Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Sunshop's Broken Promises

Although I mention Sunshop frequently, many readers probably don’t know about shopping carts. I didn’t, until I started up Curio City. Herewith, then, a quick primer.

The shopping cart is the software engine that handles product display, inventory tracking, sales, payments, shipping…pretty much everything except the database (customer info and the product catalog). Curio City is a shopping cart, a database, and some graphics.

You can build an e-commerce engine from the ground up for big bucks, or you can license a commercial shopping cart for a very low fee. You have to pay it annually if you want ongoing support and upgrades (which I do). Back in the mists of time, before I had any clue about this stuff, I test-drove a couple of carts and chose one called Sunshop, from a company called Turnkey, because I liked their documentation and support – which will turn out to be ironic.

As a web store, I can’t get away with using an off-the-shelf display template. I need customizations, and that’s where the money starts to mount. Between configuring the original Curio City website and performing this recent upgrade, I’ve spent at least 50 times the base license fee on developer support. And yet, because our focus in this upgrade was on functionality, I have only a fraction of the visual customization that distinguished my earlier store. Curio City 2.0 actually looks comparatively generic. That might be a good thing, if it means that shoppers will know intuitively how to use it, but I would like to eventually restore some elements of my previous look.

You’d think, since this is a commercial software package, that operating it would be straightforward. It isn’t. I spend large amounts of time and treasure just trying to make things work as designed.

Google Checkout is a prime example.

Google Checkout (hereafter called GC) is a new electronic payment system comparable to eBay’s PayPal. PayPal takes about 4% off the top of every transaction. Credit card processors are even worse, skimming more like 5% of gross when their many hidden fees are taken into account. That’s a pretty bad haircut. You have to do a lot of volume before you can qualify for reduced fees.

GC appeals to merchants because it reduces the expense of payment processing. You can link your Google AdWords spending to your GC account, and earn credit toward transaction processing. I spend enough on PPC ads that my GC business would cost me nothing. If GC sales were to become a significant fraction of my total sales, I could lower my overall processing costs by a point or so. That’s a big deal. It’s a percentage of gross that could go toward payroll, for example. So the integration of GC into Sunshop was a major reason to spend the bucks on this upgrade.

I installed and configured GC. I didn’t test it thoroughly – too much else to do – but it looked fine superficially. When we finally got everything else up to speed, I linked my GC and AdWords accounts and applied for the GC badge to make my ads more visible, which would goose my traffic a bit further. Good deal all around, right?

On the new site’s first day, I got my first GC transaction. Score! Oh, wait. It didn’t charge shipping! WTF? Turns out that Sunshop doesn’t support GC with realtime shipping lookups. Turnkey neglected to mention that you must use a fixed shipping table if you want to offer GC. I’m not going to change something as fundamental as my shipping structure just to offer a new payment method, however tempting that is. (I hit a few other glitches, too, but they turned out to be simple configuration errors that I could solve.)

Reluctantly, I turned off the GC module. A few hours later I got an email from Google informing me that my pay-per-click ads are now displaying the GC badge. Curses! I has to ask them to undo that, and put the whole GC program in suspended animation. I’m still getting two email notices per day about communication errors, which I assume are happening because the module is turned off.

GC could have been big. Instead, as far as I’m concerned, Sunshop does not support it. Will it be added in the next update? They won’t say. Will it ever be supported? They are mute. Even if it is, their update process is too techie for me to handle without developer support, and I am about to lose mine as Eric becomes a first-time father. The developer who had expressed interest in taking over got a fulltime job and is no longer interested. Because he is kind and responsible, I’m sure that Eric will help me out as he can. But beyond basic troubleshooting, I am effectively without developer support for the foreseeable future. (That, btw, is why I had to perform this upgrade going into the xmas season – the worst conceivable timing).

Don’t even get me started about PayPal Express – another selling point for Sunshop 4 that turned out to be an empty promise. Today I discovered that the cart makes rounding errors when applying discounts, so I’ve had two transactions come out a penny off. The free shipping coupon that I've long offered to my local-pickup friends didn’t work at all. After a full day’s work by Turnkey’s support, it now sort-of works. Shipping is technically free, but it doesn’t disregard the handling fee. So “free” shipping now charges people that (small) previously-invisible markup.

I could list half a dozen more annoyances and outright bugs, but you get the idea. And so I am inaugurating a new subject tag: Reasons to hate Sunshop. I could probably apply this tag to a dozen old posts if I had the patience to go thru them.

Ironically, the money that I ultimately spent customizing and upgrading and fixing Sunshop probably would’ve been enough to build a custom engine.

* * * * * * *

It’s a week now since the new Curio City debuted. How's it going?

Sales this week were in the toilet. I don’t have enough experience to know why: Thanksgiving? Lack of publicity? The new cart? The change in my URLs? The eroding economy? It could be any or all or none of those things. But I am not panicking. Not yet. It’s just one bad week, and it's not even over yet; a couple of big sales could still pull it out. The next four weeks will determine much about Curio City's future, and there’s no longer much that I can do to affect them.

So it's nail-biting time. This is harrowing. And kind of fun.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:09 PM

    The worst thing about SunShop is the horrible support - you might as well get a free open source shop or pay a real webmaster to do it for you. They even have problems getting the shop to run on certain domains depending on the length of the domain name or the strength of the server, 32 bit or 64 bit. Stay away from Turnkey Web Tools. Awful.


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