Careful planning of an ecommerce website is critical to its success, and your product catalog decisions are at the heart of that process. These are the product and catalogue questions we ask when planning a new ecommerce website with our customers.
How many products will you be selling?
We don’t need a precise answer to this question from you, but a rough estimate helps us to get a sense of scale for your planned online store, and also triggers other questions we may need to ask. It may also influence the cost of hosting your online store (more products = more cost). It will certainly have an impact on how long it will take to develop the store (more products = more content to create and load into the store).
There is often some confusion over exactly what a product is.
You may consider the 200 t-shirt lines you want to sell as 200 separate products. However, once we count up the individual sizes, colours and patterns that those 200 t-shirts come in, we may find that you actually have over 2,000 individual products, each with its own SKU (Stock Keeping Unit). A SKU uniquely identifies each variation in your store.
Which variations do your products have?
We need to know how many flavours your products come in, and how to organise them on the website. That’s where product attributes and variations come in.
- A product attribute is something like size, colour or weight.
- A product variation is a combination of one or more attributes. For example, a red t-shirt in size L is one variation. A blue t-shirt in size L is another variation.
- Each variation will need to be assigned a different SKU in your online store. Each variation will also have its own name, price, stock, dimensions (for shipping) and weight (also for shipping). It may also have different photos and description text to other variations of the same product
As an example, your t-shirt product may come in 5 sizes and 10 colours. That means your store will have 50 different variations of just that t-shirt.
And, when a product has more than one variation (e.g. size and colour), then your customer will need to choose an option from each variation (e.g. a large t-shirt in red).
So, in the planning stage, we’ll ask you what variations your products have, how many options each variation has, and how many variation combinations these variations create. You’ll also need to be able to supply these to us as part of the development process (you’ll also be able to edit and add to them during product loading but it’s faster for all of us if we can get them up front).
How many categories does your website have?
We also need to know how your product catalogue is organised. This affects the navigation and search in your online store (i.e. how customers find your products).
How your catalogue is organised will have a dramatic impact on how your ecommerce website is developed, and on how well it convert visitors to customers. We expect you to be able to discuss your catalogue with us in detail during the planning phase, so that we can work with you to determine how best to turn it into an online store.
Products can usually be organised into groups of categories, such as Shoes, Shirts, Trousers, and Shorts. In some cases, these top-level categories can be broken down into subcategories, e.g. Shirts might have subcategories of T-Shirts, Business Shirts and Casual Shirts. It may even be that you can break these subcategories down further. T-Shirts might break down into Long Sleeved and Short Sleeved.
A good ecommerce platform will support multiple category levels. A good ecommerce developer will strongly suggest you stop at two or maybe three levels (category/subcategory). This is to ensure ease of navigation for your customers, to improve the chance that all category and product pages on your website will be indexed and, most importantly, to maximise your conversion rate.
If you really need more than two or three levels in your catalogue, a good ecommerce developer should be able to suggest alternative approaches to your catalogue and how it is organised. For example:
- It may be appropriate to set up the store so you can put products into more than one category. There are some potential downsides to this, so in some cases we may recommend that you try to avoid it.
- We may suggest splitting the catalogue into several catalogues. Customers might want to browse by type of clothing, but they may also want to browse through children’s clothing in particular. They may also want to browse by brand or some other classification that makes sense to them, even if you haven’t thought of it that way.
In some cases, there may be other dimensions that you might want to use to categorise your products, such as Sports Gear, Casual Wear and Formal Outfits. Fortunately, you can more than one way to categorise your products – but we need to know in advance so we can allow for that when loading and displaying your products.
Do you need to track stock levels?
At its simplest, tracking stock levels means configuring the online store so that it won’t sell products that are out of stock.
You might want your store to advise customers when stock of an item is low (e.g. Only 2 left – order now to avoid disappointment!).
Or, you might want to allow customers to request an email notification when that product comes back into stock.
You need to decide whether your ecommerce website needs to keep track of stock on the website. It may be you can usually get stock in from a supplier within 2-3 days. It may also be that you could simply advise and credit customers who order an item that had only just gone out of stock when they placed their order.
