We’ve all seen those books for idiots (e.g., The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows 98). What we haven’t seen yet is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to E-commerce. If there were one, its main focus would most likely be the plethora of Internet companies out there that want to be your turnkey e- commerce hosting provider. A quick search of the Internet for e-commerce hosting turns up thousands and thousands of hits. It’s amazing the number of companies that want a piece of this multibillion-dollar business. Because there are so many choices, I thought it’d be a good idea to take a look at a few of the more popular turnkey e-commerce solutions available and point out some of their major features. Hopefully, this will make your selection of an e-commerce provider a little bit easier.
A Familiar Experience
The first thing you notice when you begin looking at turnkey e-commerce solutions is that they are all pretty much alike in functionality. That is, users make their way to the online store’s home page and are presented with the company’s logo and possibly some items the company wishes to highlight. From there, users can begin their online shopping experience. Searching for items, bringing up a product list, viewing an item’s description, adding an item to a shopping cart, viewing the contents of a shopping cart, checking out
(i.e., paying for purchases), and viewing account status can all be accomplished from a standard e-commerce site.
Since the basic e-commerce service offerings are pretty much the same, you’re left deciding which features are going to be most useful for your business. Here are some questions you might want to consider before choosing an e-commerce provider:
• How long has the company been in the business of providing this service?
• What kind of technical support can you expect when you experience problems?
• Will the provider help you advertise your goods and services?
• How much space on the provider’s server will you have to store your product information and transactions?
• Will the provider host your images, or will you need a separate server for this?
• Does the provider help you process payments, or is this your responsibility?
• What kind of security is available to protect private customer information, such as credit card transactions?
• What is it going to cost you?
These are just a few of the questions you should be asking potential turnkey e- commerce service providers. As you begin to research the various solutions available to you, you’ll probably think of more. Let’s begin that research by taking a look at just a few of the many turnkey e-commerce solutions available to you.
If you’re looking for an extremely low-cost solution to get your e-commerce business up and running, check out freemerchant.com. This site is devoted to providing you with an online store for absolutely no money. Freemerchant.com makes its money by advertising on your e-commerce store. That is, freemerchant.com contracts with advertisers that buy banner ads, which are placed on your online store’s Web pages. The more online stores that freemerchant.com signs up, the more space they have to post advertisements, and this results in more advertising dollars for them.
Freemerchant.com provides you, the seller, with all the software and services you need to easily put your products on the Web. Here’s a short list of the freebies you get when you sign up with freemerchant.com:
• Internet store hosting
• Image hosting
• Secure shopping cart
• Internet Store Builder
• Unlimited store catalog size
• Shipping calculator
• Tax calculator
• Technical support
Signing up with freemerchant.com is as simple as visiting its Web site and filling out a couple of online forms. From there, you are taken through a comprehensive tutorial on setting up your online store using freemerchant.com’s Store Builder software. This unique package takes all the work out of setting up an online store and makes the whole process fun and simple. In other words, you don’t have to have a lot of technical savvy to put together your online store.
Every online store needs to have its own domain name for customers to link to it. Most e-commerce providers assist you in obtaining this name from a domain name registration service. Freemerchant.com avoids this hassle and expense by letting you choose a unique store name, which is appended to freemerchant.com’s URL. So let’s say
your store name is Wallabies. Your customers would find your online store by typing in www.wallabies.safeshopper.com. A store named Snailtails would have a store on freemerchant.com with a URL of www. snailtails.safeshopper.com. While this is certainly easier and less expensive than going through the domain name registration process, it does pose a problem for those companies that wish to have a unique dot-com name. Another downside is that credit card payment information must be downloaded to your personal PC and processed either manually or, if you have a merchant account, through an online provider. Freemerchant.com does not assist you with this service.
