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Creating a scalable e-commerce solution

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 philosophy.

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 US$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 services.

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 limits?
  • 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.


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