Get Your Online Business Up and Running for Free
By Louis Columbus (email@example.com)
It's the dream of the new millennium, open a Web site selling your best barbecue sauce, premium Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee directly from a friend in Kingston or any other product or service you feel passionately about and watch the orders come flying in when you refresh your email account. With luminaries from Intel's Andy Grove to Michael Dell saying that the Internet will make or break business for years to come, you have no doubt wondered if it is time to create your own Web site and start selling.
Forrester Research predicts business-to-business electronic commerce will grow to a whopping $1.4 trillion by 2004, with a projected nine out of 10 manufacturing firms getting online in the next four years as well. Forrester predicts that the bulk of the companies not on the Internet today will find e-commerce (selling over the Internet using catalogs) so alluring they will be online in four years as well.
All this translates into demand for Web sites capable of handling the tasks of presenting and selling products. In response to this need of both individuals and small businesses, several companies have developed Web sites that allow you to create your own online store for free. How can a company make money doing this? By charging a small transaction fee for each sale completed. The alluring aspect of these free e-commerce sites, sometimes called click & sell because you can click one together and start selling quickly, is that they are free and yet provide varying levels of customization.
Getting to Know the Free Web Site Providers
Given the tendency of many venture capitalists to support services that bring e-commerce to the masses, more and more free Web site providers will be emerging. It's been my experience that the three profiled here offer the best service and have the most reliable offerings. I've set up Web sites on each and have found Freemerchant.com to be the best by a wide margin. Another well-known free site is Bigstep.com, which boasts more than 40,000 subscribers and has been featured on MSNBC. Rounding out the set is eCongo, which has done a great job of getting itself known by the industry research companies. It is however one of the tougher ones to use with a dial-up modem.
With Freemerchant the possibility of quickly creating the store of your dreams is within reach. There's also the opportunity to have your customers pay by credit card and the ability to export transaction records into QuickBooks. Freemerchant is considered by many including Cahner's In-Stat (http://www.instat.com ) as one of the best click & build sites for small businesses. Overall, this is a great site for starting your first online business. Through a deal with eBay, you can also cross-reference items back to the world's leading auction site.
My first experience with creating on online store for my mother's prized baklava recipe was at Bigstep.com. It took supreme patience. I navigated through the extensive templates and to-do list and after about 10 hours was able to create the site I wanted. I also discovered that that using the site's marketing tools did not actually get my baklava site listed as pervasively on Web directories and search engines as I was led to believe by the online tutorials. The site never did show up in the search engines as promised. Online customers didn't materialize as quickly as I had hoped, but appetites of co-workers and friends helped me solve the baklava inventory glut.
ECongo is based extensively on Java technology and is different from other free click & build sites in that you have the flexibility of creating promotions for your store rapidly and placing ads on other stores within the eCongo mall (similar to Yahoo! Store in both of these features). ECongo offers limited software capabilities and hasn't yet implemented automated taxation and shipping calculation. But eCongo plans to make money from an ad scroll bar (text-based, fast loading and unobtrusive) that will run on each site, and through co-branding deals with ISPs. Also, eCongo plans to offer premium services for a fee. To preview your site before going live, it is best to have a high-speed line for checking iterations.
Checking Out the For-Pay Sites
Suppose that after a few months of using the free Web site you realize that you want to upgrade and really branch out into many types of coffee–perhaps from all over the Caribbean and Europe. You want to grow your online business and are running into constraints on the free sites. Consider looking at each of these e-commerce site providers.
The well-known Amazon.com initiatives to create ZShops has been priced for widespread adoption at $9.99 per month for up to 3,000 listings, with transaction fees varying. The good news is that your store gets integrated into Amazon's directory structure. The bad news is that the site can quickly become part of a flea market, where there is little control of how your site looks and the companies surrounding it.
There'shttp://www.buyitonline.com/, which costs $79 per month plus 15% of each transaction for unlimited items. Despite needing to use Online Merchant software to create a store, there is space in a virtual mall where you can create your own identity. This is one of the better for-pay e-commerce sites for getting started.
The next service is the iCAT Web Store, a division of Intel, which can be found at http://www.icat.com/. The last time I was at this site it was offering a free 30-day evaluation. Priced at $49.95 per month for up to 50 items or $500 per year, this site has easy-to-use store-building tools and multiple reporting options, yet has no inventory tracking. Powered by the best Intel-based servers around through the Intel Web Hosting Service, iCAT Web Stores will be truly 24-7 in availability. What you lose in creativity for defining your site you get in reliability and a wealth of e-commerce transaction features.
A relative newcomer to the world of click & sell e-commerce sites, Kurant's offering is found at http://www.storesense.com/, and sells for $149 per month for up to 50 items. It's one of the best available and has editable HTML templates, inventory and customer management tools and a structure which makes it possible for your site to grow as your business grows. The only downsides are that you will need to devote some time to getting your site running on these tools because they are complex and the price is high. It's worth a look though if you are going to be spending for an e-commerce site.
Finally, there's always the Yahoo Stores. Clearly all the other companies in this category started out emulating the Yahoo Store concept. At $100 per month for up to 50 items, Yahoo Stores is pricey yet does not offer inventory tracking. One of the first stores I did create on the Internet was a Yahoo Store, and the flexibility of site definition is tough to beat. If you already have a business and want to get a store online quickly, and can afford the price, consider Yahoo. I liked the opportunity to preview the site before it went live. Co-promoting with Yahoo is also possible.
Louis Columbus is director, market research for Zland.com and regularly writes on Internet and technology topics. He has 10 books published and more than three dozen articles. His latest book is Administrator's Guide to Electronic Commerce with H.W. Sams Publishing Company.
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