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Patience Is an e-Virtue

It's time. Despite the downturn, e-commerce sales are up more than 50% over last year. However, you not only don't have a way to sell to customers over the Internet, you're still getting by with a "temporary" Web site designed four years ago by your brother-in-law, who meant well.

Small-business owners ready to join the e-commerce world or to get more sophisticated about their online ordering system have probably noticed there's no shortage of companies offering solutions -- "put your business online...create your own storefront in hours...only $100 a low as $25 a month...we do it all: complete packages starting from $3,000."

WELL-BEGUN IS HALF-DONE. How does the neophyte know where to start? "As a small-business owner, unless you're tech-savvy, you really wouldn't be in much of a position to compare these storefront services," says Jeanne M. Schaaf, senior analyst at Forrester Research. Your best bet, say Schaaf and others, is to go with a name you know or a storefront provider who's affiliated with a name brand, such as a bank or computer manufacturer, that you know.

In fact, these days most small-business owners getting into e-commerce pick their storefront software by way of their ISP, small-business portal, or other third party, such as a Web design and e-marketing business, or the recommendation of a fellow entrepreneur. Even within that network, though, there are plenty of choices. Some things to consider:

Know what you want to achieve online. Are you trying to give your existing customers a more convenient way to get your products? Are you trying to attract new customers in far-flung places? Do you want your hair-salon customers to be able to book appointments online? Once you understand just who it is you're trying to reach and what you want to offer them, you'll be in a better position to know which storefront capabilities you need and which you don't.

Don't put up an online storefront without talking to your customers, says Kneko Burney, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat, who keeps track of the storefront-software market. "Formally or informally, get some customer feedback. Tell them you're putting up a storefront. Ask them what they want to be able to buy or do at your site. You'll probably discover they want things you never thought of."

Basics vs. bells and whistles. The minimum you'll want is a Web site with a catalog, a shopping cart, and a merchant account so customers can complete transactions online. Beyond that, you might want software that, say, saves customer profiles to make checkout easier, sends order confirmations via e-mail, and calculates prices and shipping costs in foreign currency when necessary. it might also notify you when inventory is low, connect with your suppliers, link from your storefront to affiliates, and allow you to create customer groups so that you can offer, say, better prices to your best customers.

On the one hand, you want a complete storefront. On the other, you don't want to make your storefront, including the setup and record keeping, any more complicated than necessary. Your best bet, say the experts, is to pick a product that can adapt as your e-business and experience grows. Some of the extras are available as add-in modules to the original storefront, so the site can grow as your business does.

"A big mistake a lot of companies make, whether large or small, is they think they need to have everything," said Burney.

MANUAL VS. AUTOMATIC. How much hand-holding do you want? Many of the storefront software manufacturers offer two to three levels of help during setup, depending upon the time constraints and technical aptitude of the customer. Many business owners will build their own storefront using the software maker's templates (one for pet-food sellers, another for jewelry makers, etc.) and step-by-step online "wizards" to guide them. Others would no sooner build an online storefront than construct their own brick-and-mortar store.

Deborah Patt, owner of Clarendon Cheesecakes in Clarendon, N.Y., sells 200 cheesecakes a week during the peak winter holiday season, mostly to restaurants in the area and to people who've heard of her through word of mouth. Early this year, when she decided she wanted to sell online, too, "I had no clue what I wanted, what I needed. All I knew is I wanted it to be professional-looking, easy-to-use, and be something that would serve me well," Patt said. A business associate recommended Bigstep, so Patt checked out its Web site and started building her own storefront, a process she found "very easy, but very time-consuming." She built most of it, but thought it lacked "pizzazz" so she let Bigstep finish it for her.

The Bigstep Express service is aimed at the "Do-it-for-me market," which applies to about 20 percent of the small-business community, said Monica Keenan Laurence, a vice president of Bigstep. If you don't have online photos of your product, they'll accept paper ones and scan them for you to create your catalog; if you don't have a logo, they'll create one for you within a couple of weeks. Expect to pay roughly $600 for five pages that have both template and custom-designed elements. Monthly hosting fees can range from $25 to several hundred dollars, depending upon the size and sophistication of your online catalog.

At the higher end of the "do-it-for-me market" are those who will totally outsource the Web site design, store setup, and marketing to a Web-design and marketing firm, which may also host the storefront on its servers. An entrepreneur should expect to pay a few thousand dollars for this service and perhaps $100 a month for hosting.

BETTER LATE THAN EARLY? One advantage to being a "late adopter" of e-commerce is that such software has gotten very easy to use in the last couple of years. "We do not assume these people have any capabilities when it comes to the Internet," says Curtis Pierce, founder of Kurant, which makes the Storesense e-commerce software, sold through ISPs and Web-hosting companies. "But they're not clueless at all -- we're talking about successful businesspeople." The less comfortable you are with the technology, the more important it is that you look for a company that offers a lot of customer service in case you run into trouble building, running, or updating the store. Some have round-the-clock help available via phone; others offer an e-mail response.

Some even let skeptics try it before they buy it. One of the more widely known storefronts, Miva Merchant, recently started offering Miva Now. After filling out a registration form, the small-business owner gets to use the software to build his storefront and operate it free for 30 days. If he's satisfied, it can be transferred to one of Miva's hosting partners.

There are easier options, too, for service businesses that may not need an online catalog but do want the bed-and-breakfast guest to be able to change his reservation on line or change her pedicure appointment before business hours. Appointment Manager, one of Microsoft's bCentral products, can be linked to a business's existing Web site or will provide a storefront for those without their own site.

PARTY TIME. Burney, for one, advises small-business owners to be involved in decisions about the storefront, even if they outsource all the hands-on work. "This Web site represents your business and what it's about. You want to make sure it's accurate and embodies the kind of spirit and culture that your business has." She also recommends that you have your best customers try out your new storefront to tell you whether it's easy to use and makes sense to them -- and make necessary changes sooner rather than later. The worst thing you can do, she says, is put up a Web site or storefront you don't like, figuring you'll get around to the real thing later.

As an added incentive to get the storefront done, you could follow the example of big companies when they finish a project: Have a launch party -- no technical know-how required. By Theresa Forsman in New York

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