Despite all the advances in the e-commerce industry over the last five years or so, one thing has remained the same: It's still a challenging task to set up your own e-commerce site without professional help. Plus, there are very few out-of-the-box solutions for the SMB looking to implement e-commerce.
So what's a SMB owner to do without investing a lot of money (well, thousands, anyway)?
One approach is working with your Internet service provider on the basics of an e-commerce site. Virtually every large and medium-sized ISP offers e-commerce capabilities of some sort, whether it be selling a special e-commerce package or offering e-commerce tools as part of a larger package.
The advantage to working with an ISP on e-commerce issues is convenience: You don't need to totally overhaul your server setup while adding the capability to take orders online. There are additional cost benefits, too. Instead of investing in e-commerce software (like Miva Merchant), you can piggyback off the investment already made by your ISP.
Give Me Three Steps
So exactly what are you looking at with an e-commerce account at an ISP? You're looking at three separate areas of functionality: an online catalog for displaying products, merchant software that allows visitors to order products and a merchant account for processing credit cards.
Most ISPs offer merchant software that lets you directly sell products, but few go to the next stage and offer the capability to process credit cards directly through the ISP. (Many have partners who they recommend.) You can expect to pay as little as $19.95 per month or as much as $99.95 per month for an e-commerce account, as well as transaction fees.
An ISP also typically doesn't provide all the tools needed to perform an e-commerce transaction from beginning to end. (There are exceptions; we'll get to them later.) Most mainstream ISPs will offer the merchant software and perhaps catalog software (and many merchant-account packages do include catalog capabilities), but it will be up to you to find a vendor offering merchant accounts for processing credit cards.
It will be also up to you to acquire a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate, which ensures a secure transaction for your customers. (Neither of these are a biggie: Chances are good your bank already offers some sort of merchant account for online vendors, and an SSL certificate can be acquired easily from the likes of Verisign.) Merchant accounts range from PayPal, which simplifies the process to a single button placed on your Web site, to accounts from larger banks that will probably require a small amount of coding.
Once you acquire all the pieces, you'll need to put them together. This isn't as big a deal as it sounds, but you should expect to tinker with processes to get everything operating correctly for your business. The best way to understand the process is to visualize the online shopping experience:
- A visitor sees that snazzy item on your Web site catalog and wants to buy it.
- She places the item in a cart; when she's done shopping, she checks out and orders the product, with the system estimating any applicable sales taxes and shipping charges.
- Credit-card information is passed along to a online bank, which then clears the transaction.
So your process is the following:
- Setting up a catalog, which can reside on your existing server or be part of a separate online catalog.
- Software like Miva Merchant or Yahoo Merchant tracks a user's cart and prepares the transaction.
- The merchant banker seals the deal by processing the credit-card transaction.
Facing the Limitations
There are several disadvantages, however. Unless you're working with an ISP that specializes in e-commerce, you probably can't expect a lot of help when it comes to the specifics of actual implementation you can expect some short instructions on where to find the server and some longer documents on configuration, but that's about it. Also, most ISPs are not staffed to the point where they can offer a lot of personalized assistance.
Some do offer more hands-on consulting, but you'll want to watch your costs as well. Interland, one of the top ISPs on the market, advertises ECommerceExpress, a custom $39.95/month e-commerce site (with a $599.95 setup fee) with one limitation: You can have only 25 items in your online catalog. The next level of account $69.95 per month with a $1,499.95 setup fee features an online catalog limited to 100 items.
For a less-customized e-commerce site, the Yahoo's Merchant Solutions offers catalog capabilities, transaction processing and less-restrictive limitations on the number of items in a catalog for $39.95 per month. However, Yahoo! charges a 1.5 percent transaction fee on all sales.
Setting up an e-commerce Web site is never as simple as it seems: Just because a process can be reduced to three steps doesn't mean it's easy to implement, and making the pieces fit can sometimes be frustrating. But using the e-commerce tools available from your ISP can be one way to translate sweat equity into a profitable venture for your business.
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