OFF ONTO THE SHELF & THE WEB

Can’t afford a six-figure, customized Web design? Off-the-shelf software may be a viable alternative

When Catalog Music Corp. decided to create a Website last year, money was an object. The Nashville, TN-based cataloger of classic country-music CDs and cassettes has annual sales of less than $10 million, so a six-figure, custom-designed site was out of the question.

Instead, managing director Martin Davis chose Bondware from Edge.Net in Brentwood, TN, to create the company’s Website. Bondware is available through ISPs for about $500, says Edge.Net director Tim Richardson.

“Often when you’re dealing with Internet software development shops, they don’t have a clue as to what direct marketing is all about – the dynamics of processing an order, keeping it simple, and having an order-processing system that works,” Davis says. Bondware, he says, offers these functions, as well as such features as chat rooms and online polls, which allow the Website to foster a sense of community: “Our customers want to buy from people who are as passionate about music as they are.”

Building the site took less than 100 hours, Davis estimates. “You only have to make certain that your database will flow into Bondware, and then you upload images wherever you want them.” And Bondware links with the company’s existing order- fulfillment system. “We already had a robust back-end,” Davis says, “so we use the Bondware site for content and order processing.” The Web now accounts for 2%-3% of orders.

For every Lands’ End and KBToys that spends tens of thousands of dollars to custom-build a Website, there are scores of marketers heading online for far less, thanks to the number of off-the-shelf Web design packages available. Sometimes called “e-commerce in a box,” the packages can be a reasonable option, says Jennifer Levini, a partner in Web Presence, a Santa Rosa, CA-based Internet consulting firm. “If you’re a small company with a limited budget, these let you get your feet wet,” she notes. Off-the-shelf packages typically run from $300 to $500, though Microsoft’s FrontPage, a popular choice, costs about $125.

Packages such as Microsoft’s FrontPage and Macromedia’s Drumbeat are available from retailers and ISPs. Then there are the build-a-store applications that can be downloaded from the Web, such as Yahoo! Store and Freemerchant.com.

Regardless of their source, these packages typically offer a range of templates for your Web storefront. For example, you may be able to decide among several colors and type fonts in designing the site. Some packages include shopping-cart functions such as the ability to calculate shipping and handling charges, while others require you to link with another application to get these capabilities.

On the back-end, the packages usually can import data from an inventory database so that you don’t have to rekey the information in your catalog.

Reaching the limits

That’s not to say that Website software packages don’t have limitations. One is the amount of traffic they can handle, says Preston Dodd, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York. “Use of the site scales quickly, and customization becomes necessary fairly rapidly,” he notes. While pinpointing a package’s limit is difficult – Microsoft, for instance, says FrontPage has been used to support a site with as many as 8,000 database records – the larger the number of visitors you expect, the more likely that your company will want to look at custom solutions.

In addition, custom-designed sites by definition offer a greater ability to tailor just what the customer sees and how the site operates. While most packages allow variations in font types and color, the overall look of the site may remain fairly consistent from one site to another. For instance, all sites using a given package may display the company name at the top, several pictures in the middle, and text at the bottom of the home page. (But then again, Website design overall has become somewhat standardized.)

Earlier this year, Fairytale Brownies, a $2.2 million cataloger/retailer of desserts, moved from a design package to a custom-designed Website. Currently, about one-quarter of the company’s sales are coming over the Web, says David Kravetz, vice president/co-owner of the Chandler, AZ-based company.

When Fairytale Brownies ventured online in 1995, Kravetz says, it bought from its ISP a fairly basic third-party application, Gosite (which is now part of Atlanta’s Mindspring Enterprises). The marketer’s original site provided information on the company, listed items for sale, and enabled customers to request a catalog. If customers wanted to order online, they simply sent an e-mail to the company.

While the system worked, Kravetz grew frustrated with its limitations. For example, Fairytale Brownies typically increases its shipping and handling charges in the summer because it has to include ice with the orders. The system, however, couldn’t accommodate the change. And even though most of Fairytale Brownies’ sales are for gifts, the system wouldn’t let customers enter different “ship to” and “bill to” addresses on the same order.

To remedy the situation, Fairytale Brownies invested about $5,000 and several months in developing a custom site. Now customers place orders by filling out a form that automatically checks for such things as the proper formatting of phone numbers. The system also stores data on repeat customers so that they don’t have to retype their credit card numbers and other information.

Despite the switch to a custom site, Kravetz doesn’t discount packaged Website software. “With a small business, I would look at off-the-shelf packages,” he says. “You can go a long way.”

– Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (www.harley-davidson.com) has selected Blue Martini Software (www.bluemartini.com) to help support its online sales effort. Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson launched a nontransactional online catalog of its motorcycle accessories and apparel in November; it will start selling goods online through a group of independent dealers this year. The software from San Mateo, CA-based Blue Martini will enable Harley-Davidson’s site to offer user wish lists and dynamic merchandising, among other features.

