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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Don't Stand in Line - Buy On-line! Developing and Implementing an E-Commerce Site that Works

Debbie Babcock, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, USA



In an effort to complement the museum's traditional channels of communication and commerce and achieve its business objectives, we have chosen to custom design and   develop an E-commerce site. After 2 years of development, we have a site that is flexible, easy to maintain, and successful in meeting the needs of the multiple audiences we serve. Sound like a maintenance nightmare? It's not. Since all products on the E-commerce site are maintained by non-technical staff, the result is maximum accuracy and timely updates. This also affords us the ability to change prices and offerings instantly, enabling us to keep up with the speed of business. This paper will address the development and implementation of an E-commerce site, from exploration of the different elements and possible products offered — both traditional and innovative - to its impact on the way the company does business.  Included in this process is getting staff buy-in, designing functionality with maximum flexibility, and enabling staff to independently maintain the shopping carts for their areas of responsibility.  Finally, we will take a look at evaluation of the project upon completion, and determine "what's next."

Keywords: E-Commerce, Web site Development, Collaboration, Innovation, Shopping Cart

E-Commerce Position 

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis has an informal position on E-commerce at this time.  Adoption of a more formal position is complicated by the complexity of a cost/benefit analysis of current and planned E-commerce efforts.  It is generally assumed that there are several intangible benefits to offering internet purchasing; such as customer convenience, geographic reach, timeliness, security, and staff efficiencies.  Data collection of shopping cart sales was initiated in the last quarter of 2003 in conjunction with the implementation of the final phase of shopping cart functionality.  This data will serve as a baseline for future analysis and development.

Web Site History

The museum's first Web site went live in 1997. As with many organizations, as internet accessibility and popularity grew, so did the Web site.  E-commerce was introduced on February 10, 1999, in its most basic form for Spring Programs and Camps registration. Unfortunately, it was a cumbersome and relatively unsecured transaction, but was in step with Web technologies at the time. 

Eventually, on-line Program registration became so popular that other products were offered, such as Membership purchasing and renewal and a limited number of store products.  Each purchase was entered separately, resulting in redundancy for the consumer.  Contact and credit card information had to be entered for each product purchased, or separate forms could be printed by the purchaser, hand-completed, and faxed to the museum.  Web content and inventory management was static and maintained by technical staff only, sometimes resulting in outsourcing the projects at additional expense and rushing to meet go-live deadlines.  The entire process for the consumer and staff was time-consuming, and the possibility of outdated content remained high.

As Web technologies and Web crimes evolved, ensuring transaction security became imperative.  In addition to this issue, Web sales, the evolution of product offerings, and the necessity for a simple and accurate content management system propelled the museum to explore the development of a new shopping cart in 2001.

Project Scope

Three types of shopping cart technology were explored: outsourcing to an existing company such as Yahoo!, purchasing standard cart software, and custom-developing the cart.

With the first option, the museum would lose all control over content such as advertisements displayed on product pages, and in some cases, competitors' products displayed in a price comparison format.  Both that option and the second option were less expensive, but also limited the variety of products that could be offered. While custom-developed software had a greater start-up cost, it was determined that it allowed greater flexibility, display control, and long-term development opportunities without incurring additional costs.

There were five areas of focus in the initial project:  Program registration, Membership purchase and renewal, School Group registration, Teacher Resource Link kit registration, and Museum Store products.  The order of development, testing, and implementation was determined by the current on-line sales totals and the potential for added customer convenience.  While on-line Program registration was the highest selling product, it was also important to offer on-line School Group registration as a convenience for teachers, who often find it difficult to get to a phone to register during conventional museum business hours.

Also critical to this project was designing and implementing for content management a Web interface that could be easily and efficiently used by non-technical staff.  Staff would be assigned individual logins to access this functionality, and could have varying levels of access. To avoid inadvertent layout changes, museum technical staff retains the highest level of administrative access, such as adding top-level categories and new users.

The initial expectation for complete implementation was one year, but that was quickly extended due to several issues, such as specification writing and negotiation, extending testing and acceptance time, "scope creep," and staff requests to offer additional types of products for sale on-line.  As staff became comfortable, and then enthusiastic, about the flexibility, ease of use, and limitless possibilities for product offerings, additional development requests which affected the completion date were made.

