A truly effective e-commerce site should have features including an interactive catalog that links directly to inventory, automated shipping and tracking, a system to collect and verify credit card orders and maybe even a bit of customer personalization, say site developers.
These systems can be pieced together on a shoestring or can cost as much as a company wants to spend, depending on the size and sophistication of the real and virtual businesses.
Decide what you want
Small-business owners who make the leap into cyberspace often begin by going to their local computer store and buying a packaged solution. What they usually find is that while these canned products are an easy route to setting up a basic Web page, retail showroom or catalog, they do not offer such things as inventory, sales and shipment tracking, or credit card validation.
In order to get all those pieces, they must turn to a third-party systems integrator or a consultant who specializes in building retail or business-to-business Web sites.
"It is difficult for them to even know what a VAR [value-added reseller] is or to find a system," says Tim Washer, an analyst with Access Media International, a New York-based research firm.
Mr. Washer says only about one-fourth of the small businesses with electronic commerce Web sites have the ability to accept credit card transactions.
When setting up an e-commerce site, a good first step is to decide what you want to accomplish.
Companies that simply want to be on the Web can probably make-do with Microsoft's FrontPage, which sells for $125.95, or the page creation abilities built into Netscape. These can then be posted through an Internet service provider, or perhaps on a Web site hosted by a local business association.
Those with broader goals should look for a developer well-versed in e-commerce, especially if they have no one on staff who knows the eccentricities of HTML, Java and other Web hieroglyphics.
Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. have consulting Web sites that offer step-by-step guidance for launching a Web-based business.
At the Microsoft site, visitors are told how to use the FrontPage Explorer to build a four-page Web site complete with graphics, navigation bars and hyperlinks. The site also has information on updating pages, adding tables and lists, creating scrolling marquees and even collecting feedback from visitors.
Microsoft takes this a few steps further with its SiteServer software, which costs about $2,000 for a five-client system and $2,600 for a 25-client system, and add-ons, which make up a serious collection of e-commerce tools that can be snapped together to build a sophisticated virtual shop. The more extensive SiteServer Commerce Edition costs about $5,000 for a 50-user system.
Among these tools is the Microsoft Wallet, which is basically a point-and-click system of setting up credit card transactions for your customers.
"You don't need a Unix guru in-house to manage your system," says Paul Cimino, CEO of Snickleways Interactive, a company that specializes in building business-to-business Web sites.
Snickleways uses Microsoft's NT and SiteServer as a base, and then adds a number of supporting plug-in software modules, depending on what a customer wants. These include CyberCash and VeriSign software for credit collection and authorization; software from TanData to handle shipping, freight and postage duties; and Taxware International applications to take care of taxes.
IBM has a similar Web site, the IBM WebSphere Studio, which serves up a lot of basic advice along with product material and price lists.
A subset of this is IBM's Net.Commerce site, which includes hyperlinks to IBM business partner sites, several of which are third-party integrators that use IBM hardware and software to construct Web businesses for clients.
One of these integrators is Web Emporium, which was founded in 1995 by David Pulver, a systems engineer who had an extensive background in manufacturing and online information systems. In fact, Web Emporium developed an online store for 1-800-Batteries, which boasts more than 20,000 products and ships worldwide.
Internet service providers are also a good source for smaller-scale Web entrepreneurs looking for all of the benefits of a Web-based business without any of the technical baggage.
For example, Channel1 Communications, Cambridge, Mass., offers a laundry list of services to businesses, ranging from a basic presence to a full-blown virtual storefront. The company will design a business Web site for about $75 an hour and install it for an additional $50. It will host a basic Web site for about $25 a month or establish a virtual kiosk on its mall that can showcase up to 10 products for $50 a month.
Beyond that, Channel1 also offers to create a boutique that can handle up to 50 products, an anchor store for up to 500 products, and a superstore for an unlimited number of products. Setup options and fees for these virtual stores range from $250 to $625.
Still, most of the company's customers are new to the Web and more concerned with name recognition and the basic design of the site.
"A lot of the times, the issues are internal," says Seah Levy, sales and marketing director for Channel1.