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Getting Your Business Smokin’ On The Web

gsotwAs unlikely as it seems, Steve Seiller and his wife, Catherine, aren’t the only folks using the Internet to sell hay for pet rabbits. You can buy a mini-bale from the Web site they run out of their home in the Seattle area, and that scrumptious bundle of grass is a good buy at $3.99, Steve promises. But don’t think Bunny Bytes has no competition. The Seillers know of at least two other online outlets that serve up similar fodder.

All across the Web, businesses like Bunny Bytes are pushing home-business Web sites beyond the usual brochure-ware. Air-Fun KitesĀ  is a family-run operation based in West Chester, Ohio, selling kites that are a whole lot fancier (and pricier) than paper kites of yore; Julie Packer of Seattle-based Juliana Designs sells jewelry that’s made out of paper (it’s molded out of cotton fibers).

It’s becoming a bull market for Internet commerce. A recent CEMA survey says that 20 million people have already made a purchase online, despite much-ballyhooed privacy concerns. And according to a study earlier this year by Seattle-based E-valuations Research, three-quarters of small businesses that already have a Web site are likely to upgrade to a transaction site or Web storefront within the next five years.

Right now, full-fledged storefronts run by sole proprietors are rare–Tom Buehrer, president of E-valuations Research, says only 9 percent of the small businesses his firm surveyed currently have transaction sites, and this was in a survey that only considered businesses with Internet connectivity. So why haven’t you considered turning your Web site into a fully functional storefront? Depending upon how much time you are willing to put into your site, there are plenty of ways to set up shop.

Do-It-Yourself Storefronts If you want to jump into Web retailing, there are plenty of vendors who’ll sell you a discount warehouse worth of store-building options, priced from nothing right up through $10,000. But note, before you start writing checks, that it’s possible to sell goods on the Web without any storefront technology at all. Peter Kent, who runs Top Floor Publishing out of his Denver residence, started out selling Top Floor’s book, Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site (www.poorrichard.com), using a simple HTML form created using a standard Web page editor. For sales of a single item, Kent says, the approach is workable, though he recommends the extra step of using a secure server (that is, one that uses encryption when sending and receiving data across the Internet) for the order form.

Kent says a few buyers didn’t like using his form, though–not due to security concerns, but because they felt the form wasn’t interactive enough. “They wanted the form to calculate the tax that was due and total the order with shipping costs added in,” he says. Only about one in 20 customers complained, he estimates, but he nevertheless decided it was time to get a smarter store.

After taking a look at a daunting list of possible solutions, Kent opted for a shopping cart system called Hazel made by Netsville.com. Along the way, he compiled a list of everything he’d looked at, and it’s a great place to start if you want to do a little shopping cart shopping yourself.

whcWith Hazel, Kent installed the software on a server housed and maintained by a Web hosting company, not on a server in his home (he doesn’t have his own server and doesn’t believe most small businesses need one). Hazel uses the standard Common Gateway Interface (CGI), a way of connecting Web pages to server programs. A carefully selected software package gives you a lot of flexibility and control, but such packages aren’t necessarily easy to install and configure. If you don’t have a technical bent, you may have to hire some help from your ISP.

Pre-Fab Web Stores Rather than choosing and maintaining your own software, you can also use one of a number of “rent-a-store” options. Two of the better known early contenders are iCat, popular because it gives a free store to beginners with 10 or fewer items to hawk, and Yahoo Store (store.yahoo.com), a startup venture acquired by the well-known Web portal.

With either service, store-owners pay monthly fees (beyond initial freebie enticements) based on the number of items they stock on their virtual shelves. At Yahoo Store, a 50-item storefront costs $100 a month; the same size store at iCat costs only half as much (the costs pull even at 1,000 items). The free store iCat offers is a compelling offer if your sales needs are limited, but note that your options for making it look like your own store, as opposed to looking like a small slice of the iCat mall, are limited.

It’s All in the Details Whether you install your own software or use a service, you should make sure you’ve got several important questions answered to your satisfaction. If you have a lot of products, can you store them in a database? If there’s a database, are buyers able to search it? If a buyer leaves in the middle of a shopping session, can you save his or her half-loaded shopping cart for later? Does the program make it easy for you to get at order information and add product-specific information (initials for monograms, for instance)? Is sales tax figured properly (ideally, by zip code)? What about support for multiple shipping options? And, as a general concern, is the shopping experience friendly and respectful of your customers?

As for payment, forget about digital money, cyber-wallets, and anything that smacks of the futuristic. The answer in the short term is credit cards. Particularly if you’re using a storefront service provider, you’ll find that transaction-hungry merchant services have partnered up with providers to make taking credit card payments a lot easier and more affordable.

Will you make a living off of your Web store? Not many of the Web retailers I spoke with can. Bunny Bytes, for example, has pulled in 400 customers in eight months; the Seillers aren’t ready to retire from their day jobs. Julie Packer says she hasn’t had time to promote her site, but in the first two months that Juliana Designs was online with iCat, she didn’t have a single order. Unfazed, she plans to find time for online marketing, but her experience is certainly proof that there’s nothing magic about having an online shopping cart.

Kent’s Poor Richard site is more of a going concern, bringing in what should amount to about $40,000 in gross revenue for its first year of operation. Such examples show that money is definitely flowing into small Web commerce sites. And getting into the game is getting increasingly affordable–certainly a bargain compared to setting up a bargain storefront.