How Low?

Five Options to Get Started

1. bCentral
Microsoft's bCentraloffers a hosting package for $49.95 a month and an e-commerce package for another $24.95 monthly. There's also a $35 setup fee. The e-commerce plan lets you start with templates and use various tools to add logos and build product catalogs. It includes a shopping cart, sales- and order-tracking, automatic e-mail order confirmations, customer traffic reports and PayPal Merchant Services. Telephone support is available for a fee. You can try the service free for a month.

Pros: No per-sale fee; allows you to also list your products on several other popular auction and shopping sites, including eBay, MSN Marketplace and uBid

Cons: Limited shipping options; lacks significant traffic-building services

2. eBay Stores
EBay Storesare priced at three levels, depending mainly on how much promotion the store receives within eBay. The $9.95 monthly Basic store gets only a few simple directory listings and no sales or traffic reports. For $49.95, a Featured store gets priority placement in related product searches and some monthly reports. The $500 Anchor stores are showcased on eBay Stores directory pages, get premium placements in search results, and receive 1 million impressions of their logo throughout eBay.

Pros: Inexpensive for a Basic store; lots of traffic from eBay's 42 million users

Cons: Rudimentary store-building tool; produces basic sites that look like any auction site

3. Homestead Storefront
Homestead's Storefront e-commerce solution is priced from $29.99 to $130 monthly, depending on how many products you list and whether you opt for the Basic or Plus version. Both include hosting and employ Homestead's easy-to-use setup wizard, SiteBuilder software, templates and store manager. You can assign different price points to products by attribute, such as size or color; send order confirmation e-mails; and offer quantity discounts and other extras.

Homestead Storefrontworks with most major online merchant accounts to process credit card payments online; if you don't already have one, Homestead will set up an account for another $22.95 per month. Standard features include basic Web site visitor statistics and a search engine submission service. Additional promotional packages start at $4.99 and go up to $69.99 a month.

Pros: Easy-to-use drag-and-drop SiteBuilder tool; well-regarded customer service

Cons: Still has something of a "free Web site" stigma; standard bundled promotional tools are rudimentary

4. ISP "Web Site in a Box"
Many large, reputable ISPs and hosting services offer affordable and worthwhile "Web site in a box" solutions for e-commerce start-ups. As a rule, these give you more options than other solutions, but are also more complex to manage.

For instance, DellHost, a service now operated by Sprint, sells a $449 Web site starter kit that includes domain name registration, a three-page professionally designed Web site and a year's worth of basic hosting. Such ISP-based e-commerce solutions are good for information-intensive applications.

Pros: Allows for more sophistication and flexibility; 24-hour toll-free telephone support included with most packages

Cons: Bundled e-commerce software that's harder to use than site-builder services; may employ dynamic Web pages not readily indexed by search engines

5. Yahoo! Stores
This is the most recommended solution for low-cost e-commerce. Hosting is $49.95 a month--with a one-month free trial offer-and charges for e-commerce include 10 cents per item listed per month, 0.5 percent of each transaction and 3.5 percent if the referral came from the Yahoo! Network. Domain name registration is included, or you can use your existing domain name for $10 a year. Get daily sales and visitor statistics, apply for a merchant account through Yahoo!, and upload existing product databases to create a catalog with just a few clicks.

Pros: Low-cost e-commerce solution; combines, flexibility, reliability and a full set of features

Cons: Relies heavily on templates, so your store won't necessarily have a distinctive look unless you master HTML; can submit your store for inclusion in Yahoo! Directory, but listing not guaranteed--even if you pay their fee

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This article was originally published in the June 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: How Low?.

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