Virtual Storefronts

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 01, 2000
by Wayne Kawamoto

Five solutions that will get your business on the Web traditional brick-and-mortar stores have a definite place in the business world, but today it's the virtual storefronts that are getting all of the attention. They allow business to sell on the Web, where geographical boundaries and proximity no longer exist.

In order to cash in on Web sales, however, a virtual storefront is needed.

With the right amount of in-house expertise, you can create your own site instead of paying someone else to do it.

One option is to turn to an ISP or other service provider (see main guide) to get the job done. The other, which we discuss in the next few pages, is to buy an off-the-shelf product.

There are numerous software products available to get you up and selling in no time. The packages we cover here have far greater functionality than the basic Web authoring programs that the service providers bundle.

Keep in mind that a site still needs to be hosted and maintained whether it is created in house or out.

Sites created with any of these packages may be hosted by any ISP. In addition, some of the companies offer hosting services as well, so be sure to check out each company's full range of offerings before making any final decisions about a package.

HOW WE TESTED
We used each of the products to build an e-commerce site for a fictitious business that sells computers and computer accessories. We evaluated each product based on its ability to create attractive, professional-looking sites and online catalogs, complete with our test images.

Particularly important to us was how easy each product was to use, the sophistication of the final Web site, and the ease with which a customer could navigate and buy goods on it.

We also evaluated each product's ability to process orders, modify products for price changes and specials, and looked at how easy it was to import existing product information into each program without retyping it.

Finally, to get an idea of how well these products suit small businesses, we spoke with business owners who use them.

Actinic Catalog
Rating 87

Actinic Catalog is an easy-to-use Web site creation program that builds attractive Web sites. However, the program falls slightly short of the best products we tested. The $400 software offers an outline approach that organizes products into categories. It's an intuitive approach that works, but it doesn't do a great job of walking users through the entire design process.

One advantage, however, is that it's easy to define and modify products for pricing and other factors, and to re-sort them into different categories.

Using the Actinic software, we created an attractive online catalog that was easy to navigate. While the program offers only six different site themes, they are appealing and they do provide an adequate number of color-scheme options.

Like the other programs we tested, Actinic imports existing inventory information as comma-delimited ASCII files.

When a customer orders a product, it is stored in an order file at the Web site. Actinic users periodically download the orders and the software can be set to automatically send an e-mail to the host whenever a new order is received.

Actinic Catalog supports services for credit card processing, but it does not support check processing. For security, the software uses 128-bit encryption within the browser of the buyer's PC, and decodes the transaction after it is downloaded from the site.

"Adding a product is basically a point and click operation," says Earle W. Judd, Internet director at Bruce Titus' Tacoma Nissan-Subaru. "You don't have to know how to use developers' tools." Judd used Actinic Catalog to create two commerce sites: one for the car dealership's Subaru parts catalog and one for its Nissan accessories. Combined, the two sites receive over a quarter of a million hits per month, and at press time (December 1999) they were expected to earn the company $500,000 in online revenue last year.

"Actinic was inexpensive and only charged a one-time fee," adds Judd. "The last thing we wanted to do was to hire somebody else [to create the Web site]."

There's nothing to fault in Actinic Catalog ­ it performs the job that it was designed to do. But there are other programs that are more thorough and easier to use.

ecBuilder Pro 4.0
Rating 93

If you want a program that's easy to use and that has all of the e-commerce extras, Multiactive's ecBuilder Pro 4.0 is the package of choice. It offers an excellent step-by-step approach that walks users through the process of creating an e-commerce site, and it is the most thorough package of the bunch.

We liked the program's pre-defined business categories, which made it easy to define products for different industries.

The program's 30 templates are attractive, and there are 18 different color schemes to choose from. ecBuilder Pro creates sites that are simple for customers to navigate and use. We were able to easily designate products with discounts that run on certain dates or for a particular duration.

Like the other programs in this guide, ecBuilder Pro could only import our existing inventory database via a comma delimited ASCII file. For security, ecBuilder Pro includes SSL-based encryption. One feature we were particularly impressed with was the program's automatic site promotion features.

As you build a site, you select popular Internet search engines to promote your site, and define the keywords that will bring your site up in searches. Each ecBuilder Web site also includes a template for a storefront Web page that includes the company profile, name, and logo.

ecBuilder Pro supports automatic credit card processing, but doesn't support check processing. The site sends out an alert e-mail when it receives an order, and sends the customer a confirmation e-mail as well. A password-protected section of the site must be entered in order to view orders.

"Just follow it and it creates a great Web site," says Joe Vantroyen, president of Vantro Holdings, an import and export company. "It was easy to set up and design, and I like the preset templates."

Vantroyen used ecBuilder Pro to create his e-commerce site, which displays and sells artwork from artists in British Columbia, Canada. Vantroyen is completely self-taught, but had no problems figuring out how to use the program to build his company's Web site.

Overall, ecBuilder Pro is hard to beat. It offers the most thorough approach of any of the programs here, and is the easiest to use. On the downside, it's somewhat pricey at $499, but for the most part you get what you pay for.

The program also comes in a Standard version that offers fewer templates and handles only up to 100 catalog items (the Pro version handles up to 5,000 catalog items). If you're ready to enter the e-commerce world, ecBuilder Pro is the way to do it.