– The eTrax stand-alone hardware/software solution from San Diego-based Straight Up! (www.straightup.com) is designed to track the results of both online and offline efforts to promote a company’s Website. The product works with Web server software to collect marketing and advertising data, then determines which sorts of promotions (including banner ads, e-mails, print ads, and direct mail) have proved the most profitable. According to Straight Up!, eTrax requires no additional hardware or software, and its reports can beobtained from any Web browser, so long as the user has the appropriate username and password. It can also be customized and secured using standard SSL encryption.

– As it expands its corporate Website into an online transactional catalog, women’s apparel retailer/cataloger Dress Barn has selected NaviSite (www.navisite.com) to provide hosting infrastructure and application management. New York-based NaviSite is also providing Compaq ProLiant servers, Microsoft Site Server Commerce Edition, Oracle SQL servers, Windows NT 4.0, and a virtual private network to provide secure access between its data center and Suffern, NY-based Dress Barn.

– Indianapolis-based Sigma Micro Corp. (www.sigma-micro.com) plans to roll out its eController system this quarter. According to Sigma Micro, the product links various sales channels so that companies can capture orders, provide product information and availability, upsell and cross-sell merchandise, and provide other sorts of customer service in real time.

– Apparel cataloger Lands’ End (www.landsend.com) and insurance products provider Lexica (www.insurezone.com) have selected eMail Manager from Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) to handle inbound e-mail response management. According to San Jose, CA-based Cisco, the eMail Manager processes and tracks incoming messages, directs them to the appropriate person, suggests response templates, and sends automated acknowledgments. A full-feature browser-based interface provides companies with the ability to view correspondence history, search response libraries, and have multiple staffers collaborate on replies.

– Maritz (www.maritz.com), the St. Louis company perhaps best known for creating performance-improvement programs, has created a division that will focus on developing Internet business solutions. Among the services to be offered are database development and administration, hardware procurement, inventory management, e-business strategy, and customer relationship management strategy. The company will focus largely on business-to-business and Fortune 1000 companies.

– Cozone.com (www.cozone.com), the Internet subsidiary of computer superstore CompUSA, has hired software developer Boston-based Artificial Life (www.artificial-life.com) to create “smart bots” to act as virtual sales reps on its site.

– Oriole Systems (www.mymart.net) is releasing E-Mart Design SW, for use with the eMerchant package from Magic Software (www.magic-sw.com) and the Net.commerce software from IBM (www.software.ibm.com/ad/sanfrancisco). According to the Vancouver-based software developer, the product will link customer relationship management and supply-chain systems to a company’s Website.

– The beta release of DynamicInput, by San Jose, CA-based Input Software (www.inputsw.com), is scheduled for this quarter. The XML-based software product was designed to make it easier for companies to communicate with customers in real time over the Web. Input Software is touting the product as a way to complete transactions such as complex product purchases, loan applications, and insurance claims via the Internet.

– Colorado Springs, CO-based NxTrend Technology (www.nxtrend.com) has released version 3.1 of its eSales Center e-commerce solution, part of its Strategic Exchange product line. This latest version includes enhanced order security features and more options for customizing the appearance of Web pages. Designed specifically for wholesale distributors, eSales Center allows customers and salespeople to enter orders and check product pricing and account status in a live environment.

Before choosing between an off-the-shelf package or a customized solution, consider the following:

1. The role that your Website will play in your business. The greater it is, the more resources you will want to put into it.

2. Your budget. While the cost of every custom-designed site varies, most experts say to figure on at least several thousand dollars. Packaged applications typically cost $125-$500.

3. How much traffic the site is likely to get. Although there is no magic number that indicates whether you should opt for a custom site, according to Preston Dodd of Jupiter Communications, “the more traffic your site attracts and the more complex your site, the more you need custom development.”

4. The number of products you’ll be offering through the site. Again, the greater the number, the more likely it is that you’ll want to consider a custom site.

5. Whether you need bells and whistles that an off-the-shelf package can’t provide. Performance Snowboarding, a Sunnyside, NY-based merchant of snowboarding equipment and apparel, opted for a custom-designed Website in part so that it could create personalized product recommendations for customers based on their responses to questions about their height, their weight, and the type of terrain they would be riding on. “Customization is how you brand yourself,” says Colin McQuaid, manager of Internet commerce.

Things to consider when looking at off-the-shelf-packages:

1. What is included? For example, does the package offer shopping-cart capabilities, or will you have to pay extra for that?

2. What sort of online address will you have? Some e-commerce services may not offer customized Website addresses. Instead, you may be registered as “www.greatmall.com/joe’s-hardware,” notes Jennifer Levini of Internet consulting firm Web Presence.

3. How much can you customize the site? You’ll want to be able to coordinate the look of your Website with your other marketing materials.

4. If the package is available through your ISP, what support can the provider offer? One question to ask, says John Cain of ISP Digital Marketing, is how quickly your ISP can provide technical support should you run into a problem. And Bruce Buckland, president of Inforonics, a Littleton, MA, e-business outsourcing firm, suggests checking how much experience the ISP has with the package you’re planning to use.

5. How will the package link with your other systems? Can someone in your company handle any data transfer that’s needed?

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