Mal’s e-commerce is another great—and free—turnkey e-commerce solution. Here you will find an extensive online tutorial for using an e-commerce provider. By reviewing the tutorial before you get started, you can learn more about e-commerce than you ever thought you needed to know. Although you, as the seller, are responsible for building the various HTML links, which are stored on a server other than Mal’s, for products in your online store, Mal’s provides an easy-to-follow set of instructions for adding your product item numbers, quantity, and prices. Also available at Mal’s is an online FAQ page with a very good discussion, among other things, on the relative merits of using, or not using, security verification tools. These tools can help you to ensure that the prices for items your customers order are what they’re supposed to be and that someone hasn’t been messing around with your site. Some of the other sites let you discover the pitfalls of security the hard way: through experience!
Mal’s also offers support for currencies other than the U.S. dollar, including the new EURO. However, if folks in, say, Belgium can’t read what’s on your store because it’s in English, they’re not likely to buy anything. Mal’s provides support for up to 13 languages. Mal’s also offers limited advertising support and an online user forum to help you get the most out of your e-commerce experience. Mal’s does not let you upload images of your products, although it does let you provide links to those images on another server by adding the links to the online store’s HTML.
Although the initial online store is free, Mal’s also offers a “premium” service for a nominal fee. One of the best features of the premium service is the capability to interface your store with the online credit card payment companies, such as CyberCash, Authorize.Net, and Cardservice Hacom. This will let you process customer credit card payments directly, instead of having to download the credit card information to your own computer and process it manually.
Prodigy Business Solutions
Prodigy Business Solutions is a well-established name in the world of online communications. In June of 1999, Prodigy joined the e-commerce bandwagon and created a set of turnkey e-commerce solutions that pretty much fit businesses of any size. Prodigy has divided its services into three packages: Starter Class, Business Class, and Enterprise Class. Although these packages share many of the same features, the Business and Enterprise packages probably hold the most appeal for the majority of users.
While some e-commerce providers base their fees on the amount of server space you use, Prodigy chose not to do it that way. Prodigy provides as much server disk space as you’ll need to support the features of your chosen class. For example, the Business Class package allows you to have an online catalog that supports up to 100 items. This means that Prodigy will allocate enough storage space on their servers for all of your images and descriptions for those 100 items. The cost for this is built into the monthly maintenance fee. If you chose the Enterprise Class package, which lets you have an online catalog with up to 1,000 items, you’d have a corresponding amount of disk space on their server.
The following are some of the features available to you with Prodigy’s e-commerce solution:
• SiteBuilder Wizard. This is an easy-to-use method for nontechies to get their e-commerce sites up and running in minutes. (See Figure 1.)
• Web-based back-office administration. This lets you manage your site and track activity, among other things.
• Optional domain name registration services.
• Tax and shipping calculations.
• Many reporting tools. These allow you to easily track sales.
• Internet Merchant Account. This is available on the Business Class and Enterprise Class packages to allow online credit card transactions.
Unlike some of the other e-commerce sights mentioned in this article, Prodigy’s e- commerce solutions are not free. Each solution has a monthly maintenance fee. Why, then, should you subscribe to an online e-commerce provider that charges a monthly maintenance fee when there are so many free providers out there? How about stability? Prodigy, as a company, has been around for a long time and has a strong likelihood of continuing to be around far into the future. I couldn’t say that with any confidence about some of the other companies out there. This isn’t any kind of slight against those companies. It’s just that Prodigy already has a proven track record. Does anybody remember how many startup independent software vendors have come and gone over the last few years? Prodigy has the stability and longevity you may be looking for if you have long-term goals for your e- commerce store.
ACTWD Site Hosting
ACTWD Site Hosting is a turnkey e-commerce provider that reaches for a distinction in service by providing one-on-one support for its clients. That is, each online store is assigned a personalized technology support team to help its clients get online and resolve technical issues and to help them with any specific custom programming requirements and domain name registration issues. For a client with no technical experience or no time to spend implementing this relatively new technology of e-commerce, a complete turnkey solution like this goes over very well. ACTWD has been in the business of e-commerce solutions since 1997 and has a lot of experience in this particular Web discipline. ACTWD also supports clients around the world, so support for foreign languages and other currencies won’t be a problem. Like most of the fee-based services, ACTWD provides a given set of features, which gets progressively more expensive as more features are added.
