OCTOBER 2007 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Three New E-Commerce Experiences

E-commerce has become a regular part of the shopping experience. Now is it ready to broaden the world of commerce, making it easy for people to get a whole new range of products? Perhaps it is, based on my experiences with three of the newer pieces of the e-commerce machine.

Zen Cart

The Zen Cart project is meant to put the open source shopping cart within the reach of the average webmaster or store manager. It provides a way anyone can sell multiple products online without professional-level computer programming skills.

I had seen Zen Cart before, but I encountered it again when I bought the Circa: 2007 album from the band’s web site. I went to the Zen Cart web site (http://www.zen-cart.org) and downloaded the latest version of the project. From the product documentation, it appears they may have succeeded in their objectives. For example, the installation instructions tell people what a text editor is and how to create a database. Zen Cart even includes PayPal integration now, so it represents a viable alternative to retail integration sites such as eBay for people who have just a few things to sell.

Amazon MP3

Amazon launched their MP3 store before they were completely ready, but from the customer’s point of view, it seems to be fully functional.

Unlocked music files available for download from within Amazon’s familiar retail interface — this could be the forum that takes music downloads to the broader public.

The music catalog is pretty thin at this point, but it includes many albums not available at other download stores. The Amazon search provided a high proportion of relevant results — far better than it does in the book category, for example — and I quickly selected the Conspiracy Live album, a bargain at $7.12. In less than an hour, I had selected and purchased the album, downloaded the files, burned a CD, and taken it out to my car. It certainly beats a drive to the record store — especially now that all the record stores in the nearest mall have closed.

Google Checkout

People scoffed at Google Checkout’s incomplete feature set, but that was six months ago. Google Checkout is now a match for PayPal in terms of collecting credit card payments for online purchases, and it is a smoother experience than PayPal. For the shopper, Google Checkout can actually be quicker than going through a checkout process hosted by the store itself, and it has a quick, uncluttered feel that is reassuring to customers. And for a shopper buying from an unfamiliar merchant, Google Checkout has the surprising advantage of keeping not only one’s credit card information, but also the e-mail address secret from the merchant. If you select this option, it eliminates the risk of getting spammed by someone you buy something from.

For the merchant, Google Checkout’s click-to-buy buttons are easy to set up, and it took me only about an hour to understand the Google Checkout process, sign up for it as a merchant, and add the first products to my web pages. Shopping cart integration is another matter — Google supports it, but at this point it takes a real e-commerce programmer to make it work. More options should be available next year. Google Checkout also has business restrictions that not all stores could live with, and it is currently limited to credit card payments.

Still, as people try Google Checkout, it is likely to quickly become the standard that you would compare all other online payment systems to.

It is worth noting that Amazon.com has also recently launched its payment service. While it is not yet as smooth as Google’s, it represents a viable alternative for many online sellers and a familiar interface for most online shoppers.


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