Development and Implementation

Product development

Based on the products available for on-line purchase and peer input, the museum project manager selected the members of the project team.  Key staff members from Visitor Relations, School Services, and the Museum Store were consulted.  The team members re-evaluated, refined, and documented existing definitions of purchase requirements and products offered. They developed and documented enhanced flexibility, implementation, and functionality requirements..  They researched leading E-commerce sites for usability; however, no existing sites offered such a wide variety of products or collected such diverse information to process on-line transactions, so innovation and creativity were required with some products.

Prior to meeting with the contracted developer to determine project scope and specifications, public site layout mock-ups, contact information forms, and order processing steps were determined and documented.  This resulted in better communication between the museum staff and contract staff and left little room for error regarding all requirements. Cost estimates were accurate, and there were fewer development cost "surprises."

The order of product implementation was then determined.  Selection was based on several criteria: most products sold, added convenience, and staff availability for implementation.  Non-technical staff responsible for updating the content would have to be trained and then enter all the data prior to implementation.  On-sale deadlines were also taken into consideration when determining the go-live order.

Once the initial phases of development were completed, software development began.  As the project progressed, the "rapid proto-typing" process evolved.  Phone conferences between the contractor and museum project manager with real-time testing and refinement of both the public and private administrative content management sides proved to be very effective and efficient. As each component was tested and approved by the project manager, it was given to the department contact for further testing and final acceptance before going live.  This same testing, refinement, and acceptance pattern was used for all product categories.

Additional development considerations

There were many other issues to consider in the development of this comprehensive project.  Great care was taken to consider all offerings or future offerings to ensure maximum flexibility without incurring additional cost down the road.  The following is a partial list of the issues considered:

Which browsers would we develop for? 

It would be nearly impossible to ensure compatibility with all browsers in existence, so the decision was made to develop for the most current and most widely used at that time: Internet Explorer 4.x, Netscape 4.x, and America Online 4.x.  The original program code is also compatible with higher versions of these browsers.

How should the check-out process occur for optimum usability?

Prior to the development of the new shopping cart, one of the most serious deficiencies in the check-out process was the redundancy of the information required for multiple product purchases.  Contact and credit card information had to be re-entered for each product purchased.  In addition, the method of transmitting this information was not highly secure, although it was a common transmission method at the time.  The revised check-out process was designed based on the customer purchasing all types of products being offered, to minimize the amount of data entry duplication.

Should we interface with the back-end systems?

This is a big question.  The museum currently uses three different applications that apply to the E-commerce products offered.  Updates to the application software are frequent; therefore it is conceivable that the Web interface may have to be re-written with each update.  To complicate matters, the museum does not have access to the application source code and has limited access to the application file layouts. It was determined that this functionality would need to be researched to determine feasibility and cost/benefit. This was scheduled for the third quarter of 2004.

Do we tax sales?

Currently, taxing internet sales is not required by law.  Due to the complex nature of this task, it was decided that functionality of taxing museum internet sales would not be developed until required by law.  Perhaps the process will be simplified at that point, not requiring a tax chart for each state.  If the tax laws remain complex, it is very likely that this functionality will be outsourced to a third party service.

Will we be able to offer immediate on-line product discount for purchasing a membership?

Traditionally the museum has offered discounts to its members.  Would we do this for on-line shoppers as well?  The obvious answer was yes. However, would it be possible to do this if the customer purchased the membership on-line and then purchased a product eligible for a discount at the same time?  Considering this type of functionality at the onset of the project, and before the development occurred, was critical to keeping costs low.  Were we able to provide this?  Yes!

Can we by-pass the credit card step in check-out for teachers?

One of our target audiences is educators.  They typically make purchases with purchase orders or school district checks, written once the school is billed.  Considerations for this constituency included: will we accept purchase orders online? Will we allow educators to be billed?  If so, how do we accommodate for this during the checkout process when credit card information is required?  Once again, this option was considered early in the development process and was accomplished without additional cost.

What is the fulfillment process?

The fulfillment process becomes complex when three departments are responsible for it.  Call Center fulfills Program registration, School Group registration and new Memberships and renewals; Teacher Resource Link fulfills kit reservations, and store staff is responsible for Museum Store products.  Would it be possible to do this?  How does the customer's credit card get charged in the event of multiple transactions in different departments?  When does the shipping and handling get charged?  Careful consideration to these details is important to optimizing customer service.

How would credit card settlement occur?

At the time this shopping cart was implemented, there was only one gateway for processing internet settlement — iAuthorizer.  That made our decision easy.  Since then, VeriSign has entered the market as another gateway for settlement.  Both charge a monthly fee for a maximum number of transactions.  When making a decision, be sure to inquire if there is either a set-up fee, or a per item fee for transactions in excess of the monthly maximum.  Consult your Accounting department to avoid duplication of merchant accounts.

