It sounds like a late-night infomercial: Go from zero to e-commerce in less than 24 hours! No HTML required! No high-paid Web design firms! Just point and click your way to an online e-commerce presence! Welcome to the wide world of browser-based build-your-own-Net-store services. Keep in mind, this approach works better for product-oriented businesses than service businesses. Essentially, you're putting together your own little Amazon.com. It's good for brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs wanting a quick online presence, but it also works for Net-only start-ups. You get a low overhead Web presence and all your services from one provider. Is a do-it-yourself Web site right for you? I visited three leaders in the arena to figure out what's alluring about them . . . and what's lacking.
Three's A Charm
Yahoo!: Yahoo! Store is advertised on the Yahoo! main page with the tag line "Build an online store in 10 minutes." I decided to try out the free test drive. Within five minutes, I was signed up. In another 10, I had my first two items listed, a picture uploaded and an info page prepared. The interface is intuitive, requiring only a browser to use, and the resulting Web site was easy to navigate and had a professional appearance. Any test site you make here is good for 10 days; after that, you have to switch to a regular account. Users pay a monthly flat rate-$100 for up to 50 items, $300 for up to 1,000 items and $100 for each additional 1,000 items. Credit card processing costs extra.
Yahoo! will also put your site on its Yahoo! Shopping listing for the price of adherence to the com-pany's customer service guidelines and a revenue-sharing rate of 2 percent for sales exceeding $5,000 in a month. Yahoo! Shopping can get you exposure and customers, but check out your competition. It's no use listing here if they offer the same products for less.
AOL: AOL has its fingers in the Net-storefront pie, too. Its small-business offerings are melded together at the Netscape Netbusiness site. The storefront option comes from partner site BigStep.com, which offers free basic sites with no setup or monthly fees.
If you want your own domain name or credit card processing, though, you've got to pay for it. Domain names through Network Solutions cost $70 for two years. Otherwise, you'll get a www.yourname.bigstep.com URL instead. A merchant account (which is required for credit card processing) is $24.95 per month with per-transaction fees of 2.35 percent plus 20 cents.
I took the free BigStep Test Drive, and in less than five minutes, I was previewing my welcome page. The toughest part was choosing a color scheme. (I used "cashew.") The resulting page was extremely basic; you have to complete the BigStep sign-up to access more options. But the Test Drive does show BigStep's ease of use.
Microsoft: To complete my triumvirate of big players, I went to Microsoft's small-business bastion, bCentral.com. The $24.95-per-month Business Web package includes a Web address and a multipage site with up to 40MB of space. As with Yahoo! and AOL, it's all point-and-click with preset templates to choose from. For an additional $24.95 per month, you can get the Commerce Manager package, which includes an online store, access to Microsoft partner marketplaces and order processing. Real-time credit card processing tacks on additional fees.
BCentral doesn't have a test drive equivalent to Yahoo! or BigStep, but clicking the "Quick tour" link shows you sample pages with explanations. It's enough to get a feel for the process.
Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft are just a few options-go exploring and find the provider you prefer. If possible, spring for your own domain name. It projects a more professional image and is easier to remember than a sub-domain. Credit card processing is also essential, although this is where the fees add up in per-transaction charges, merchant account charges, etc.
Access to marketplaces, whether auctions or mall-style shopping sites, can be advantageous. However, competition is likely to be stiff. Visit some marketplaces and decide whether it's worth your while to be included. Rome wasn't built in a day . . . but your online store can be.