The first thing most people think of when they hear the term "e-commerce" is a Web storefront. That is the most common form of e-commerce because the most obvious way to justify your investment in a business Web site is to sell your products and services through it. However, many companies have discovered to their detriment that not everything sells well on the Web. Most companies find that they can supplement their sales and offer convenience to their customers by putting their offerings on-line, but generating significant revenue requires aggressive marketing through traditional and non-traditional channels. With these issues in mind, I recommend you scale your storefront according to the value you think it will bring to your company. This article will give you some ideas on how to do that.
Web storefronts consist of three distinct elements: catalog, order, and payment. Most higher-end storefront solutions tightly integrate these elements, but you need to consider them separately to understand the lower-cost alternatives.
* Catalog: The catalog element displays information about your products and services. You should provide enough information for your customers to make an informed buying decision (description, price, photograph, etc). Your catalog may consist of individually designed web pages (called static pages), or the pages may be generated from a database by Web software. The software solution is more expensive initially, but if you have a large number of products or your product information changes frequently, investing in software saves you money in the long run.
* Order: The order element keeps track of your customer's catalog selections. A low-end solution is a simple Buy Now button that takes the customer straight to a payment page. That works fine if you sell just one product. But if you want your customers to be able to purchase multiple items and you want to adjust shipping charges and taxes according to the order, you will need shopping cart software to collect item selections and calculate order totals.
* Payment: The payment element allows your customers to pay for their orders. A low-end solution is to just have your customer call you, or you can use a payment service like PayPal. A high-end solution is to use Web software that accepts credit card information directly from your site and authorizes payment through an Internet payment gateway service.
If your storefront requires a software-based solution, where that software runs can have a significant impact on cost and flexibility:
* Application Service Provider (ASP): An ASP is a company who hosts the software and database for you on their own equipment. Many ASP's will host your entire site, or you may choose to just link to the storefront service from a site hosted elsewhere. This solution is often the least expensive way to get started, but generally gives you less control over the appearance and functionality of your storefront.
* Hosted Web Site: The company who hosts your Web site may offer shopping cart software that you can integrate with your Web site. This solution usually gives you more control over the appearance of your storefront and may give you more payment processing alternatives.
* In-House Server: If you host your own Web site on your own server, you can choose to purchase and install whatever storefront software you feel best suits your needs. This solution gives you the most flexibility and control, but usually costs much more than the other two alternatives. However, running the software on your own server lets you take advantage of other cost-saving possibilities, like interfacing the storefront with your other information systems.
The best solution for your business could be any combination of low-end and high-end alternatives. Before you decide on any solution, you should realistically estimate the value of a Web storefront and budget accordingly.