There are a number of ways for a small online shop to take payments, and there are trade-offs with each. In this article I present an overview of the most common methods.
PayPal – the simplest way to accept credit cards online
The solution that is simplest and cheapest (but least customizable) is PayPal. You don’t need your own merchant account, which saves time and expense. With PayPal, your visitors can pay you with a credit card or e-check, and they do not have to have a PayPal account (unless you are selling subscriptions). PayPal provides a shopping cart and many other free services that are helpful to sites that are starting out. They charge 2.9% +$.30 per transaction and have no start-up fees. The downsides are that PayPal is not highly customizable, and it can have a “start-up” feel. However, this is changing and many mainstream sites are now accepting PayPal as more and more people have PayPal accounts.
External shopping carts
Another inexpensive option is a company called Mal’s e-commerce. Mal’s is a remotely-hosted shopping cart system that ties in with PayPal and other payment processors like Verizon and Authorize.net.
With the free version, you can accept PayPal, offline payments like checks, and credit cards if you have your own way to charge them already. For $8 a month you can upgrade your cart so it can integrate with payment gateways like Authorize.net. There are other fees associated with payment gateways and merchant accounts that you would also be responsible for if you go this route.
My opinion is that Mal’s is a great solution for people who want to offer a real credit card processing without using PayPal, but who don’t want the hassle or expense of installing and maintaining a full shopping cart program. It also gives you flexibility so you can start with PayPal and easily add a gateway and merchant account when your business increases.
Fully Integrated E-commerce – the most flexible and robust way to accept credit cards online
This refers to when your shopping cart is hosted with and integrated into your website itself.
Depending on the software, you have the same payment options – PayPal, or a real merchant account and payment gateway. The real difference is in the other features: with a full shopping cart software, you can have customers log in, create “wish lists”, track inventory, and a host of other advanced features that are not available using PayPal’s simple cart or Mal’s cart. The exact features depend on your shopping cart vendor of course.
The difference between taking credit cards through Mal’s + a payment gateway vs your own shopping cart + a payment gateway is that you will have to provide your own SSL certificate since the transactions will be occuring on your site rather than on Mal’s secure server. You can usually purchase your SSL cert from your host.
There are many shopping carts available as pre-packaged scripts that can be customized for your situation, or a custom payment script can be developed that exactly matches your needs. Full e-commerce is more expensive and time-consuming to develop than PayPal or Mal’s, but it can be integrated into your site for a truly seamless payment experience.
It can also save you money in the long run if you are doing a high volume of sales, as you can work out a custom workflow and automate your proceses with custom programming.
You will need to choose whether you will host it yourself or buy a managed cart, where they host and do upgrades for you. If you are comfortable installing and maintaining scripts it is often much cheaper to do self-hosting. On the other hand, it is much less hassle (and can let you sleep better at night) to let the pros manage the upgrades and make sure the server is optimized for the software. If you end up having to pay a lot of consulting and programming fees to make sure your cart is running, it can be even out to be cheaper to buy hosted. It all depends on your skill level and comfort. Some vendors offer both options.