How would the fulfillment staff balance their on-line sales drawers?

As with a cash drawer, it is necessary to balance the credit card sales processed for on-line sales.  The settlement company provides various daily reports which give the dollar amount of transactions settled, but there was no easy way to determine the totals processed by each staff member responsible for fulfillment.  It was necessary to create a Daily Balance Report for daily drawer balancing.

Can we create our own customized forms, and edit existing forms?

One of the most expensive and frequent requests by staff is new forms for collection of additional purchaser information, or changes to existing forms.  Due to the complex nature of the shopping cart coding, these forms cannot be created or updated by non-technical staff.  It can time-consuming  for technical staff as well.  As part of the development process, a "form builder" was created for use by technical staff to simplify the process and make it more efficient.  This has resulted in less outsourcing as well.


Implementation was a phased-in process taking approximately one and one-half years due to the large scale of the project and the desire to "get it right the first time."  Product categories were developed and implemented one at a time, according to the pre-determined schedule.

Once the key department staff had accepted all functionality for a given product category such as Program registration, it became necessary to notify the public and museum staff of the implementation date, and train selected staff in the consumer use process, content management, order fulfillment, and daily sales drawer balancing. Accounting staff required training in the on-line order settlement process. Store staff and Teacher Resource Link staff required image manipulation software and training, since these products require a picture in addition to the description.

Basic changes needed to be made to some of the back-end production applications to accommodate manual processing of on-line orders and account for Web credit card settlement. 

The first product to go live was Program Registration in September, 2002.  As mentioned earlier, it was the most popular product offered at the time.  The open registration dates are publicized well in advance, so meeting that implementation deadline was imperative. Even though the registration process had been thoroughly tested, both the museum project manager and the contracted developer were on hand to troubleshoot potential problems.  Minor problems arose, such as a handling fee error (code programming issue) and a registration form issue with some of the programs (museum staff data entry error). Troubleshooting was done "on the fly," and both issues were resolved within minutes of discovery. Each subsequent implementation was handled in a like manner.

Due to the complexity of the museum shopping cart, it was necessary to re-test existing products as new features were added. It was possible that functionality added for a new product type would "break" existing functionality. This re-testing became part of the standard new product type implementation. A few minor issues resulted and were corrected as discovered, with no major negative impact to the consumer or the museum.

Web customers can currently register for and purchase the following products from the redesigned shopping cart:

  1. New and renewal memberships
  2. Gift certificates for membership, general admission, the restaurant, museum store, carousel rides, and Teacher Resource Link
  3. Program registration
  4. Museum store items
  5. Member and special events registration
  6. School and Home School field trip registration
  7. Teacher Resource Link kit reservations
  8. Teacher Professional Development registrations
  9. General admission E-tickets


Initially, the museum staff responsible for maintaining the site was concerned about how much additional time the data entry would take. It was seen by some as "just another thing to do." The ease of use and the wide range of functionality from the administrative side seemed too good to be true as well. However, all those involved in the project realized that the existing E-commerce process was not acceptable, and it needed to be redesigned. Good communication and a one-on-one approach to development and implementation eased concerns. Meetings before, during, and after development allowed department staff maximum input and feedback opportunities, allowing them to make minor changes along the way without incurring additional costs, and assuring them of the functionality they required for customer purchase and administrative site maintenance.

Minor miscommunication of some product specifications with the contracted developer caused some delays and Incurred additional costs. While none of these issues were major, some of the purchasing processes needed to be reworked and redesigned.

As staff realized the value and power of the new shopping cart, several out-of-scope requests were made. The original project contained development of five product categories: Program registration, Membership purchase and renewal, School Group registration, Teacher Resource Link kit registration, and Museum Store products. By the final phase of implementation, Gift certificates, Member and Special Events registration, Home School field trip registration, Teacher Professional Development registration, and General Admission E-tickets had been implemented as well. Development and implementation of these additional five product categories were worked into the original project schedule at additional cost, as expected, and the final phase implementation date was extended many times. There is no question that these requests were welcomed and even hoped for. However, achieving the go-live dates was often challenging, and the length of the original project was extended by approximately one year.

