Once you've identified a few possible solutions, it's time to start weighing them against your concerns.
- Price: E-commerce solution sellers have packages to fit almost any pocketbook. Web Site Sourceoffers what may be the cheapest e-commerce package around, including a shopping cart and secure connection, for as low as $8.95 monthly if you pay for three months in advance.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can pay $1,000 a month for a dedicated server, plus tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to e-commerce site developers to create a one-of-a-kind site.
One thing experts warn against is trying to scrape by with a free hosting solution. Having pop-up ads on your site will only drive customers away, and free hosts generally lack the security and reliability of paid hosts. "I would caution people away from looking for a zero-cost option," says Homestead CEO and co-founder Justin Kitch. "It you're serious about starting a business, you need to invest."
- Site-building: The site-building tools offered by providers such as Homestead and Yahoo! Stores are generally easy for nonprogrammers to use. Among the features to look for are a wide selection of customizable templates, quick updating of inventory, and other changeable information.
Also consider the look and feel of your Web site. Rudimentary site-building tools like those offered by eBay Stores result in plain, undistinguished online storefronts. "The eBay Stores aren't really like a store," says Bob Kerstein, who has used a variety of providers, including eBay Stores, to sell antique stock certificates online with his e-commerce storefront, Scripophily.com. "It's the same thing as an auction listing." To find out what your store will probably look like, check out some other online vendors who use the same provider.
- Back end: Get Web traffic reports that provide fresh, complete information on people who visit your site, including where they came from and how long and where they stayed while they were in your store. Other useful functions include a broad array of shipping options, automatic sales tax calculation, online payment options and flexible product listing.
- Marketing assistance: Providers like Yahoo! and eBay let you tap into their huge streams of traffic-for a fee-while ISPs may have no such traffic for you to use. Also consider active marketing. Many effective online marketers sign up visitors to receive free e-mail newsletters, for instance. Good stores have an e-mail opt-in button to make it easy for people to sign up.
Low-cost e-commerce solutions offer the beginning e-commerce merchant viable routes to test a business idea without over-committing scarce resources. Then, if things work out, it's possible to expand the business as big as the market will allow.
The Internet isn't as confusing as it was a few years ago, but the decision about where to start your e-commerce business still requires some homework. Fortunately, you can use the Web to do almost all your research, and much of the legwork has already been done for you. Most e-commerce solution sellers let you compare options between various plans by simply clicking on a button at their Web site. CNET.com, an online technology publication, regularly reviews and compares low-cost e-commerce solutions. TopHosts also provides a directory and capsule descriptions of leading e-commerce Web hosts.
Austin, Texas, writer Mark Henricks has covered business and technology for leading publications since 1981.