Last Updated: October 1, 1998
When it comes to choosing a software application for conducting your web-based storefront, there are a number of options available. These products will differ in terms of price, platform, functionality, ease of use, and scalability, and it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each with respect to your business needs. The following is a list of important criteria to consider and questions to ask when choosing an e-commerce solution:
1. Back-end functionality
How well does the application handle all the back-end procedures of the storefront? These back-end functions would refer to all the activities conducted in the background by your e-business site, such as inventory management and order processing. The capabilities with respect to back-end functions will vary from product to product:
How much do you want to spend? There are e-commerce applications for every price range, from free of charge to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
3. Customer Service Features
What features does the application have for maximizing customer service and convenience? While all the software packages include a shopping cart application and e-mail subscription/notification utilities, certain products distinguish themselves with features that can make your site more customer-friendly. These would include the ability to personalize the web site based on a registered user's preferences, or a utility allowing customers to query on their UPS-shipped order.
4. Database Support
As a bare minimum, an e-commerce application must handle two databases-- one for your customers, and the other for your products. Though most applications include a relational database for the handling of such data, there are some products that assume that you will be supplying the database.
If you already have an existing web-based storefront and are upgrading, you must determine if the application's database is compatible with the format of your existing customer and product databases. Depending on the application, the existing data may either have to be re-formatted to facilitate transfer, or be entered manually.
It is also important to determine what heterogeneous databases the application can interact with. Some applications can exchange data with other databases (such as SQL, DB2, or Oracle) via ODBC industry standard. If your web site will be conducting business-to-business transactions, or you plan to interact heavily with your supply-chain partners, you may require the ability to tie your storefront databases to existing legacy applications (such as for querying inventory or production schedules), and handle complex electronic data interchange (EDI) interactions.
5. Ease of Use and Administration
All the e-commerce applications utilize graphical user interfaces, wizards, and templates that allow you to quickly set up your site without extensive programming knowledge. However, even with these user-friendly features, the ease of use can vary tremendously.
Some applications are more flexible than others with respect to their ability to handle sales, incentive, and seasonal pricing. The more versatile applications will allow you to create highly-customizable promotional programs, such as threshold pricing ('buy two get one free'), seasonal product lists (such as a Christmas catalog), and weekly specials.
An active e-commerce site will most likely require numerous updates and modifications in order to keep the content fresh and react to the changing tastes of your customers. Making changes to your storefront is easier with some applications than others, and some will even allow you to the ability to make such changes remotely, via a web browser.
How many items will your e-commerce site have, and how much do you expect it to grow in the future? The e-commerce applications vary with respect to the number of products they can handle, from less than ten (for the free services) to infinite (for the high-end solutions). Scalability also applies to how much traffic and how many orders the site can handle.
9. System Requirements
Each e-commerce application has its own minimum hardware, memory, and hard disk requirements-- will it be compatible with your existing web server? For smaller businesses or new upstarts, there are some applications on the lower end that only require you to possess an Internet connection and a web browser-- the web site is maintained on the provider's web server.
The relative weighting of the above criteria will vary from business to business-- you must decide which product features will have the most relevance and impact on your e-business.
Based on an extensive review of third-party evaluations (see "Further Reading") of the various applications available, the following product profiles have been constructed. The evaluations were conducted by third parties, and judgments are based on their findings (prices are in US dollars):
Cat@log Builder 2.5 (The Vision Factory Inc.)
Windows 95 or NT
486 or better, 32MB RAM, 2MB hard disk space
Cat@log Builder 2.5 is targeted towards more experienced users with extensive web programming experience, trading off ease of use, particularly with respect to novice users, for flexibility and programmability.
For more information on Cat@log Builder 2.5, visithttp://www.thevisionfactory.com
Electronic Commerce Suite 3.0 (iCat Corp.)
$9995, free if you have 10 items or less to sell, $49.95 per month up to 3000 items
Windows 95 or NT
486 or better, 16MB RAM (24MB RAM for Windows NT), 60MB hard drive space
If your company only has a few items for sale, this is probably the cheapest way to get an on-line storefront-- iCat offers a free storefront for those merchants with less than 10 items in their catalog. This application also earned the PC Magazine Editor's Choice for e0-commerce suites last November.
The Hewlett-Packard web site (http://www.hpstore.com) was created with Electronic Commerce Suite 3.0. For more information, visit http://www.icat.com.
ezMerchant (Binary Tree Software)
All Domino-supported platforms, including Windows NT, AS/400, AIX
This recently announced product is a Domino-based (Domino 4.61) electronic commerce application for business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions over the Internet. According to company literature, it includes six components for creating, deploying, and administering an e-commerce web site, as well as for maintaining tight integration with back-end databases. It will ship with various credit card payment options, such as the Windows NT-based WebTrans authorization system, and ROI e-card for the IBM AS/400. This application also offers native support for IBM's DB2/400, and Oracle, Sybase, and SQL Server databases via ODBC.