Other E-commerce Providers
There are literally hundreds of companies offering to host your e-commerce Web site, each with something unique to offer. Before you make a decision, you should check out as many as you can. Here are some others that are worth mentioning:
• Affinity Hosting charges a monthly fee based on how much disk space you use.
• Cyberjoint Systems is a low-cost, few-frills, fee-based e-commerce and Web hosting site.
• WebHosting.Com is a tier- and fee-based e-commerce provider that offers many services comparable to Prodigy, including a real-time online credit-card-transaction-processing system.
• TheEarth.net is a fairly comprehensive e-commerce solution that just might fit the bill for small to midsized online businesses. (See Figure 2.)
• Virtualis is a turnkey e-commerce solution that offers programs to fit most online store requirements.
While using a turnkey e-commerce provider is a great way to get your e-business up and running in a hurry, you may want to consider what you’ll be missing out on by not doing it on your own. With a custom-designed package that you write in-house or perhaps commission to have written for you, you can personalize your e-business and mine it for information in ways that just aren’t available for you with a turnkey solution. For example, a custom solution that you host on your own site can allow you to sell advertising banners. In fact, that’s pretty much how the free providers make their money. This is revenue you will be missing out on if you let someone else host your service for you. Also, by hosting the site yourself, you will have access to all the demographic information of your Web visitors. A smart site administrator can take this information, catalogue and index it, and then use it to personalize advertising to the user. That would also make selling advertising space to vendors much easier as they can then target their ads to the audience that will be most interested in then.
WebSphere Commerce Suite for AS/400
If you decide to develop your own e-commerce site, yet still want an easy-to-implement solution, then check out IBM’s WebSphere Commerce Suite. This feature-rich development package runs right on your AS/400, letting you get the most out of your midrange IT investment. WebSphere lets you very rapidly develop custom e-commerce solutions without the necessity of having to learn how to program!
WebSphere Commerce Suite comes in two flavors, Start and Pro. The Start edition contains most of the features you’ll need to get your e-commerce site up and running in a hurry, such as a Store Creation Wizard and the WebSphere Payment server for secure Internet payments. The Pro edition contains those “extras,” such as support for Enterprise JavaBeans, DB2, and UDB, that let you get the absolute most out of your e-commerce Web site by interfacing your e-commerce data with the rest of your AS/400 data. Imagine tying Internet transactions from your e-commerce site directly into your general ledger database on your AS/400. That’s just one example of the kinds of information integration you’d lose access to by going with a completely turnkey solution. You can easily figure out what else you’d be losing out on by not doing it yourself. WebSphere is the kind of tool that will grow with your business. As your needs and skills improve, WebSphere will right there with you.
There are many e-commerce turnkey solutions out there. What you have to do now is hop onto the Web and start searching. As you begin researching turnkey e-commerce solutions, you’re going to find that getting your e-commerce site up and running quickly is not the problem. It’s choosing which provider or do-it-yourself solution is best for your needs that will be the real challenge.
References and Related Materials
• ACTWD Site Hosting: actwdsitehosting.com
• Cyberjoint Systems: cyberjoint.com/Internet/ Web_Hosting/Web_hosting.html
• freemerchant.com: www.freemerchant.com
• IBM WebSphere Commerce Suite: www.as400.ibm.com/sftsol/net-comm.htm
• Mal’s e-commerce: ait2000.com/index.htm
• Prodigy Business Solutions: prodigybusiness. com/content/services/ecom_index.html
• TheEarth.net: www.theearth.net/signup.cfm
• Virtualis: www.virtualis.com/vr/stanna/ecommerce.html
• WebHosting.Com: Webhosting.com/pages/ e_Webhost/e_Webhost.htm
Figure 1: Using Prodigy's SiteBuilder Wizard, you can quickly build an online store.
Figure 2: TheEarth.net is just one of the thousands of turnkey e-commerce providers available to you.