Web Review (c1998): Suite Success: Choosing the right eCommerce Suite for your business

(This story ran in O’Reilly’s Web Review in 1998. Links probably don’t work.)

Electronic commerce (or “eCommerce” as it’s affectionally known), offers the small businessman the ability to compete on a global scale. There are some basic requirements that you’ll need first, such as the hardware and a database with information about all of your products. Once you have the bare necessities, your next step is to build your Web store, and what better way than with “stores in a box.” These software suites have almost everything you need to open your virtual door for business. This week, David Strom takes a look at six of the more common suite sets to see which is closer to actually allowing you to open up shop on the Net.

So, you want to set up your own Web storefront? Be prepared to do a lot of research and spend some time testing products. While several vendors offer a “suite” of software designed to build and operate your Web store, the suites lack integration and are far from complete solutions. These packages are also very choosy when it comes to supporting particular databases and Web servers. Given the $3,500 to $10,000 price tags, you might be better off assembling your own series of products to do the job.

I have tried six of these suites over the past year, including Microsoft’s Commerce Server (which used to be called Merchant), IBM’s net.Commerce, O’Reilly’s WebSite Professional, iCat’s Electronic Commerce Suite, Intershop’s Online, Pacific Coast Software’s WebCatalog and WebMerchant. All of these run on Windows NT — Pacific Coast’s software also runs on the Macintosh and is resold by Starnine. IBM’s product also runs on AIX and Solaris. See the table for more information and prices.

If you are thinking that setting up one of these suites is like setting up Microsoft Office, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Each is far from being turnkey: WebSite (from the same company that publishes Web Review, O’Reilly) and WebMerchant were the easiest to get going, but they still needed some tweaking. The others took anywhere from several hours to several days, including phone calls to technical support personnel.

None of these products, with the exception of WebSite, comes cheap. Expect to pay around $5,000 for the software, and more if you want to run multiple Web servers or on multiple database servers. That doesn’t include the price of your hardware, and in some cases the price of a database server as well. You’ll also have fees on top of this for yearly support contracts (something I’d recommend in this case, given the complexity of each suite) of around 15% of the software purchase price, and other fees to process each payment through your credit card merchant (around 2% of each transaction). That’s a lot of dough, given how much effort you’ll need to get these storefronts going.

Before you get started with these products, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is my database expertise?

Behind every great Web storefront is a solid database, and that means you’ll probably need a good database administrator on staff to make these products work well. Don’t have one? Then stick to WebCatalog and WebMerchant, which use flat files to keep track of orders and products for sale.

Why is a database so important? You’ll want to integrate the Web store into your existing operations, and that means tying together your existing databases with the ones that the suite sets up for your storefront. If you don’t do this, you’ll have to maintain two separate systems: One for the physical store, and one for the Web store. That gets old real fast.

Start your search for the right product by first seeing whether it will support any of your existing accounting or inventory databases. Most offer very limited support. For example, Microsoft’s Commerce server really needs its own SQL Server to operate its storefront, while O’Reilly’s WebSite works off a series of Access databases. Intershop comes with a copy of Sybase SQL 11, iCat comes with a bundled copy of Sybase SQL Anywhere (the single-user version) while IBM’s net.Commerce comes with a copy of DB2.

Some vendors claim they offer support for a wide range of database servers via ODBC: Frankly, I don’t believe this is possible, given what I’ve seen so far with getting ODBC drivers to work. This is just another headache you don’t need.

You can work around the database issue by first setting up a sample storefront and then examining the database structure of tables and fields that is created. If you know enough, you can then convert your existing inventory and accounting systems into the format required by the product. This could be a great deal of work, however.

2. How much HTML do you know?

While the suites come with a variety of wizards and automated setup routines to format the pages that will become your storefront, you’ll want to go in and make changes to these pages eventually. That means knowing not only HTML but the various proprietary extensions to HTML that each suite uses. Some of these extensions are well documented (such as the WebSite ones) and others are fairly obscure (such as the WebCatalog documentation). If you are new to HTML, then this isn’t the place to learn.

3. What payment scheme are you going to use?

Chances are you want to have a form on your Web store that will enable people to type in their credit card number as your primary payment option. You will probably be limited to accepting purchases in U.S. funds, and depositing these funds to a U.S. merchant banking account — if you want more flexibility than this, you’re out of luck for the time being.

All of the suites offer credit card processing, but do it in different ways. Intershop has the widest range of payment options, meaning that you can set up your store to accept more than one payment method, offering your customers lots of choices. The others are more limiting, and in some cases only support a single payment method. This in my mind is the single biggest problem for Web storefronts — if physical stores operated in this fashion, they would be out of business quickly.

In the meantime, check the fine print before you get too far down the road with any particular suite. For example, WebSite has two different payment methods but only one can be used for any particular storefront. It comes with the Internet Secure payment software, which works with a single credit card processor that takes both Canadian and U.S. funds. You could also set up WebSite to support CyberCash payments, but then you couldn’t accept credit cards. And if you don’t want to use the credit card processor that works with Internet Secure (either because they are fairly costly or because you already have your own processor), then you won’t want to run WebSite.

iCat doesn’t come with any payment software, but there are many different third parties that can provide this so that isn’t as much of an issue other than finding the right one and paying extra for this software. Microsoft and IBM’s suite support the Verifone software called vPOS, among other systems as well. And WebMerchant supports a variety of payment schemes.

When you see what is involved implementing the payment process you might change your mind about using any of these suites. For example, if you use the First Virtual payment option with WebMerchant, you have to manually move an order from the pending to completed folder when you receive the payment authorization. This can quickly get tedious for even a small number of purchases.

So what are your alternatives? My recommendation is to use software from ICVerify. They support a wide variety of secure Web servers on NT and Unix, and a wide range of payment processors as well. You can download a Windows demo version of their software that does everything except actually move the money.

4. How easy is it to maintain your store?

This is yet another weakness with these products. If it takes you hours to add a new line of goods to your store, you probably aren’t going to want to update your pages very often.

In the ideal world, the storefront should reflect your own physical inventory and retailing options. It should show upsells (buy the CD, get a CD case for an extra dollar!) and specials, closeouts and merchandize that is out of stock. But none of these suites is really useful for doing this, although some try more than others.

With most of the suites, you maintain your site via a series of HTML forms that are password-protected for administrators. But this quickly gets tedious making the changes: You have to manually edit each Web page and type in the updates.

So who wins?

So overall, where does that leave things with each of the suites? I’d rate the IBM net.Commerce as having the best trade-offs between ease of use and options, although using DB2 isn’t for everyone. WebSite and the Pacific Coast software are the easiest to use. iCat has the widest third-party support, but buying these options can quickly get expensive. If you believe the world will follow Microsoft, then take a closer look at MS Commerce. And Intershop and Web Merchant are the ways to go if you want to have the widest choice in payment options.

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