implementations and thus position themselves to market an integration offering. However, be aware that all advertised integrations are not created equal. The use of QBWC alone should not be interpreted as a ‘silver bullet’ that will satisfy your integration requirements. An integration utilizing QBWC still requires some masterful programming on the shopping-cart side to supply the required inputs for QBWC. In his blog post QuickBooks Web Connector: When to Use It , Mike Branch of White Rabbit Services indicates that, “…it’s up to the developers of the web site to decide whether or not they will work with QBWC. It isn’t something that can be setup from scratch by the QuickBooks user.” 3
It’s not just ‘whether or not’ but also ‘how’ the cart will work with QBWC. While there are many success stories around the use of QBWC, implementations vary widely with respect to their effectiveness.

The handling of Customer IDs during creation of the new customer master in accounting is an excellent litmus test of the quality of the integration. Ask the following questions: How does it support my legacy customer IDs naming convention? Are there rules that I can employ for ID creation? Does it create the ID at all? In the end, how much manual editing of the new customer master and subsequent order will I have to perform?

What this means for the person evaluating eCommerce platforms is that he/she must be on the lookout for substandard integrations that target a minimum threshold of performance. Before deciding upon a platform incorporating this technology, thoroughly investigate its effectiveness by performing an Internet search for existing users sharing their experiences, either positive or negative. A good source for this type of feedback is often the User Forum of the eCommerce platform itself.

Have your cake and eat it too: QuickBooks online without “QuickBooks Online”

If you decide that, after thoughtful comparison of products, you require the full feature-set offered by QuickBooks’ desktop version; you can still operate in the ‘Cloud’. There are a growing number of companies that will host the desktop version of QuickBooks for you online. These hosting arrangements offer the same benefits of QuickBooks Online and much, much more.

From an architectural perspective, hosting with a third-party provider offers greater control over the supporting applications that one can employ to support your internal business processes. This type of hosting environment looks and feels more like the desktop environment of your own computer. Within it, you can install and utilize many of the QuickBooks add-on products that are only available for the desktop version of QuickBooks. Depending upon the type of hosting you contract for (i.e., Shared Server vs. Dedicated Server), you may also be permitted to install any custom applications utilized by your business. These options are not available within the QuickBooks Online environment.

Third-party Cloud hosting also enables the use of highly capable Software Development Kits (SDK) provided by the desktop versions of the accounting systems. This is in-addition to the QBWC discussed previously and opens up a new set of options for integration. The CartSpan eCommerce integration currently supports QuickBooks and Sage 50 customers in cloud hosting services offered by www.MyRealData.com and www.Cloud9RealTime.com.

With so many shopping carts to choose from, how does one make a decision?

Most articles and blog posts focus solely on the evaluation of cart features and how they map to your existing and future business requirements. This is still a relevant exercise that is well-described in a 2005 blog post How To Choose a Shopping Cart by Mark Baartse on Practical Ecommerce.

Articles of this type do a good job of describing what to do, but often stop short of indicating how to go about the information gathering process. Many of us have a tendency to be overly trusting, and thus susceptible to commercial marketing influences. This is the time to set blind-trust aside and don your ‘critical thinking’ hat to ensure your protection. It’s a ‘candy store’ out there with so many options available; don’t let a fast decision leave you with a bad taste.

Begin by highly scrutinizing the source of the information. For instance, trust less sources like TopTenReviews where sponsored advertisements happen to coincide with the top rated carts on the site. What is noticeably absent on such sites are any of the powerful open-source carts such as PrestaShop, nopCommerce, and OpenCart; winners of Pakt Publishing’s 2011 Open Source Awards for eCommerce business applications. Also absent is one of the fastest growing open-source eCommerce platforms in the market today… Magento. Also absent, in the midst of the 20+ fully-hosted sites listed, is AmeriCommerce, winner of the 2010 CODiE Award for Best eCommerce Platform .

Trust more, sites like Shopping Cart Reviews with raw, unpaid user-based reviews that share the good, the bad, and the ugly. In addition to the reviews, you get some additional filtering capabilities to narrow cart selection.

More fundamental considerations when selecting a Shopping Cart

Before selecting your cart, you should consider the basic architectural options available to you. This is essentially making a decision between what is generally referred to as the ‘open-source’ or ‘fully-hosted’ option. This decision alone will have a huge impact on the level of control you have over your own implementation; including your on-going (TCO) total-cost-of-ownership.

Fully-hosted shopping carts can offer you the fastest path to establishing your online store. Unlike open-source offerings, providers of full-hosted systems remove the burden of updating software. With fully-hosted systems, your up-front investment tends to be lower with subsequently higher long-term operating costs. With fully-hosted system, you will often pay a rate based upon the number of items that you offer in your cart. Understand that with fully-hosted systems, you are relinquishing significant control over functionality of the shopping cart, and in some cases, access to your own data. Fully-hosted systems can be well-suited to the technically-challenged. Just make sure that you exercise due-diligence in evaluating functionality and are comfortable with the indicated trade-offs and associated costs.