Keeping the check-out process quick and easy was also a challenge given the wide range of possible customer information collected, especially in the case of Program registration. It was not possible to standardize the information collected without creating  a rather lengthy form which in many cases required unnecessary information. Each information form contained different data fields; therefore, it was impossible to create one cookie to propagate this information in the event of repeated form use. It would be necessary for a cookie to be created for each form, something which was out of the original scope of the project. It was determined at the time that this enhancement would be investigated later for possible future implementation. In addition to data collection, there were many check-out scenarios that could lengthen the process as well, such as membership discount calculation, inventory checking, and promotional code discount calculation. All these possibilities had to be carefully considered and tested prior to implementation.

Impact on Business

The new shopping cart functionality has had a major positive impact on museum business in many ways. As staff buy-in and understanding increased, enthusiasm and innovation increased as well. Specifically, there was a positive impact in the following areas:

Content accuracy and timeliness

All additions and changes to content, whether from copy error or simply a change, are made by authorized non-technical staff. This is accomplished through a secure Web administrative interface; therefore, it can be done off-site or on-site at any time, day or night.


The cart was carefully designed for maximum flexibility and automation. While non-technical staff can easily create new top-level categories, we chose to restrict this level of access to technical staff. Three product layouts were designed to accommodate diverse product display needs. 

One was designed for multiple product display with an image and product description, such as for store products. This layout is the most common for E-commerce sites. 

Screen Shot: Multiple Dinosaur Products

Fig. 1: Product Layout for Multiple Product Display

A second layout was designed for text description only, with additional functionality for dates, times, and number of youth and adult attending for Program registration.

Screen Shot: Program Registration Form

Fig. 2: Product Layout for Program Registration

A third layout was created for multiple product purchase at one time, such as General Admission E-tickets and Gift Certificates.

Screen Shot: Multiple purchases

Fig. 3:  Product Layout for Multiple Simultaneous Purchases


Increased security for the customer and the museum was implemented during this project. These security measures continue to be updated as technology evolves.

Ease of fulfillment and increased staff efficiencies

There is no centralized museum product fulfillment department. Fulfillment is the responsibility of the department responsible for the given product. As an order is received, an e-mail is sent to the staff person responsible, alerting the individual to the new order. Using the same administrative interface referenced earlier, non-technical staff complete fulfillment with a few mouse clicks. The final click closes the order, sends an "order shipped" e-mail to the customer, and charges the order to the credit card. Multiple manual steps were eliminated during this redesign.

Automation of product offerings also resulted in increased staff efficiencies.  It no longer became necessary for technical staff to manually maintain date-related products, putting them on-sale and taking them off-sale. For example, all classes available for registration automatically go live at midnight the day registration opens, and go off-sale when it closes. If the class is offered again later, only the dates and times need to be updated, since the product remains in the database until a staff member manually deletes it. Out-of-stock store products can be manually disabled and then re-enabled once the stock is replenished. This eliminates the data re-entry that existed in the past.

Improved customer service

In addition to the confirmation e-mail sent at the time of order fulfillment, the customer receives at the time of purchase an automated confirmation e-mail that contains a listing of the order. The letter contains general information specific only to the products in that order, such as contact information, product fulfillment expectations, or special instructions for a class. All products can be purchased in the same cart, and redundancies such as contact information and other information data entry are eliminated.

The introduction of E-tickets resulted in improved customer service during a visit to the museum. The web customer purchases the general admission E-ticket on-line and prints it. By doing this and bring the e-ticket to the museum, the customer avoids standing in Box Office lines to purchase admission tickets, and goes directly to the entrance gates.

Reduced need for outsourcing

Additional products and product types can quickly and easily be created by non-technical museum staff, as previously mentioned, but in addition to that, product content can be entered well in advance of the on-sale date, and automatically enabled on the appropriate date. This was not possible previously. In the past, it was often necessary to outsource the html coding of product offerings, due to time constraints or lack of staff with technical training. In addition to this, the ability to create forms was built into this functionality, so new forms or changes to existing forms do not have to be outsourced, and no additional technical staff need to be hired.

Evaluation and Where We Go from Here

Evaluation Process 

Although the final phase of the project was not implemented until the last quarter of 2003, evaluation was on-going throughout the project. Staff was asked to provide feedback regarding the functionality and usability from the administrative side. Minor changes were made along the way, some of which were outside the original scope of the project but increased efficiencies, so the additional cost was justifiable.

n August 2003, a more formal evaluation was done through an on-line survey sent to shopping cart customers. This survey lasted for two weeks. Since purchasers were already being sent an e-mail confirmation letter at the time of purchase, it seemed logical and practical to amend the message to include a link to a brief on-line survey. Customers were given a choice of 4-5 answers per question, with the option of additional comments at the end. The questions asked are listed below, followed by the responses.

