When your business decides to “go online,” the first step is
usually the creation of a Web presence: a site that provides general
information about your company’s products or services, locations, and perhaps
also contains information about the company’s personnel and business

The next step is to move from a static “ad” type site to one
that provides useful, dynamic content. For example, a restaurant might publish
its menus or a computer hardware shop might list its daily or weekly specials.

Next, you can make the site interactive: allow people to
make dinner reservations online or provide tech support for the computers you
sell via live chat.

Perhaps the most daunting, but also the most lucrative step
in this process is to set up a site that allows your customers to actually make
purchases online; your restaurant might sell jars of its world-famous soup to
be shipped to customers and your computer shop lets people buy their hardware
without visiting the bricks and mortar store.

Of course, some companies start out as Internet-only
businesses and jump right into online selling. Whether you have a physical
location or not, you need a plan an e-commerce solution that will grow as your
business does.

Basic building blocks of e-commerce

In planning for a scalable e-commerce solution, it’s
important to understand the basic elements of successfully selling online, and how
it differs from a “bricks and mortar” store. Key considerations include:

  • Aesthetics–the
    site must be well designed to attract customers.
  • Navigability–potential
    customers must be able to get around the site easily
  • Ease
    of use–the site must make it easy for customers to place orders
  • Security–customers
    must be assured that credit card and personal information sent in
    transactions is protected
  • Availability–the
    site must be up and running 24/7 to avoid lost business

To be scalable, then, your e-commerce solution must be easy
to update, so you can keep it attractive and eye-catching. That includes the
ability to update navigation bars and buttons to make site changes and
additions immediately accessible. You must be able to maintain security of all
financial transactions, regardless of the number, and the site must be capable
of handling a growing load of hits and transactions without downtime or
performance slowdown.

The choices: Do it yourself or outsource it

There are two ways to set up an e-commerce operation:

  • Buy
    the hardware and software and run it from your own Web servers on site
  • Contract
    with a hosting company to run your site on their equipment

Both of these choices has obvious
advantages and disadvantages. Hosting the site yourself gives you more control
over all its elements, may make it easier and quicker to make changes to the
site, upgrade software and hardware to meet growing needs, and allows
information to stay on site. The downside is that e-commerce software is
complex and may require a learning curve, and you may need additional
personnel, or additional time on the part of existing IT personnel, to maintain
it. In addition, you’ll have the cost of the hardware and software as well as
costs for repairs and maintenance.

A hosting company can provide immediate deployment, and will
generally have personnel who are knowledgeable about PHP, CGI, ASP, SSL, SQL
and the other technologies on which e-commerce solutions are based. They will
also generally have redundant systems to ensure continuous uptime. Some hosting
companies also provide site designers, copywriters, and marketing specialists
who can help with all aspects of implementing your e-commerce site.

E-commerce software is available from a variety of vendors, from Microsoft’s
Commerce Server 2002
, — with Commerce Server 2006 soon to be released — to
PDG’s Shopping Cart. Data from the
software can be imported into business financial software such as QuickBooks or
MYOB, and the software can also integrate with popular Web design and
management programs such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver.

Hosting companies such as NetStores
provide for simple e-commerce sites for as little as $19.95 per month (note
that you will also probably have to pay per-transaction fees for credit card
processing and perhaps other fees such as monthly statement fees). Other
popular hosting services include MonsterCommerce,
Yahoo Small Business, and
Microsoft Commerce Manager. Many local and national ISPs also offer e-commerce

Choosing a scalable solution

Whether you choose to host your e-commerce site on site or
outsource it to a hosting company, there are some questions you’ll want to ask
to help you determine whether the software or service will scale to meet your
future needs:

  • What
    is the limit on the number of items/products you can offer?
  • Is
    there a limit on the number of items a visitor can buy at one time?
  • What
    are bandwidth limitations on the amount of traffic the site can handle?
  • Can
    the software/hardware or service plan be upgraded easily if you reach the
  • Does
    the software store inventory information within the program or does it/can
    it connect to a commercial database (SQL, Oracle) for storage of larger
    amounts of information?
  • Does
    the software integrate with other software packages you’re currently
    using, such as your Web design and management software or your business
    accounting software?

As your self-hosted site becomes larger and more successful,
you may also want to consider scaling out, to distribute the transaction
processing load across multiple servers. You’ll want to know whether the
e-commerce software package you choose will support this.

If you go with a hosting service, be sure to find out
whether you can add additional features if you need them in the future (for
example, multiple storefronts, additional hard disk allocation, a dedicated
server for your store) and how much they will cost. What extra charges will you
pay for a credit card merchant account, domain registration, design or
promotional services?

Taking your business from a mere “Web presence” to a full
fledged online store can greatly expand your market reach and increase your
bottom line, but it’s important to look before you leap and be sure that the
solution you choose can grow as your sales figures do.