With free tools and cheap web hosting, there’s really no reason you can’t have your own catalog and shopping cart on the web if you’ve got something worth selling. Whether you’re looking for a side project or a real source of income, here’s a starting-from-scratch guide to setting up shop on the web.
Why Host Your Own Online Store?
There are plenty of places you can easily sell stuff online, Amazon and eBay included. We’ve previously looked at the most popular places to set up shop online, covering sites like Shopify and Etsy. Still, the winner of that Hive Five was a self-hosted storefront, and for good reason.
Hosting your own e-commerce site gives you more control over the shop and its presentation, is better for business branding, makes moving to another web host easier, and can be more cost-effective. You can, for example, avoid transaction and listing fees, but you’ll still have to pay processing fees from your payment gateway (more on that in a bit). The downside is that it’s more hands-on, and you’ll need to regularly update the shopping cart scripts whenever an update is available to avoid security vulnerabilities. But if you’re serious about what you’re selling, that should hardly deter you.
Step 1. Gather What You’ll Need
This guide assumes you have the business part of the online store already figured out—a company name, the products or services (or both) you want to market, and pricing for those items. If you don’t have those aspects pinned down yet, check out some essential tools for starting up your business and how to roll your own business before you get started building your online shop.
You’ll also need:
- A domain name (less than $10/year). We’ve previously mentioned one or two tools to help you find a good domain name, as well as the five most popular domain name registrars where you can lock down that domain name.
- A web host (about $72/year). If you haven’t found one yet, check out some web hosting companies recommended by Lifehacker readers. (I’ve used both Bluehost and HostGator over the last couple of years and recommend them to my occasional web development clients.)
Look for a web host that offers “cPanel” with Fantastico scripts or, if you prefer a Windows-based server, Ensim Power Tools. These features make installing third-party scripts, like shopping cart systems, a one-click affair.
- A dedicated IP address (about $2/month) for your website and private SSL certificate ($50/year). SSL is the Secure Sockets Layer protocol that encrypts the data between the browser and the website server; it’s essential for protecting customer data. Many web hosts offer free shared SSL certificates, but these generate warnings in the browser that the SSL certificate doesn’t match the domain name. If you want your web customers to trust you, you’ll need a private SSL certificate, and that also requires a dedicated IP for your website.HostGator, Bluehost, and other web hosts sell private SSL certificates (usually the Comodo Positive SSL Certificate) for about $50/year and will either install it for free for you or provide instructions for generating one from your website control panel. You can also shop around for an SSL certificate from domain name registrars for better pricing; Namecheap, for example, offers the Comodo EssentialSSL Certificate for $25/year.
- A shopping cart script (free). Free shopping cart scripts like osCommerceand Zen Cart are the critical backbones of many online stores. Most web hosts will offer the open source osCommerce script as a quick install, but there are a great many others you can compare on Wikipedia and use instead if you’re comfortable installing a script manually on your website (this mainly involves editing configuration files with a text editor and uploading the files to your web server). For our online store example, we’ll be using osCommerce because it’s most widely accessible.
A payment gateway (varies). Unless you want people to mail you checks (and, if you do, it’d be wise to get a P.O. Box or virtual business address), you’ll need an online payment processor so you can accept credit cards. Payment gateways validate the credit card information and process the transactions in real time, taking a cut of the transaction and then depositing the rest into your bank account. (You can get a credit card merchant account to process credit cards on your own, but payment gateways have the forms and everything already set up and are just easier to implement.)
PayPal, which accepts all major credit cards, is an obvious and easy solution that integrates with most major shopping carts. There are no setup charges or monthly fees, and getting started is very quick. PayPal takes from 2.2% to 2.9% of each transaction, depending on your monthly sales volumes.
Not everyone is comfortable using PayPal, however, so having another payment gateway would be beneficial. Authorize.net is one of the most popular gateways. It has a set up fee of around $100, a monthly fee of $20, and transaction fees of about $0.10 (prices vary because you need to sign up with an Authorize.net reseller to use them.
2Checkout is another gateway that can get you up and running very quickly, and you can accept international currencies. It costs $49 to set up and takes a 5.5% commission plus $0.45 for each sale.
Finally, if you sell software or digital products like ebooks, share-it! by Digital River can take care of the billing and delivery for you. Pricing is 4.9% of the product plus $1.
Take some time to research your payment gateway choice, based on how much sales volume you expect and your transaction needs (Freshbooks has an overview of different payment gateways and GoalsOnTrack has a price comparison chart for some of them.)
Step 2. Set Up Your Website
Once you have your domain name registered and pointing to your web host, you can set up your site’s homepage and other static pages (e.g., information about you or background on your products) the way you would normally make a website (see our complete beginner’s guide to making a website for help doing so).
However, the shopping cart script can stand alone as your entire website if you prefer. Besides the cart and product pages, the script can create static pages with company background, FAQs about shipping, and the like.
Step 3. Install Your Shopping Cart System
If you have Fantastico or QuickInstall in your website cPanel (or Ensim Power Tools if you have a Windows host), you can auto-install the shopping cart system using those tools (look under Software/Services or a similarly named section in your cPanel). For this demonstration, we’re installing osCommerce, but the steps are similar for other e-commerce tools.
Click on the “New installation” button or link to create a new installation. You’ll then be able to set fundamental shop features (e.g., the name and email address of the store owner and the SSL option).In osCommerce you also set the administrator username and password here, but some systems like Zen Cart instead email you a generated password.