The discussion around stock tracking and management could be a separate article in this series by itself. However, here are the key considerations:
- Stock tracking needs to be set at the SKU level, but can usually be set selectively (some SKUs have stock tracking enabled and some don’t).
- Manually maintaining the stock levels for dozens or even hundreds of SKUs is time consuming, tedious and prone to error.
- Automating stock management by integrating with an external stock tracking system introduces another layer of complexity into the development of your online store. The cost of development rises in line with that complexity.
- For example, importing a spreadsheet with updated stock levels is at the low end of the complexity scale; creating a live, custom integration with an external inventory management system that has multiple distribution warehouses is at the other end of the scale.
Who will create and load your product catalogue information?
Creation and loading of product information is not a small undertaking. Most people underestimate how long it will take. In fact, it is the main cause of delays in the launch of new ecommerce websites.
Most ecommerce developers (including us) will assume that you are going to supply and load all product information yourself unless you specifically ask us to do it for you.
You’ll usually need to supply the following information as a bare minimum:
- Product name
- Selling price
- SKU (although we can generate this automatically if you don’t have your own SKUs)
- Product description (ideally you’ll provide 400+ words of original content. Try to avoid simply copying and pasting supplier’s descriptions – it’s bad for SEO).
- One or more photographs of reasonable size and quality (we recommend you try to get images that are at least 600px wide. We’ll take care of resizing them as needed for the website)
- Variations and variation options (e.g. Size and Colour, plus each of the sizes and colours you’ll be offering)
- Which category or categories each product should belong to.
Options for product loading include:
- Using the product management tools provided in the ecommerce platform your ecommerce developer is using (make sure it has tools for bulk product creation).
- Import from a spreadsheet (you still have to create the spreadsheet, including the file names of each related image).
- Live integration with an external system (this can be challenging to say the least, and is definitely the most expensive option).
Our approach is to discuss the options with our customers before starting work, so that everyone agrees how product loading will be done. The most important point to reiterate here is how time consuming it is, especially if you don’t set aside some dedicated time to get it done. As a guide, assume that you need to spend about 15 minutes on each “product”, collating and loading the information.
What should your product pages look like
Most ecommerce websites follow a fairly generic approach to presenting product pages. If you need anything different, we need to know about it.
The generic approach will usually include the following:
- Product name
- One or more product images (multiple images are usually presented as a main image plus clickable thumbnails of the others)
- Variation dropdowns (one or more)
- Add to Cart
Additional features that can be added (usually at extra cost) include the following:
- Brand logos
- Related videos
- Related products
In addition, you may have different types of products that need to be displayed differently. We need to know this too. For example, on a clothing site you might sell cufflinks. These may not warrant a whole page all of their own in the same way that t-shirts do, so you might have a single page that shows all cufflink options in one place.
Do you want to upsell via Related Products?
Related Product displays are great for upselling, but their implementation can be simple or complex. We need to know whether you want to include related product displays on product pages. Including them will involve some configuration of the ecommerce platform during development. The visual design will also need to take account of these on the product page displays.
In general, complex Related Product displays provide a more personalised selection of products to each shopper, increasing the likelihood that customers will purchase one of those as well as the product they are viewing. Some options for Product displays include:
- A random list of products from the same category (simple and automated)
- Popular products from the same category or from all categories (simple and automated)
- A list of products that you have marked as related to the current product (simple, but requires that you set up the initial links)
- A list of products that other customers who bought this product also bought (less simple, and requires some sales data to work)
- A list of products the current customer has viewed recently (less simple, but automated)
- A list of products that the site decides you might like based on a combination of factors including your browsing history and the purchase history of others (not simple, but automated).
We normally recommend that customers implement one of the simple options initially, and then consider upgrading to one of the complex options once the site has been live for a while. This avoids the initial investment in a complex solution until the impact of that extra investment can be measured against the past performance of the site.
As promised at the start of this article, these are the main questions we ask customers about their products and product catalogue when scoping and planning a new ecommerce development project. There is a lot to consider here – but by understanding these questions, the scoping process will go faster and you will be better informed about what you are going to get at the end of it. Hopefully it helps – but if you think there is anything I’ve missed or haven’t explained clearly, please let me know in the comments below.