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Setting up a SOHO shop online

On the Web, nobody knows your dog is your marketing director. Web shop feature hed: Setting up a SOHO shop online dek: on the Web, nobody knows your dog is your marketing director. by Molly Joss

Job No. 1 for entrepreneurs setting up shop for the first time is to put a good face on your company. Your operation might consist of a phone, a laptop, and a dot-matrix printer, but no one will know this if you have excellent marketing materials. Of course, this includes business cards and the like. But these days, your Web site is the single most effective aspect of your marketing plan.

Web presence is essential. But consider how much more effective it would be if it were integrated into some sort of commerce model. If you plan to quit your day job and become a consultant, you will find that you will spend most of your time drumming up business, leaving precious few billable hours. Suddenly, $50 an hour doesn’t look that great when you’re only able to bill for 20 hours a week because you spend the other 40 hours making sales calls. For this reason, an effective SOHO Web site must also enable potential clients to order products and services.

You can set up shop on the Web by listing your product or service information on a Web site that tells people to mail you their checks when they order. You won’t book a lot of business, but you’ll have a Web shop. If you want to open up a shop online that is going to stand a chance of making you some real money, you’re going to have to spend some money and make some choices.

You can opt to have someone else, such as a Web site developer, create your shop for you and hand you the electronic keys. That’s going to cost you some money up front–at least a few thousand dollars–and some money on an on-going basis for maintenance and changes.

But you don’t have to hire a Web genius to get a good commerce site going. You can create your own online shop or even an entire mall with a few low-cost tools and a little bit of tinkering or training. And you don’t have to be a computer programmer to use these tools. You do have to be computer-literate, however, and comfortable with the idea of learning as you go.

If you go it alone, you’ve got more choices ahead of you before you can swing open the doors to your shop. You must decide which site features you must have, those you’d like to have, and those that you can do without. You must also decide whether to buy or rent the software to make and maintain your site. All these decisions will help determine which storefront software package is the best do-it-yourself solution for you.

Before you make your final decision, make sure your ISP will cheerfully support the software you have in mind. Some ISPs like FrontPage and only FrontPage; they act as if no other Web site creation software exists. If that’s the case, you can either opt for storefront software that’s compatible with FrontPage or find another ISP.

It’s the features, baby

If all you want to do is go a few steps ahead of a product list on your Web site, then just about any storefront software will get you where you want to go. Let price be your guide, and pick the least expensive software you can find. What you will get is software that lets you plunk small photos of your products on a Web page and (maybe) link those pictures to a price list.

To build an upscale online shop or mall, look for features that let you cover the gamut of retail operations, including the shop floor, back room and marketing, and promotions. Decide before you start shopping which of the traditional retail features are most important to you, and don’t buy software that doesn’t have those features.

Shop-floor features for online shops include flexible layouts for product display, search capabilities, and the ability to accept and process credit-card payments. Back room features are abilities such as inventory control and item tracking, individual customer account tracking and shipping.

If you have a lot of merchandise to market and sell online, you will want to make sure the storefront software comes with built-in links to the major database formats. Even if you only have a few dozen items, you will want to put the product information into a database and let the storefront software fetch it when it’s needed. To facilitate data on demand, your storefront software must hook up easily with your database.

Marketing and promotion features are the ones that really help set online software packages apart. The ability to award bonus or purchase points to customers and the ability to track purchases on a customer and product basis are two examples of these kinds of features. Other features include being able to discount or run specials on individual products or services rather than the entire set.

Some storefront packages let you take full advantage of the online world by making it easy to communicate with customers and prospects via e-mail. They let you set up mailing lists so you can send out notices of sales and specials without spending a dime in printing costs or postage.

If you sell your time–which means you’re in the service business–you can still set up shop online using these software programs. You can add e-commerce to your existing Web site or create another site and link it to your main business site. Create something you can sell, but which also helps promote your service offerings. Write a book or some pamphlets and sell those online as a way for people to “sample” you. Or, find a product that you might use in your services and sell it. For example, if you help people organize their homes and offices, sell a few really good products related to that (such as filing bins, time management tools).

In addition, you can use all the marketing and promotional features, plus the e-mail marketing ones, in the storefront software to help promote your services. Unless you stock a lot of products, though, you wouldn’t need to use the database links.

Two examples

There are dozens of storefront software packages to consider, including those that break the online retail operation into segments such as storefront construction, shopping carts, and online transactions. Don’t despair, though. With a list of must-have, desired, and couldn’t-care-less features in hand, you’ll be able to make your purchasing decisions quickly.

To give you an idea of what kind of storefront software you can buy for $1,000 or less, here are details on two popular storefront software packages: Web+Shop from TalentSoft www.talentsoft and StoreFront from LaGarde Inc. www.storefront.net. Each product has everything you need to get a basic shop up and running. Each also has some advanced storefront features such as inventory management and built-in database hooks.

Web+Shop runs on top of the Web+ Application Server, which means that both must be installed on the server that hosts the shop. This can be a problem if your ISP is not using Web+, but it’s no problem if you want to host your own site. It’s also not a problem if you want to run your server on something other than a Windows box. Web+ can run on the Windows OS and on Unix/Linux.

StoreFront 5 Standard Edition is an e-commerce plug-in for FrontPage, which means you can create a site in FrontPage and add e-commerce features later. You don’t need any proprietary Web server software to use StoreFront, but the host system has to be a Windows NT IIS server.

Don’t be surprised to find that the software you are considering was designed to work in a particular kind of server environment. Many e-commerce software packages, including storefront software applications, tie directly into Web server functions. Creating a version for every server and every Web site creation tool is too expensive and time-consuming for some software developers, so they opt for only one in each category.

If you are a Web site developer and would like to hand over the sites you develop for clients after you’ve completed the initial development, pay particular attention to a storefront software’s Web server and Web site creation software requirements. Make sure the software you purchase can blend easily with several different Web servers. Otherwise, you may end up redoing the development work so that the client can take the project over.

TalentSoft and LaGarde make other e-commerce-related products. Web+Mall is a product much like Web+Shop, except that you can use it to create a collection of online stores on one site. StoreFront 5.0 Advanced Edition has more advanced features than the Standard Edition, including multi-tier pricing. Merchant Tools is a set of HTML Web site administration tools designed for remote site-maintenance needs.

Software for rent

If you would rather rent your storefront software than buy it, prepare to do research about companies as well as products. Making the decision to buy your storefront software versus renting it from a company has a lot to do with how comfortable you are with putting the future of your shop in another company’s hands. If you buy the software, you have it forever. Even if the company goes out of business later, you can still have the software you need in order to run your shop. If the back door to your shop is through the software provider’s Web site, access to your shop could evaporate if the company disappears.

If you decide that you like the pluses of renting software–such as not having to install or maintain software, or always having the latest version handy–check out the reputation and history of the application service provider before you set up shop with the company. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions about contingency plans for coping with down servers, disasters, and even prolonged power outages.

Paying for the use of a company’s software can be a good idea if you want to experiment with online retail before making a serious monetary commitment for servers and your own storefront software. You get to try out the idea to see if it works for your business without putting out a big capital expense.

Build to suit

One of the great advantages of doing something yourself is that whatever you create is truly your own. You can make it as good as you want it to be and the only costs are the tools and your time. There are some easy-to-use and affordable tools for creating your own online store, which means that you can create the shopping experience you have always dreamed of. It’s never been easier to open up shop online, and it’s a lot less expensive to rent space on a Web server than in the local mall. Plus, it’s easier to find a parking space on the Internet.

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