Open-source shopping carts provide you the greatest control and flexibility in implementing your cart. Open-source doesn’t necessarily mean ‘free’; only that you have access to the underlying source code. Having access to the carts source-code enables you to install in your own hosting environment and contract with independent experts, as necessary, to close any gaps in functionality. This could be as simple as the installing one of the many cart-specific extensions often available in the open-source community, or as complex as contracting for custom development work. With open-source, your initial costs to implement tend to be higher, but your long-term operating costs tend to be lower.

If you intend to utilize open-source, be sure to install in your own hosting space that you purchase from a large provider such as Host Gator, BlueHost, SiteGround, etc. Whomever you select, do your homework and ensure that features, uptime, speed, and customer service have received suitable ratings. Besides ensuring that you pay the lowest possible price for hosting services, these companies provide you with a Control Panel (sometimes referred to as ‘C-Panel’) packed with tools and utilities for managing your domain(s).

In most cases, hosting providers like the aforementioned companies will provide access to scripting tools such as SimpleScripts ™ for ‘1-Click’ installs of many of the open-source shopping carts supported by CartSpan. Not only is the use of these install scripts easy (and usually free), their use can significantly reduce your up-front investment in getting started. If you decide to go this far on your own, you may just have the confidence to manage the balance of your shopping-cart implementation.

You should resist hosting your shopping cart on a server installation that does not provide you with authoritative control over the management of your domain(s). This includes bare-bones hosting services in-which you often have little more than access to the administrative console of your shopping cart. Beyond the gap in benefits referenced in the preceding paragraphs, this arrangement exposes you to a loss of control over your code-base (and possibly your domain) if the relationship with your developer sours. While there are many reputable providers of combined hosting/development, maintaining this separation is an effective way to protect your interests.

In addition to owning your domain and controlling your hosting space, Ross Lasley of the www.TheInternetEducator.com has this advice for new web merchants when dealing with third-party developers: “Know exactly what you are buying and what the terms are. The majority of issues that arise are a result of confusion.” This may sound straight-forward, but there are differing views in market regarding ‘work for hire’. For example, “classically trained graphic designers have been taught that they always own the original artwork and the client simply owns the output”, adds Lasley. Such arrangements are legal but may be contrary to the arrangement that you desire. Therefore, it is best to not assume on the front-end of any business relationship that any work-for-hire automatically becomes your intellectual property. Ross Lasley conducts free monthly Webinars at ‘Web Enlightenment’   and addresses these types of topics for eCommerce beginners.

Save time, eliminate mistakes, and improve customer satisfaction with accounting/eCommerce integration

If integration of your shopping cart with your back-office accounting system is important, you should move integration support to the top of your priorities (as with the ‘Cloud’ option), as this will likely impact subsequent options.

Begin by adding this requirement to your ‘list of required features’ discussed in the Baartse article. Many sources of information (objective and purely commercial) overlook this aspect of cart selection, so it will be up to you to evaluate the capabilities of a cart’s Application Programming Interface (API). The API is the cart’s mechanism for 3rd party applications, such as CartSpan, to utilize in getting content to (or from) the cart. Though a cart may advertise an API, their capabilities vary widely. For instance, some carts may support the retrieval of orders, but do not support the update of item price and quantity-available. Some that do support price update only support the update of a single offering price; and not a second sales price. These are just a couple of examples of limitations that you are looking to expose.

When communicating with the Cart, methods of integration matter

Many shopping carts offer their own integration tools with differing levels of success. These integrations generally lack extended interaction with the accounting system to produce an import that requires no further adjustments. The elimination of post-import adjustments is the end-goal that produces a real payback for your investment.

To achieve this end, many merchants will employ a third-party product, such as CartSpan, to maximize the integration opportunities between the shopping cart and the accounting system. If you require such integration, you should begin by evaluating third-party solutions, which will, by default, narrow cart selection down to platforms supported by each of the products. You may discover that all tools advertise support for your desired cart, but be aware that integration methods can produce results that are quite different and potentially restricted.

The largest driver of these differences tends to be the manner in-which the integrating product communicates with the shopping cart; particularly open-source carts. Many of the more popular carts offer some form of API for third-party integrators to utilize. While functional, these APIs are generally basic calls to/from the cart, and extending data retrieval to support new requirements can be challenging. This challenge is driven by the aspect that the core API is managed by a ‘community’ and therefore subject to the availability of unpaid resources to evolve its capabilities. Unfortunately, API development by cart providers is usually a lower priority than development of core functionality related to product marketing and conversion of the web sale. For this reason, you should scrutinize highly the method of communication utilized and the quality of the information retrieved to support the integration.

