Building an online commerce site is a complex undertaking, and creating and managing one requires technical know-how and careful analysis of your business's resources. Generally, there are three ways you can establish an Internet commerce presence: Use a turnkey firm, an Internet service provider (ISP) or do it all yourself.
Some Internet marketing and retailing companies specialize in creating all-encompassing online commerce sites. Most offer a comprehensive solution that includes everything from analysis of your target market and design of your site to the actual site development, implementation of electronic payment processing, and overall site management. Most are very professional and take the dirty work out of your hands, but they generally cost thousands of dollars.
One company that specializes in the creation and management of Web commerce sites is Digital Boardwalk (http://www.digitalboardwalk.com ). It will build your site and provide a variety of services to help with promotions for your online store. Digital Boardwalk will even fulfill the orders for you (if you ship them your product) so you're never involved in daily operations.
Yet for many small businesses, turning to an ISP is probably the most practical solution. Some ISPs handle the design, order and payment processing issues. However, if you already have a Web site and just want to add commerce services or if you have the technical know-how to design the site yourself, ISPs can provide value-added services such as ordering and credit-card processing.
Keep in mind, few ISPs specialize in extensive commerce services, so consider your needs carefully before selecting a company, advises Sullivan-Trainor. Ask about the reliability of the ISP's hosting services and what kind of security methods are used for processing payments. Also be sure to check out other sites the ISP has built. Besides just being able to post an online catalog, it should have the marketing and technical savvy to draw customers to your site and keep them there so they'll buy again and again.
If it's business-to-business commerce you're interested in, choose an ISP specializing in the development of secure and reliable "extranets." Extranets connect companies' Web sites (and aren't accessible by the general public), so business transactions with partners and suppliers can be conducted online. A good way to find ISPs with the most suitable online commerce services is to check out the buyer's guide of ISPs at http://www.thelist.com
If you or your employees have the technical expertise, you can build and host a commerce site yourself. But before you do, cautions Sullivan-Trainor, become knowledgeable about custom programming, standard commerce and security issues, and third-party hardware and software vendors.
Web commerce development and management programs aimed at small businesses have hit the market recently. Tools range from templates that design online catalogs and software that performs sales reporting and inventory management to more advanced programs that integrate customer databases with your inventory data to display personalized promotions targeted to your site visitors' purchasing habits. The cost of these programs ranges from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on how advanced their capabilities are.
A more entry-level application is Internet Business Breakthrough ($249) from Breakthrough Software. It has 50 easy-to-use, pre-designed templates to create, organize and publish an online store. Order forms and processing features to take orders electronically are included; you can also publish your site on the Internet with the click of a mouse button if you use one of the authorized ISPs that Breakthrough Software partners with.
IBM has a popular program called Net.Commerce for more advanced business-to-business and retail-oriented sites. Flexible design templates, "Shopping Carts" to take electronic orders and Address Books to indicate where a product should be shipped are included. There are also features to help you build a customer registration process complete with user passwords, import product databases and manage your inventory. Net.Commerce can be used with the Netscape Enterprise Server or IBM's Internet Connection Secure Server (included); the price begins at $4,995 per server.