How do I make a better Web store?

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About 7 years ago I built an online web store using a system called osCommerce, which was quite popular at the time but seems now to have quite a few limitations when it comes to things like responsive design and automation.

Looking at other stores in our niche, I am worried that we are falling behind and starting to lose clients because we simply can't get our site to look like the newer ones - even though we have spent a lot of time working with the underlying code (HTML and PHP).

Apart from working with code, which I really don't like doing because we seem to make mistakes quite often and end up having malfunctions that our customers bring to our attention, we also can't get things automated properly. I have to manually do bits and pieces of work when a new purchase is made, which is not the end of the world, but it is quite time consuming and I would rather focus on other things.

Our shop is of small to medium size, I would say, so there are quite a lot of products - but not thousands. Do we invest our time and energy into improving our existing eCommerce site, or do we throw everything out the window and start with a new platform?

If we do start from scratch, is there any way to transfer our existing products and information across? We have quite a lot of nice, original content about our products - not to mention all the pricing, sales and discounts, and shipping data that we'd like not to redo if possible.

Upgrading vs. migrating your eCommerce platform

So osCommerce is a free, open source shopping cart software project that also relies on community plugin modules to provide additional functionality. It is based on PHP, and has rudimentary HTML templates to create new pages - although these templates leave a lot to be desired in terms of flexibility, ease-of-use and theming features.

Unfortunately,

osCommerce is horribly coded; a complete mess under the hood and not to be used under any circumstances.

I should know, I wrote the book on it about 12 years ago.

The fundamental problem you face is this:

Over time, a custom eCommerce site becomes more and more dated and requires ever more programming and development to keep it contemporary and competitive.

Custom development vs. continuous upgrades

You mentioned being forced to do repetitive work over and over because there are no easy ways to automate certain things. This is exactly the same issue as keeping the code up-to-date. Both issues are only going to get worse over time because there is simply not enough new development happening on the osCommerce project.

By contrast, using one of the leading eCommerce site builders completely negates these issues going forward because their business model builds ongoing development and upgrades into the platform they offer. In other words, once your store is based in the cloud on a platform like Shopify or Bigcommerce, it will enjoy continuous updates and upgrades as new technologies come online.

By the same token, because you spend less and less time having to work on technical issues, there's also more time to focus on marketing and promoting your business - and 'getting out there' doing whatever it is you need to be successful.

Large, active communities

More importantly, the big cloud based Web builders have much more active and vibrant communities, which means that you get access to far more plugin modules that help do everything from tax and accounting, to fulfilment, productivity, marketing, and all sorts of other wonderful things.

Many of these plugin modules come with free trials or free demo versions that you can pay to upgrade. But the costs are often very small and having a profitable competitive marketplace leads to higher competition and much better products and services to choose from.

You can probably guess what my advice is going to be based on the above points.

The longer you delay migrating to a quality eCommerce platform the more you'll hurt your business.

So, where do you begin?

Online eCommerce site builders

The two leading online site builders mentioned above each have a free trial that you can use to start moving products and content over to their platform. Getting setup takes only a few minutes on each one and you can get started very quickly by following along with one of our step-by-step guides:

Shopify setup guide

Bigcommerce setup guide

Monthly costs on both platforms are very reasonable- from about $20 per month - and are probably less than what you would pay for a standalone dedicated or VPS server. And, of course, both come with a whole array of super modern, responsive themes and templates that are a breeze to work with compared to osCommerce.

Migration strategy

Use the free trial period (2 weeks) to transfer all your content across to the new platform, and once it's all there you can transfer or point your domain to the new Web store.

For SEO purposes, try and ensure that the store's file structure remains the same or similar. The more URLs change, the more 301 redirects you'll need to put in place. Remember that if you have valuable organic links pointing to certain pages, these must be 301 redirected to the new URL, otherwise you may end up losing page rankings and search traffic.

Use the upgrade as an opportunity to market and promote your store. Offer special deals to coincide with the release of the new site, write a press release explaining how much easier it is to shop and buy using improved cart and checkout features offered by the new platform.

Spend some time exploring available plugin modules. You'll no doubt find more than one that allows you to automate previously repetitive and time consuming chores - as well as entirely different ones that offer incredible productivity benefits (I'm thinking along the lines of tax, accounting, and inventory integration).

Whatever happens you're in for a bit of short term pain as you spend time painstakingly moving content over to the new platform. But, the salient point here is short term. Once the move is finished, you won't have to go through this again.

Best of luck...