This “New installation” section is also where you set the installation folder. If you want the store to be in the root directory of your domain—i.e., when visitors go to yoursite.com they’ll immediately enter the shop—leave the folder blank. Otherwise, choose a directory name like “shop” or “catalog” for the installation; this way you can have customized web pages around your store (see Step 2 above) and link to your shop from there.
The script will set up the store database in MySQL for you and provide you with a link to both your base shop and the administration area.
Step 4. Customize Your Online Shop
osCommerce and other shopping systems are pretty feature-rich. You can keep track of products in stock, add different tax classes and rates, view advanced reports, and much more. There are also lots of add-on modules and skins available (see osCommerce’s add-ons directory, for example) for really customizing your web shop.
Changing the logo and footer
The first thing you’ll probably want to do is change the logo and remove the osCommerce footer graphic. In the admin panel, go to Configuration > Store Logo to save a new store logo.
To adjust the footer, you’ll need to edit the english.php file under the
[your shop directory]/includes/languages/ folder. (Either download the file, edit with a text editor, and then upload it back to your web server via FTP, or open the file directly from your web host using the built-in cPanel file manager.) The footer text is defined on the second-to-last line of the language file. Remove this part:
Powered by osCommerce
To remove the banner graphic, go to Tools > Banner Manager in the admin panel and delete the osCommerce banner.
Note, if you think you’ll want to apply a different template or theme to your store, consider installing it before doing any further customizations (see Step 7).
Further basic configurations
There are many other things to configure in the administration panel. Go to Configuration > My Store to set things like which zone your country is in and whether you want to direct customers to their cart after they add a product, etc.
In the includes/languages folder you’ll also find the files to edit for customizing the information pages of your site, such as your shipping and privacy policies (shipping.php and privacy.php, respectively). As above, use your text editor to customize the copy on those pages.
Step 5. Set Up Your Categories/Products
The main section you’ll be working in is the Catalog, where the categories and products are listed. osCommerce sets up an electronics shop for you by default, but if you’re selling clothes or something else you’ll need to customize the categories (and definitely products).
If you only have a few wares to peddle, using the online admin interface to add categories and products is pretty straightforward. Just select a category/product image and enter in the other details needed (description, name, etc.).
If you have a lot of products, turn to add-ons that allow for importing products from an Excel spreadsheet, CSV file, or other delimited text file, bypassing the web interface altogether. You’ll need to download the add-on (e.g., Easy Populate & Products Attributes, which works with a bunch of shopping cart systems) and follow its directions to install it to your store directory.
Note: for the Easy Populate add-on, the given instructions for editing the catalog.php file were not accurate for me, perhaps because my osCommerce install was a different version than the Easy Populate one. If your catalog.php file defines its boxes as arrays, just copy and paste one of the arrays (everything from “array(” to the closing “),” and edit it with the Easy Populate information. E.g.,:
'code' => 'Easy Populate',
'title' => 'Easy Populate',
'link' => tep_href_link('easypopulate.php')
Once you’ve installed the add-on, you can download a model csv file that you can edit with your products/services. The unique key for each product is in the v_products_model column, and you can specify product image locations in the v_products_image column.
Once done creating your products/services csv file, go back to the admin panel and import it — after first backing up your store database from the “quick backup” button in Easy Populate or from the admin panel’s Tools > Database Backup Manager section.
Step 6. Handle Fulfilment and Shipping
Now that you’ve got your products all imported, it’s time to set up your fulfillment section. Shipping costs and payment methods are both found under the Modules section of the administration panel.
For the payment options, you can install modules for different payment gateways (see Step 1 above), including PayPal, 2Checkout, and others (you can download additional modules like Checkout by Amazon from the add-ons directory). When your customer checks out from your store, they’ll be directed to the secure payment sites of one of these gateways.
For shipping you can specify per item shipping costs, rates for different zones, a table rate based on total rate, and so on.
You’ll get an email about each new order that arrives, so you can handle shipping out the items as they come in. There are solutions for larger-scale merchandising, but for most sideline gigs and mom-and-pop online stores, email should suffice.
Step 7. Add Other Shopping Cart Modules and Customization
Once you have those basics down, you can go to town customizing your shop with built-in modules (like adding discounts and specials) or modules from the community add-ons for tweaks like adding subcategories, a FAQ desk, random products boxes, and more. Installing the third-party add-ons usually only involves editing a few lines of the configuration files and then uploading them to the shop folder, but it’s always a good idea to back up your shop before doing so, as these are install-at-your-own-risk options.
To modify how the osCommerce site looks, edit the stylesheet.css file in your main folder (here’s some basic CSS info to get you started); you’ll be able to change the color of your box headers and more in that CSS file. You can also replace the default gif images in the images/infobox folder.
The other files you should check for configuring the look of your shop are the header.php, footer.php, left_column.php, and right_column.php files found in the includes folder. See the osCommerce documentation for further details and this forum thread for tips and tricks.
Otherwise, you can download new free templates and themes for your store or buy one from someplace like Template Monster, but be aware that changing the theme may (or may not) override any customizations you did before. Hiring a professional designer to help you with your online store is also a good idea if you have a lot vested in it.
Step 8. Maintenance
Finally, check your shop reports regularly to monitor how it’s doing. Also subscribe to your shopping cart system’s news feeds to make sure you have the latest patches (e.g., see osCommerce’s news site).
Continue at: https://lifehacker.com/5796577/how-to-set-up-your-own-online-store
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