Wrestling with Network Solutions' E-commerce

The quest for an online e-commerce solution makes "War and Peace" seem short and pithy.

Last week in I began to relate my quest for an online e-commerce solution, a saga that makes "War and Peace" seem short and pithy.

I discussed my exploration of osCommerce and then my evaluations of shopping cart solutions recommended by Intuit, which included Go Daddy, ProStores and Homestead. By this time I was feeling somewhat disheartened.

Thus it was I turned to the last of the Intuit-recommended services: Network Solutions. I have never been a fan of this company, my opinion shaped by its outrageous service pricing, the various dubious business practices it has indulged in over the years and its recent ethical lapse in holding unregistered domain names hostage. But I needed a shopping cart and my assumption was that I'd be making a safe choice as Network Solutions was, in effect, vouched for by Intuit.

I signed up for the Pro service (US$99 setup fee and US$99.95 per month) and began configuring the service. Things went fairly well, although the built-in help was not very helpful and the organization of features takes a little getting used to.

One major issue with the interface is it is slow. Ignoring the actual performance of the Internet between it and me, the workflow is ridiculously inefficient. I'm sure Network Solutions would defend this by arguing that it caters to less-skilled users, but I would disagree. For example, adding a product to your shopping cart requires too many steps and, as there's no built-in online bulk update features, you might wind up using the alternative; downloading a comma-separated variable file with the product data in it, editing that file in Excel, and then uploading. This process might be fine if it were actually documented and didn't have a serious bug, which I'll come back to in a second.

The problem with the download method of editing product details for use in this e-commerce shopping cart is the form was designed by some demented engineer. It consists of a "master" line for each product that lists its internal database number, various other attributes and a field that lists all of the "variants" for the product in the following way: "Size| Large; X-Large; XX-Large".

Accompanying the master line are additional lines, one for each variant listed in the master line. For example, if you have a line for a product named "T-Shirt" and its variant list is "Color| Red; Green; Blue;" then there will be three more lines in the file with product names "T-Shirt| Color| Red", "T-Shirt| Color| Green" and "T-Shirt| Color| Green". And not only is this format complex, it is undocumented! And when you download the file the order of products and variants is not always sequential.

Moreover, whatever you do, don't make a mistake when you change anything in the file; otherwise when you try to upload it you'll get a complex, engineering-style error message that doesn't help at all.

Another gotcha: I realized after setting everything up that Network Solutions has an attribute for each product variant called product number -- what the rest of the world calls the Stock Keeping Unit, or SKU. In an attempt to avoid the tedious editing of  each product via the Web interface -- and on the advice of a guy in tech support -- I downloaded the product list, added SKUs and nothing else, uploaded the file, and got the totally unhelpful error message.

On inspecting the original downloaded file I realized the variants field for one product was corrupted and yep, that's the bug. I have since found out the company has known about the bug for some time but did the tech warn me? Of course not.

Next week, what else could go wrong?

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Mark Gibbs

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