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The e-commerce dilemma

Should you hire an outsourcer or do IT yourself?

Whether you’re a single mother from Seattle or a Miami multinational, if you have something to sell, the barriers to gaining entry into the retail marketplace have never been lower. Depending upon your computer literacy and sense of design, you can create an e-commerce-enabled Web site for as little as $99, or go with an existing online storefront for $1,000 to $1,500 dollars per year. On the other hand, you can easily spend $2 million.

Over the last six months, the junk e-mail touting e-commerce-enabling products has flooded my e-mail account. All these e-commerce solutions differ in how they are set up, how they operate, and how much they cost. Some can actually be a drag on your business.

I recently tried to pay for services using a Web site that had been e-commerce enabled by PayPal–an external vendor. When I finally got PayPal to accept my credit card, it informed me that I’d have to set up an online bank account prior to being able to pay! When I e-mailed the site’s webmaster, he informed me I was one of eight people who had tried to use the service. Only one of the eight was actually able to execute a transaction. Obviously, this particular e-commerce solution was a dismal failure.

But there are solutions that work and won’t break the bank. How can you enable your site so that your e-commerce solution is a benefit rather than a detriment? And how much will it cost? That depends on what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Basic storefronts

Enabling your Web site for e-commerce has never been simpler. If you have average or below-average computer literacy, you should find a vendor to host and maintain your storefront. Depending on the number of items you have to sell and the complexity of your site, a good vendor can get it up and running in a weekend, if not by Saturday night. Plan to spend anywhere from $35 to $125 per month for this type of service.

If, on the other hand, you have passing familiarity with Web technology and a willingness to learn, you can acquire e-commerce-enabling software and do it yourself. If you’re up to it, you can probably set it up in a weekend, if not by Saturday afternoon. Several software packages exist, all with price tags below $1,000. Some software is shareware and can be downloaded and tried for free. But make sure you weigh the ramifications of setting up your own e-commerce site. Secured servers, merchant accounts for accepting credit cards, inventory control, and summary reporting are just a few of the headaches you’ll face.

For those managing their sites with FrontPage 2000, DreamWeaver, or another standard site-management tool, there are extremely low-tech alternatives. Depending on the size of your site, what you’re selling, and the cost, you can acquire or develop a plug-in or similar catalog-enabling add-on. These can be used to at least provide a catalog of your offerings. When users want to buy, they contact the site and arrange for payment using whatever method the business and the customer can arrange.

If all you’re contemplating is setting up an online catalog, you can be up and running your storefront in a weekend, if not by Saturday morning.

Complex e-commerce

Genuine e-commerce (the kind required to both review products or services and pay for them via the Web) is an entirely different, more complex process than simply displaying a catalog of items.

The simplest way to get an e-commerce Web site up and running is to use an online e-commerce hosting service. Some good examples include 3Wcorp Inc.’s E-Commerce Hosting solution, and Yahoo! Store, though they are not alone. Using e-commerce hosting services, you can set up your own storefront without having to know any HTML code for as little as $34.95 per month, plus some initial setup fees. You can use online templates and catalog entry forms to build your site and populate it with products. And you can set it up with your own domain name–for instance, www.yournamehere. com–or piggyback onto the e-commerce provider’s URL, as in www. ecommerceprovider.com/yournamehere.

The domain name issue begins to expose some of the problems with using an e-commerce hosting service. If your ISP does not offer e-commerce hosting services but you want to continue using your own URL, you’ll have to transfer your URL to a different host.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a merchant account and are not yet set up with a storefront or the ability to accept credit cards, most e-commerce services will walk you through the process of creating an account. Provided you don’t have a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in your past or massive credit-card debt, your site can be up and accepting credit-card transactions in as little as one to three days.

Of course, there’s a fee. Rates vary, but most small retailers will be paying an e-commerce provider anywhere from $35 to $100 per month, an additional $20 to $25 a month for the merchant account, plus 20 cents per transaction, plus other potential fees. Read the fine print.

Having someone host your storefront can be an excellent, effective, simple, and inexpensive way to create a retail presence on the Web, but shop around. We found 3Wcorp Inc. and Yahoo! Store notable for their simplicity and explicit identification of costs, but they are not alone. LookSmart Shops, A.M. Stone, and FreeMerchant.com are some other possibilities.

And while the Internet is global when there’s money involved, it’s always good to be able to settle disagreements face-to-face. Major metropolitan areas are all going to have e-commerce hosting services similar to these providers. If you want to be able to talk to someone in person, investigate the local possibilities.

With regard to small retail business on the Web, just remember there are plenty of charlatans and carpetbaggers. Beware of those who tout free storefront Web sites. Do your research and plan to spend a little time. Nothing in life is free, and nowhere is this truer than in e-business.

In spite of its complexity, there are many Web site owners and managers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and wade into the muddy waters of e-commerce setup and design. For these brave explorers there is some good news.

Navigate to your favorite tech site that offers a library of software/shareware downloads and do a search on e-commerce. If you’re researching software you’ll find several potential e-commerce software possibilities.

Titles like Commerce.cgi (free), Storefront Web Creator ($187 per year), MyStore ($99), and VirtualShop (approximately $200)–to name only a few–are software applications designed for the do-it-yourselfer. And, perhaps best of all, these titles can all be downloaded and tried for free.

These applications can be used to set up online catalogs, shopping-cart software, secure transaction processing, and all of the other features most people associate with e-commerce. In order to make full use of the features, retailers will still need to set up or have their own merchant account and ability to accept credit cards or other forms of payment.

These applications will also provide users with a variety of summary reporting tools. You can use them to automatically notify you of a new order, respond to the customer, tell you how many widgets were sold during a given day, week, month or other time period, and perform similar summary reporting capabilities.

If you’re selling anything or planning to sell, you’re facing some interesting choices. Will you offer a simple order form or shopping cart sophistication? Are you going to accept credit cards? Will you join up with an online storefront turnkey operation, or design and set up your own e-commerce site? Never before has it been so easy to enter the retail marketplace. Today’s market offers users multiple e-commerce solutions.

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