An alternate, more enabling method of communicating with the shopping cart is through the use of custom scripts and web services. CartSpan utilizes internally developed APIs to retrieve order information and update stock. This affords a significant amount of latitude in designing for an ‘operations-centric’ integration. With full-control over the integration, products like CartSpan don’t have to wait for features to be added to the next release of the cart-managed API. Another benefit of the commercially developed API is the option to add support for popular community extensions that close the gap between standard functionality of the cart and the individual needs of the business. A good example of this benefit is CartSpan’s support of many popular extensions for Magento . CartSpan natively detects and incorporates supporting data from these extensions; greatly increasing the quality of the import and usefulness of the integration.

When communicating with the accounting system, ‘The Devil is in the details’

To avoid any surprises, you should educate yourself, to the greatest extent possible, as to the nature of the interaction between the integrating product and the accounting system. To accomplish this, CartSpan offers another blog post dedicated to specific questions that help you qualify the integration options being considered. You can find this post at: Considerations when integrating QuickBooks, Peachtree, or Sage 50 with your shopping cart.

Avoid functional overlap between your integrating solution and your accounting system.

More ‘mature’ integration solutions on the market function as intermediate order-management systems, requiring you to step through additional steps of applying status to each order before importing it into accounting. This approach was driven by the promise of integrated shipping, but is now redundant with the built-in FedEx, UPS, & USPS shipment manager tools provided by QuickBooks. From within QuickBooks itself, you can launch these shipment managers to schedule pickups and print labels. With this functionality now supported by the accounting system, the order-management approach becomes redundant, time-consuming, and simply non-value-added.

Opposite of the order-management approach, is the ‘hands-off’ import style, utilized by products such as CartSpan. After setting the desired import configurations, ‘hands-free’ integrations allow you to start the process and import your orders into accounting without intervention. These orders are then available for anyone on the multi-user accounting system to work with.

The impact of integration on reconciliation of Merchant accounts within QuickBooks

One of the most frustrating activities in conducting eCommerce business is the reconciliation of merchant accounts; but it doesn’t have to be. Lisa Foster, owner of www.snapsac.com states that, “With CartSpan, payment reconciliation of my merchant accounts takes less than one hour, whereas before it took at least one or two business days. Because of this, my books are much more accurate in far less time. I’ve trimmed my office staff by one full time position from the savings in time needed for bookkeeping.

Foster uses the process described in the qbgarage.com blog post, What Is the Undeposited Funds Account and Why Should I Use It?

Says poster ‘Chief Mechanic’ of qbgarage.com, “By using the Undeposited Funds account as a holding account, your accounting for customer receipts can match actual practice and simplify bank reconciliations. A customer receipt results in a debit to Undeposited Funds pending deposit in a bank account. Receipts from several customers can be grouped by clicking on the Banking->Make Deposits menu selection and selecting those receipts that make up the total deposit. Making a bank deposit in this manner results in a credit to the Undeposited Funds account and insures that the transaction recorded in your bank account register matches the actual deposit made to the bank.” 4

CartSpan supports this process by allowing different the payment methods (coming from the cart) to be cross-referenced and imported into their own Undeposited funds account. The entire reconciliation process can then be executed efficiently from within QuickBooks without the use of an external tool.

A clear-cut business case for integration

Shirley Byard of Best Business Strategies is a Sage Certified Consultant and user of CartSpan. She indicates that, “CartSpan saves me at least 10 minutes of labor processing per order.” Most employers that we consult with would agree that this is a conservative estimate. Considering the average salary for an Entry-Level Accounting Clerk , this represents a two-week return-on-investment for any business processing approximately 17 or more orders per day. Most businesses process many more orders per day, which translates to an extraordinarily high ROI.

At a minimum, the time-savings realized allow you to re-direct precious resources, from mundane data-entry, to real customer service activities. At best, a business could significantly reduce its labor costs through the process of attrition.

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Notes:

  1. Russell, Charlie. “Comparing QuickBooks Desktop with QuickBooks Online”. The Sleeter Group: QuickBooks and Beyond, 31 Jan. 2013.
  2. Savage, Jim. “In Search of the Perfect QuickBooks Shopping Cart Integration”. The Sleeter Group: QuickBooks and Beyond. 14 May. 2012.
  3. Branch, Mike. “QuickBooks Web Connector: When to Use It”. White Rabbit Services, Inc. 19 Nov. 2011.
  4. Chief Mechanic. “What Is the Undeposited Funds Account and Why Should I Use It?” QBGarage.com – The QuickBooks Specialists. 21 Aug. 2012.
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