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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Blogs  >  E-commerce and the "Shopping Cart" Dilemma

E-commerce and the "Shopping Cart" Dilemma

This page has 5 images dated from
Dec 20, 2003 to Feb 13, 2009
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Girls Prep (10)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, events, girls, girls prep, people, prep, san francisco, vertical, wedding, west coast, western usa, womens, photograph
When people think of a shopping cart, they think of how the websites of retail companies work: visitors place a number of photos into the cart, prices are automatically calculated, a payment screen is provided, an invoice and/or receipt is created, and the product is delivered. In the case of a photo site, this means either that a high-res images is shipped to a printing service, or it's made available to download to the client. The advantage is that all of this is automated, convenient for the customer, and easy on you. However, this technology comes at a price: it's complicated.

No wonder then, in a recent conversation with a colleague about why he doesn't sell stock images on his website, he said he was looking at some packages that do shopping carts, but added, "I could not devote any time to really figuring them out until I did my newsletter, shored up some business, and finished a couple of projects."

There are two problems with this response: The simpler one is the false impression that a shopping cart is actually necessary in order to do sales, which itself implies a general misunderstanding of how people buy stock images. I'll get to that shortly. But the broader problem—and perhaps a more important one for career-development—is that people should do projects that have the longer-lasting benefits first, and save the short-term projects for later. A newsletter is short-term because it only generates business within the next few days. Implementing a sales mechanism into your website has a longer time-horizon, because it generates revenue long after you've completed the task.

Small Boats (4)
(Ha Long Bay, Vietnam)
asia, boats, ha long bay, haze, horizontal, mountains, nature, silhouettes, small, small boats, vietnam, photograph
Of course, there is another reality to contend with. My colleague's economic condition is one many can identify with: he needs money now, and projects that have longer-term payoffs don't pay today's bills. This is where career-planning is important. You shouldn't get yourself too dependent on short-term income; you need to build a business infrastructure early on so that, over time, it generates business for you while you're doing other things. Otherwise, you'll find yourself in an endless cycle of constantly chasing short-term (and often low-paying) business opportunities, and your business never grows. (For more on this, see Photography and Business Sense.)

This is where e-commerce comes into play. It's not only important to have it, it should be done as soon as possible. Every visitor to a site that doesn't have a shopping cart is a potential missed opportunity. (True, some people will still contact you to ask about buying, but these will buy anyway—it's everyone else you need to think about.) The good news is that building a very basic, bare-bones ordering mechanism sufficient for most visitors is easy.

Why is "basic" good enough? Unlike the perception that most photographers have about stock photography—that millions of monthly visitors go to the websites of major stock agencies to buy millions of images—most real people don't buy photos that way. Stock agencies generally focus their marketing efforts on traditional advertisers and media companies, who have very particular and precise business models. This, as opposed to buyers that end up on most photographers' websites who landed there as a result of a keyword search from a general search engine. These users don't need multiple photos; they usually only need the one that they were looking for. Also, unlike media outlets who need photos "right away", most users don't; they're happy to wait a few hours, a day, or often longer. Therefore, most photographers don't need the degree of sophistication that most shopping cart applications have for websites. And, that level of automation, as my friend at the beginning of this article points out, requires considerable time and effort to figure out, and then integrate into an existing website. (That is, unless if you're not already technically proficient.) So, a shopping cart "system" really isn't needed by most individual photographers.

Bison (2)
(Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA)
america, animals, bison, horizontal, north america, snow, united states, winter, wyoming, yellowstone, photograph
Besides, there can be other reasons why you wouldn't want to have a site be totally automated. For example, I view each and every order to assure that the order can be delivered in the first place. There may be circumstances of the photo that may prohibit or limit the sale, such as a photo of a person that isn't released, or if an image already has a semi-exclusive license. In such cases, I wouldn't want to run the transaction or deliver an image. Building in such decision-making algorithms into the database that a real shopping cart application would use would be an incredibly onerous task. Making the decisions manually on a case-by-case basis is much easier and more time-efficient.

Remember, you're not a stock agency with millions of images and visitors. My bet is that even the most active stock photographers who represent their own works get no more than a few orders per day. Fulfilling orders manually takes only moments, and all those moments will never exceed the time necessary to learn about shopping cart software to the uninitiated.

So, the best thing to do is have a simple shopping cart "icon" next to each image that simply provides the visitor a form to fill out. It has the price for the image (say, as a grid of radio buttons with different resolutions and prices) and fields for billing and payment info. When submitted, you get an email with the values of the fields the user filled in. This sort of HTML form is the most basic web-building feature that is provided by all applications that build basic websites. You can even write it by hand using sample HTML code found in any introductory HTML book (or online).

Marble Sculptiure of Mother and Child
(Da Nang, Vietnam)
asia, childrens, danang, marble, marble artisans, mothers, sculptiure, vertical, vietnam, photograph
It may surprise you that my site gets about 20,000 visitors a day, and I host almost 40,000 images, each of which can be licensed for stock usage or sold as prints. And though it appears I have shopping cart, I don't—it just looks like I do. For the first five years of my business, I used exactly the method I just described above, with revenues up to $5000/month in sales. All this using sample "form" code that I copied from a how-to book on HTML.

What about credit cards, you ask? Yes, you should still get a merchant account for credit card payments, and you can still have people input their credit card numbers when placing an order. Again, that's just what I did, too. But it doesn't mean you have to figure out how to get your site to process payment. You'd just do it manually: just login to your merchant bank's website and run the transaction using their own online processing form using your customer's data.

Incidentally, I never fulfill an order (print or license) unless and until payment is made. Only certain repeat clients get net-30 payment terms. Delivering photos without payment first is a sure way to eat up your time chasing that money later. That's a business decision I came to midway through my online career—it's just a better management of time, and I found I wasn't losing sales. Yes, clients can often ask, or even whine and complain, but if your site doesn't provide the option of getting an image without payment, customers stop whining and just input a credit card. That may not be the case for your business, but that's beyond the scope of this discussion.

Praying Figure (3)
(Siem Reap, Cambodia)
angkor wat, asia, bas reliefs, cambodia, figures, praying, vertical, photograph
As for the expediency that an automated shopping cart system provides, in my empirical experience, the lack of "immediate download" has only caused a handful of lost opportunities over the course of time.

Of course, I'm not saying that shopping cart software is overblown, nor do I mean to imply it's never needed. If you're technical enough to employ one without spending too much time and effort figuring it out and integrating it into your site, that's great. There are also several website building applications specifically designed for photographers that have shopping cart features built in. Mind you, these aren't applications easily managed by technophobes, or even the moderately technical. You have to understand at least enough to manage a web server in the first place.

Whatever you do, remember that the successful photographer is one who genuinely understands where to best invest time and resources, so if you're seriously weighing the benefits of all the costs (tangible and intangible) of e-commerce, don't do just what you see others do. Take a good, hard look at what you need, and don't do more than necessary. That said, don't avoid monetizing your content just because it may seem challenging. If you have a site at all, then you have the wherewithal to build some kind of faux shopping cart—at least, insofar as the visitor knows it. When you've done that, then go write your newsletter and tell everyone to come and buy something.

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