There are many different elements that e-commerce companies must have in place before they can conduct business successfully. First and foremost, they need to determine exactly how they will profit in the marketplace. This requires a solid business model. Additionally, successful e-tailers must map out strategic plans with goals, objectives, and tactics related to their specific business ideas. With these solid foundations in place, companies must then develop a presence in the electronic world. Although bricks and mortar are not involved, e-commerce requires online retailers to build storefronts nonetheless, albeit virtual ones. Storefront building software applications are the tools used to accomplish this critical task.
Storefront-building software allows companies engaging in e-commerce to showcase the products and services they sell on their Web sites by creating individual Web pages for them. These pages may contain visual images of products, as well as important text-based information about them including price, size, weight, color, and so on. They may be static, meaning that changes and modifications must be done at the actual page level, or dynamic, meaning that changes to page content are made in a database, from which Web pages are built on-the-fly, or as people request them. In either case, the software will provide the e-tailer with some form of interface for inputting or modifying new or existing data that eventually translates to the pages visitors see. In theory, these solutions make it relatively easy for e-commerce companies to keep the information about their offerings current.
Additionally, storefront builders usually include shopping-cart functionality. Like their counterparts in the physical world, virtual shopping carts are software tools that enable customers to keep track of items they wish to purchase. They also allow for a virtual checkout process to occur, whereby consumers are given the option to make final decisions about which products they do and do not wish to buy, and to go ahead and make purchases via credit card, an Internet payment provider, or other means. This component of the storefront builder also might include e-mail confirmations sent to customers, letting them know their order has been received.
Storefront-builder applications vary in terms of their flexibility and range of capabilities. Some allow e-commerce companies more options than others. Certain applications offer very limited Web page layouts and place limitations on how and where products are described and displayed, while others are more versatile and flexible. Beyond the ability to simply post items for sale onto Web sites, some storefront builders make it possible for e-commerce sites to recommend related products that a customer might be interested in, based on what they purchase or put into their shopping carts. Other features include the ability to offer specific items or entire merchandise categories at sale prices, calculate sales taxes, list shipping charges with one or more parcel carriers, and so on.
In the early 2000s, there were many different ways that e-commerce companies set up shop. Some enterprises, especially very large ones with staff dedicated to information technology, often purchased their own e-commerce equipment, including servers (computers used to host Web sites, e-mail, and various forms of content), workstation computers, and other infrastructure elements. Not only did these pieces require heavy financial investments, they also required specialized resources to monitor and maintain. The same was true for e-commerce software. Licensing fees, upgrades, and troubleshooting were costs of doing business. Because of this, some companies chose to outsource different aspects of e-commerce, including storefront builders.
Hosted storefront builders involve the renting of an from an application service provider (ASP). ASPs are software companies that run software programs on their own equipment and charge customers a fee for using it. They assume all of the responsibilities for keeping these software programs current and operational. This can be a cheaper and simpler option for small or medium-sized e-commerce companies, or those who need to begin operations quickly. The alternative to using an ASP is for companies to buy store-front solutions "off-the-shelf" and then install and maintain them internally on their own servers. Choosing the best option was an important decision for many enterprises, and depended on the company, its situation, and its goals.
EXAMPLES OF STOREFRONT BUILDERS
One example of a storefront-builder solution for small and medium-sized companies in the early 2000s was SME Commerce, an application from Vancouver, British Columbia-based e-commerce software developer 5click. SME Commerce was a hosted solution that allowed users to handle a variety of e-commerce-related Web site functions through one interface tool. It was scalable, meaning that functions could be added or removed based on a company's needs. Companies used template-based tools to build and design product catalogs, eliminating the need for programming skills. SME Commerce's features included a shopping cart function, the ability to display images of products with descriptions in either English or French, shipping and tax calculations on both domestic and international orders, inventory management, traffic and accounting reports, a product search tool, and the ability to accept credit card payments. Companies were charged extra for some options, including listing more than 3,000 products or accessing customer support after the first three months. Among the kinds of companies using SME Commerce were a bicycle retailer, a seafood company, and a software retailer.
Actinic was another company offering storefront building solutions in the early 2000s. Although its Actinic Business product had many features that were identical or similar to 5click's SME Commerce, including design templates, Actinic Business was not offered on a hosted basis. Companies purchased this solution from Actinic and then installed it on their own servers, or on a server operated by a different host or Internet service provider. The company argued that, compared to hosted software, this approach offered more control, stability, and security to e-commerce companies.
In addition to providing features that were essential for selling products and services to consumers, like a shopping cart and credit card processing capabilities, Actinic Business also supported business-to-business e-commerce. In this regard, it offered features like inventory monitoring, customer account management, and customized pricing schedules. An independent review of the application praised it for its detailed stock monitoring features, reports, and warning features. Additionally, Actinic Business offered a great deal of flexibility for companies seeking an international customer base. This solution supported more than 30 different currencies and was able to calculate taxes for many different areas throughout the world.
Lesman Instrument Co., a distributor of process control products, used Actinic Business as an e-commerce solution to effectively deal with a customer base that was growing and spread across a wide geographic area. By making the company's catalog of more than 16,000 products available online at its Web site, www.ReadyShip.com, Actinic Business provided Lesman Instrument with an e-commerce solution that was easy to use and alleviated pressure on its sales force. It also offered Lesman Instrument's customers more flexibility and convenience, giving them the ability to customize certain configurable products. After launching the ReadyShip site, Lesman Instrument added e-commerce features to its corporate Web site, and again used Actinic Business.
Microsoft's Commerce Server 2000 was a store-front solution that was useful to large enterprises engaging in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business e-commerce. Commerce Server 2000 provided companies with one scalable package that was able to perform a vast array of different functions, including the ability to manage products and services, process financial transactions, profile customers, and manage targeted marketing campaigns. Companies were able to rely on the application's analytical capabilities to create detailed reports that provided different views of their e-commerce efforts.
Starbucks Coffee Co. is one large company that used Microsoft Commerce Server 2000 as its e-commerce solution in the early 2000s. With revenues of $2.2 billion in 2000 and more than 3,500 stores located throughout the world, a company like Starbucks requires and elaborate storefront solution; simply posting available products on a Web site is not sufficient. Starbucks initially went online in 1998 and soon experienced traffic in excess of 1 million hits each day. In 2001, Starbucks decided to upgrade to Microsoft Commerce Server 2000 from an older Microsoft product. At that time, the company had several different business goals, including making the site more effective for customers, more controllable for employees, and certain technical goals.
Starbucks' staff managed the company's Web site by using an application called the Business Desk. This was located on a special server and was accessible only to authorized staff responsible for managing promotions, making catalog updates, running reports, and so on. Microsoft's Commerce Server 2000 supported some very elaborate e-commerce features for Starbucks. One feature was personalization. This enabled customers to save basic personal information, including name, address, and credit card numbers, at the site so the information did not have to be reentered at a later time. It also allowed them to build and save address books containing the addresses of people to whom they wished to send coffee-related gifts. Another feature was Starbucks' Gift and Taste Matcher, which recommend products based on different criteria provided by customers. Finally, custom programming enabled Commerce Server 2000 to give Starkbucks the ability to offer several different kinds of discounts, including ones for employees, shipping charges, special offers, and those tied specifically to certain promotions that required a special code to be entered.
Kemp, Ted. "Small, Midsize Businesses Gear Up." Internet-Week, September 4, 2000.
SEE ALSO: Application Service Provider (ASP); E-commerce Solutions