I found that I'm repeating myself so often when talking to clients about a new template for their Zen Cart sites that I realized it was time for a blog post. Duh. Now moving my brain out of low gear into the yippee blog post mode! Things have been pretty quiet for a while now in the Zen Cart community and we've been working on expanding our business into new areas (look for an announcement on that later). But time to polish fingernails and dig into communication…
The Purpose of E-Commerce is to Sell
Yeah, I know that's obvious but bear with me here. Let’s strip a Zen Cart site down to its important elements that facilitate selling.
1) Use of graphics – there are two roles that graphics play on an ecommerce website. First, of course, are the product graphics. Secondly, are graphics that involve design. We can improve load time with the Image Handler mod that optimizes and caches category and product images but all other images have to have a real purpose as they all add to load time.
Eye candy – anything besides product images – does not sell products, does increase load time and undoubtedly distracts the customer. No amount of fancy graphics or slideshows (moving elements) actually sell products. You only have a few seconds to grab a customers attention and to sell them. If your graphics catch their attention, it can actually lessen the possibly of a sale. There's a difference between attention and distraction!
You want customers who are actively looking for your products – not a browser who has time to wander around websites. This is a concept that is not obvious to site owners and is a discussion I have daily with clients. Think for a moment, do you go to a site and stared fixedly at a slideshow or ooh over graphics? Do you expect your customers to?
So design graphics must be chosen for the most important reason – they sell! And they must be fast loading – especially on the home page. Assume that all your customers are still on dial-up. Even if most aren't, we all access the internet from a variety of places and a variety of devices which may not have great internet access. I actually just spent some time at a relative's house at the beach where the only access was the next door neighbor's Wi-Fi and only in certain rooms. Yikes!
One other point that I have to state – sometimes graphics are a part of mystic of a product line (think Victoria's Secret here) but that is more for well-known brands or high end businesses, not for the average small website.
(The best bit of advice I can give you on graphics is not hire a graphic designer when planning your next site changes. The design may well be gorgeous but it will be graphic intensive and slow loading as most designers still design for print, not the web.)
2) Getting to products fast – buy now! Since the visitor is looking to buy, the more engaged the visitor is from the start is important. The best way to do this on nearly any e-commerce site is to show the potential buyer a product. Scream out, “look what we have for you to buy. Click here!”
One of the best ways to do this in Zen Cart is to create featured products. That can be done subtly like in the image below where there is no announcement that there are featured products but there is a "product showcase" that uses the featured products automation. Automatic features on the home page that can be turned on include featured, specials, new and even best sellers (as a mod). Just make sure you have some products on the front page – don't make your visitor hunt for them!
3) The header on that site is actually higher than I like to see. Since “stuff” gets hidden if you have a long page, my recommendation is always a short header. Start watching the mega sites design – many of them use this technique. Walmart is a good example with its short header (ignore, if you can, their gigantic slideshow- it's very irritatingly in your face and does not make me want to buy what's in the ad.). Leaving the page space for selling instead of pretty and fancy is simply a basic selling tool online. Take a look at this website sample, http://deliatest.com/purely_purple :
This header is also a good example for an ecommerce site :
4) Pull the cart and search box into the header – both functions need visibility for ease of site use. Don't make your visitors hunt for the search and keeping tabs on how much one is spending is can be a great element for a visitor. I know I appreciate it!
There are several ways of doing this; in the three examples above the cart is prominently featured but it can be more subtle like this at http://www.zencartdelia.com/zen-cart-store/:
5) Use well-written, keyword-laden text instead of a lot of images on the home page and throughout the site. The search engines weigh the text on the home page very heavily so save the extra images for other pages – a bit of blog with photos can be added with an ezpage, even a small gallery is doable. Even if the text isn't visible "above the fold" so to speak and may never be read by humans, the search engines need text – not photos – especially on the home page.
6) Consider using the three column approach instead of two columns. (Even if the site looks great with only one column and no sideboxes, don't do it!) This is especially important when a site has many categories. If the category box takes up most of the page, anything below it is just hidden. Using the extra column on the right gives you the ability to showcase important information, information important to your visitor not to you.
For example, the biggest hurdle online is getting your visitors comfortable with your security so I recommend a secure sidebox that spells who your payment processor is, your secure certifiate provider and your payment methods. Frequently a clickable image is available for the payment processor such as Authorize.net and for a secure certificate such as the inexpensive certificates from Global Sign that I use.
There's so much functionality in the various sideboxes that just turning them all off wholesale except one or two is cutting off your nose to spite your face. And that's really a topic for a whole 'nother post!