The e-commerce product catalog

The heart of an on-line store is the product database, which includes information such as item or stock number, name, description and price for each item. Data may be entered through the administrative console one product at a time, or in bulk via an upload from a spreadsheet or text file.

Often, product data originates from an internal accounting or business system, but the product description in such a system is seldom appropriate for your on-line store. Just as with a brick-and-mortar store, effective merchandising is critical to the success of most on-line sales efforts, requiring strong product descriptions and photography.

Your product database can be as simple or complex as needed, based on your specific products and markets. For example, apparel typically includes size and color variations, while industrial drill bits may come in different diameters, lengths and hardness. For B-to-B applications, the product database may have to support volume based pricing, price schedules that vary by customer category and possibly individually negotiated customer pricing.

Helping customers find your products

One of the most important considerations in an on-line store is providing an easy way to locate products. For a small storefront, this is relatively straightforward, but it becomes increasingly difficult as the size of your store grows.

Almost every on-line storefront provides a hierarchical category tree, with a small number of general categories on the main menu, and layers of subcategories to drill down to specific products. For larger stores, a proper design of this category tree can have a dramatic impact on sales.

Too many products within a category can make it difficult to locate the one of interest, while too few leads to excessive page loads before the user finally reaches the product of interest. One technique larger on-line stores sometimes use to improve the customer experience is to allow the user to drill down within a category using a number of different variables such as price point, color, brand, or type of product. Many on-line stores also offer a search feature, allowing a customer to locate products based on keywords or part numbers.

After the user finishes drilling down through the category tree, products are usually presented in a list format, which may include a single product per line, or several (i.e., 3 across). From there, the user may be able to obtain further information by clicking through to a product detail page, or simply add the product to a virtual shopping cart.

Product detail pages may include user reviews, technical specifications and other purchasing aids. They also may include suggested add-on items, complementary products or upgrades.

The e-commerce administrative console

Product maintenance is performed through an administrative console, which is really just another website (different than the one the shopping public sees), providing the merchant back office access to the product catalog. Through the console, the merchant can add or delete products, change prices, update descriptions, or take a product off-line.