1. What did you purchase?

  • Membership — 44%
  • Program registration — 40%
  • Field trip — 8%
  • No response — 8%

2. How many times have you made on-line purchases from us before?

  • 4 or more — 12%
  • 2-3  —  16%
  • 1  — 4%
  • First time — 60%
  • No response — 8%

3. How easy was it to navigate the site and complete the order?

  • Easy — 84%
  • OK — 16%
  • Somewhat complicated — 0%
  • Too complicated — 0%

4. How would you rate the time spent on purchase?

  • Excellent — 40%
  • Good — 44%
  • Somewhat time-consuming — 16%
  • Very time-consuming — 0%

5. How would you rate the quality of the products?

  • Excellent — 72%
  • Satisfied — 20%
  • Dissatisfied — 4%
  • Very dissatisfied — 0%

6. Overall, how would you rate the shopping cart experience?

  • Excellent — 44%
  • Good — 44%
  • Needs work — 12%
  • Won't visit again — 0%

The results overall were favorable, with 84% or above Excellent/Good ratings on each experience-related question. It is also interesting to note that while 60% of those surveyed were first-time buyers, the ease of navigation rating was high, indicating the process is intuitive and user-friendly. As expected, there were very few additional comments returned in the survey. As a follow-up, the survey will be repeated during 2004. It is possible that the survey questions may be modified prior to any further surveys.

Feedback was also informally collected through customer calls to the museum Call Center. Most comments were positive; however it was determined that a shopping cart FAQ section should be developed, as customer questions arose.

We began collecting shopping cart data in quarter four of 2003, and are currently establishing a baseline for sales in terms of dollars/product category, and number of reservations in product categories when that information is appropriate to data collection. In some cases, such as School Field Trip registration, the cost is determined by the size of the group; therefore, no money is collected on-line.  In those instances, the number of registrations per month is recorded. We are also tracking the number of states from which we receive orders.

By analyzing this data, we plan to be able to determine which services are meeting the needs of our customers and which are not. It is our intent to increase marketing efforts and adjust, enhance, or discontinue the products not relevant to museum E-commerce as deemed appropriate.

As new products are offered, they will be evaluated in the same or similar manner. Evaluating which Web statistics to take note of is also an on-going process, one of the challenges being, what do they actually tell us? Funds have been appropriated to adjust the content of the E-commerce reports as necessary.

Future Plans

The ability to buy an E-ticket was the most recent addition to the Web products, and perhaps the most innovative to-date. This product was created to alleviate long lines at the seasonal Haunted House, as well as to avoid increased staffing in the Call Center during this time of year to accommodate additional ticket sales. It is a product that has not been formally marketed; only a small image, "Buy Tickets On-line" was added to the front page of the Web site. In three months, 370 E-tickets have been sold.

Based on the popularity of this product and the positive impact it has on traffic management, lowered overhead, and improved customer service, the next product under development is Timed E-tickets. E-tickets were not a part of the original project, but, like Gift Certificates and Teacher Professional Development registration, have emerged as a new product that should meet a need. The Timed E-ticket functionality is almost to the testing phase and should be enabled during the first quarter of 2004.  Initially, the only ticket offered will be for "Dinosphere: Now You're in Their World," a multi-million dollar exhibit opening on June 11, 2004. Since the anticipated number of visitors should exceed the exhibit capacity, it will be necessary for guests to obtain a "session" ticket, valid only for a specified date and time. These restrictions require a series of enhancements to the existing E-tickets. Eventually, additional Timed E-tickets may be created for Lilly Theatre performances and Planetarium shows.

Future possible innovations include spontaneous admission discounts to boost attendance during slow days, or museum store discounts. The existing E-commerce functionality allows us to do these; all that remains is to determine if we should make them part of the business plan. This would allow the museum increased flexibility and the ability to react quickly to changing business conditions.

There has also been preliminary discussion on interfacing the E-commerce site to back-end applications which will provide real-time inventories and increase staff efficiencies by eliminating the need for duplicating data entry on two systems. This will require thorough research to determine feasibility and cost effectiveness. Research and analysis is scheduled for quarter three of 2004.

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks ahead is formalizing the method of pricing E-commerce products.Many E-commerce sites currently offer deep discounts, free shipping, or both to entice customers. At this point, museum pricing is the same on-line as it is using more conventional purchasing avenues. The current benefit to purchasing museum products on-line is NO line!