Impulse 4.2
Rating 88

Impulse Software's Impulse 4.2 offers a fast way to create a professional-looking online storefront, and they offer a free trial version so prospective users can try it out first. The trial version permits access to all of Impulse's features, but it can only hold up to 10 products, and the site can't be uploaded to the Web.

The software itself costs $295. Impulse sites may be hosted by any ISP, but the company also does offer hosting services. Impulse's interface doesn't offer a step-by-step wizard, but rather a series of buttons used to work with each main area: defining company information and Web layout, importing products, configuring the order information, and then uploading the site to the Web. We found the process easy to use. In particular, we liked the way that Impulse set taxes and shipping costs for us, and then let us choose from a variety of payment options.

The program lists inventory in tabular sheets that provide an orderly and intuitive system for managing and editing products. While the sales information says data can be imported directly from popular accounting packages, we found out it is only possible via a comma-delimited ASCII file, same as the others.

The templates are attractive, professional looking, and easy to select and apply. The program supports automatic credit card processing, as well as the iCheck system for check processing. The site e-mails the orders to you as they come in, and for security, Impulse supports SSL.

Impulse Software offers hosting services to Impulse customers that cost $179 per year (there's a $50 setup fee, and the deal includes 10 e-mail accounts). The only advantage that we could find to using the hosting services is that you get a statistics page about your site that can be accessed through the site.

Without a doubt, Impulse is a competent program that is worth considering. The trial version is a great way to try out the software free of risk before making a purchase.

QuickSite Business Edition
Rating 88

Another product that's easy to use and worth considering is Primecom Interactive's QuickSite Business Edition. QuickSite also offers accompanying hosting services. On the plus side, QuickSite provides a tremendous amount of background information on e-commerce and the business of marketing products on the Web.

It also has a compelling video guide that is practically a multimedia resource on e-commerce. No other package can touch QuickSite in this area. To actually build the Web site, QuickSite relies on Microsoft FrontPage Express, which is somewhat confusing. Users work with the main program during the creation process, and then the software "calls out" to another one to do the building.

The program, which costs $89.99, offers 600 pre-designed Web sites that are varied, attractive, and suitable for use by different industries. We were impressed with the appealing sites that we were able to create with this program, which were logical and easy for customers to navigate. The program offers secure transactions with support for SSL.

To complement the design software, Primecom offers accompanying hosting. While you can host Web sites that you create with QuickSite with other ISPs, going with Primecom does have its advantages.

Without a doubt, QuickSite Business Edition is a product worthy of consideration. We feel it is the best choice in this guide if you want to purchase an e-commerce software package with accompanying hosting services.

VersaCheck Web Commerce
Rating 86

Dateline America's VersaCheck Web Commerce software is capable of building a so-so site, but its strength lies in its ability to process checks. Customers don't mail checks, they simply provide the necessary information and authorize you to print out and cash special checks.

The interface consists of a series of clunky on-screen buttons that cover each aspect of building a site. We were very impressed with the product pages that made it easy to add and edit products as we went along.

When sales are made, VersaCheck Web Commerce downloads the information into its own accounting program that resides on your desktop computer ­ it doesn't send this information out via e-mail like the other products do.

The program can also import the transactions into financial programs such as Intuit Quicken and QuickBooks, and Microsoft Money if so desired. VersaCheck provides secure transactions via SSL support. And in addition to supporting checks, the program also supports automatic credit card processing.

VersaCheck Web Commerce comes at a reasonable price. The software itself will cost you $79.99, and the company will host the Web site for an additional $9.95 a month.

And, if you want to try the software for free before you make a decision, download a demo version that only supports up to 10 catalog items. You can't go wrong trying it first for free.

While VersaCheck Web Commerce makes it easy to create an e-commerce site, the end product usually appears somewhat primitive and the sites aren't as appealing as those created in the other packages.

WHAT WE THINK
All of these e-commerce packages let you easily create a full-featured online store without having to learn or understand Web programming.

They do however vary somewhat in the quality of the sites they produce and the financial services they provide. While some programs can only create sites, others offer hosting services as part of the mix. Most businesses will find these programs have enough functionality to give them an attractive e-commerce presence in little time.

Of the packages we looked at, we especially liked ecBuilder Pro because it offered the most thorough approach (including Web site promotion) and the easiest way to create a Web site.

On the other hand, if you just want to get your feet wet, Impulse 4.2 is worth a look or two. It's a solid program and has a free trial version that's available to download.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

DO YOU WANT HOSTING WITH A PACKAGE'S ISP, OR DO YOU WANT TO USE YOUR OWN ISP?
Some of the packages include hosting as part of the deal. Hosting can include such options as built-in shopping carts and automatic credit card processing. Impulse Software, Primecom (QuickSite), and Dateline America (VersaCheck) all offer hosting services with their e-commerce design packages. It's simply a matter of deciding what services you would like with your Web site and paying for them.

DO YOU WANT COMPLETE FLEXIBILITY OVER THE DESIGN OF YOUR E-COMMERCE SITE?
If so, entry-level e-commerce programs, which emphasize ease of use, may not provide an appropriate level of control. Look into higher end packages.

DO YOU WANT YOUR SITE TO AUTOMATICALLY PROCESS CREDIT CARDS WITH TRANSACTIONS?
All of the entry-level e-commerce programs here can process credit card transactions. Be prepared, however, to pay extra for this service in the form of higher monthly charges from your ISP and processing fees for each transaction.

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