For more information, visithttp://www.binarytree.com.
IBM Net.Commerce 3.0 (IBM Corp.)
Windows NT 4.0 (Pentium 166 or higher, 64MB RAM, 500MB hard drive space)
IBM AIX 4.1 or later (Operating system: IBM AIX 4.1 or 4.2, Dedicated RISC System/6000, 96 MB RAM or higher, 500MB hard drive space)
Version 2.0 for OS/400 V4R2 (IBM AS/400 PowerPC 64-bit processor, 64 MB RAM or higher, 500MB hard drive space, ICSS/5769-NCE/NC1 web server)
Sun Solaris 2.5 (96 MB RAM or higher, 500 MB hard drive space)
IBM Net.Commerce 3.0 is a scalable application targeted towards larger businesses, and can be seamlessly integrated into an existing Lotus Domino or Notes environment.
The L.L. Bean web site (http://www.llbean.com) was created with IBM Net.Commerce 3.0. For more information, visit http://www.ibm.com.
Intershop Online 3.0 (Intershop Communications)
$4995 Windows NT version, $7995 Unix version
Windows NT (dual Pentium Pro or better), Sun Solaris 2.5 or better, SGI IRIX 6.2 or better, IBM AIX 4.2, HP-UX 10.10 or better, DEC UNIX 4.0b
dual Pentium Pro or better, 64MB RAM, 800MB hard drive space
Intershop Online 3.0 is particularly strong in back-end capabilities.
The Learning Center web site (http://www.thelearningcenter.com/) was created with Intershop Online 3.0. For more information, visit http://www.intershop.com
Lotus Domino.Merchant 2.0 (Lotus Development Corp.)
Windows NT 4.0
133MHz Pentium or higher, 64MB RAM, 1 GB minimum hard drive space
For companies with Lotus Domino as their computing environment, Domino.Merchant will integrate seamlessly with the Notes infrastructure. This all-in-one-box solution is geared towards small- to medium-sized businesses.
The Popcorn Factory web site (http://www.thepopcornfactory.com) was created with Domino.Merchant 2.0. For more information, visit http://www.lotus.com.
Merchant Builder 3.0 (The Internet Factory Inc.)
$6995 (includes three store licenses)
Microsoft Windows 95 or NT 3.5 or later
486 or higher, 24MB RAM, 100MB hard drive space
Merchant Builder 3.0 allows you to create up to three storefronts, which can be 'rented' out to other companies, creating a 'virtual mall'. Furthermore, a mall administration utility is included.
The HM Harley Davidson web site (http://www.hmhd.com) was created with Merchant Builder 3.0. For more information, visit http://www.ifact.com.
$2,500 setup and a 2% transaction fee (minimum of 25 cents and maximum of $4 per transaction), maximum billing per month of $450
ICOMS leases out space on its server to provide e-commerce services (buyer registration, coupon support, payment authorization, tax calculations, and shipping management) to businesses. Because the server is based in New Hampshire, which has no sales tax, ICOMS customers can avoid sales tax issues on their sites.
For more information, visithttp://www.icoms.com
Microsoft Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition (Microsoft Corp.)
Windows NT 4.0, Internet Information Server 4.0, Microsoft Transaction Server, SQL Server (6.5 recommended), and Internet Explorer 4.0
Pentium 133 or higher, 64MB RAM, 600MB hard drive space
The CompUSA web site (http://www.compusa.com) was created with Microsoft Site Server 3.0. For more information, visit http://www.microsoft.com.
Virtual Spin Internet Store (Virtual Spin LLC)
pricing varies from $699.95 to $3049.95 per year, from 100 to 5000 SKUs
web browser, Internet connection
This easy-to-use web-based e-commerce application is tailored for smaller businesses. The browser interface makes it very easy to set up the site and initialize back-end functions, such as Cybercash credit card authorization. However, you must use Virtual Spin as your ISP, and there are restrictions on downloads for each month. Furthermore, the Virtual Spin service has limited reporting functions that are handled via batch processing (not in real time).
The Allegro Home Health Care Supplies web site (http://www.virtualspin.com/goallegro.htm) was designed with this service. For more information, visit http://www.virtualspin.com.
Yahoo! Store (Yahoo!)
$100 a month for a store with up to fifty items, $300 per month for up to 1000 items, and for larger stores, $300 per month for the first 1000 items and $100 for each additional 1000 items
web browser, Internet connection
Formerly known as ViaWeb, this PC Magazine Editors' Choice claims to be so easy-to-use that you can have a fully functional and nice-looking storefront up in less than one hour, using only an Internet connection and a browser. Yahoo! also offers a free ten-day trial, which is available athttp://www.viaweb.com.
The Kennedy Space Center web site (http://www.thespaceshop.com) and the Rolling Stone Store web site (http://www1.viaweb.com/rsstore/) were created with the Yahoo! store service. For more information, visit http://www.viaweb.com.