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Build an online shop

Start trading online - and do it on a budget

Getting Ready

When it comes to setting up your online shop, you have four areas to consider:

Visual look and feel

The shopping cart

Order processing and payment collection

Marketing (you need to get people to your shop. For marketing advice, go here.)

Visual Look and Feel

If you want people to feel comfortable enough to spend some time browsing through your online wares, and confident enough to make a purchase, your online shop needs to present an appropriate face to the outside world. It needs to reflect your company image and allow people to easily find their way around.

You will need to decide whether you will design the shop yourself or use a professional web designer. While hiring a professional may seem the more expensive option at the outset, it could save you money both literally and in terms of the time it takes to get the project off the ground. If for example, you already routinely produce catalogues to send through the post, you probably have enough expertise within your company to take care of the visuals. If you're a smaller business with no print or design expertise to hand, you'll definitely save time by hiring an expert. If you want to tackle it yourself, there's lots of design advice here. Be warned that external design agencies come in a vast range of sizes and costs (a good parallel would be holiday companies); but there's a good list to start from here.

If you do want to tackle the project yourself, website development packages like Microsoft FrontPage will make this job all the easier.

The Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is your inventory and product management tool. The shopping cart's function is two-fold. From your own administrative viewpoint, it offers you an environment in which to arrange and manage your stock. Whereas from your site visitor's point of view, it acts as their trolley, into which they load their purchases before they proceed to checkout. Good shopping cart systems are easy to implement, and take care of everything from searching for items through to totting up costs at the checkout. They should also take care of complicated underlying maths, such as working out shipping or postage costs for different products to different places. Some strong contenders include Actinic, Bazaarbuilder, Storefront and ClickCart.

Tools of the Trade

Now when it comes to building and implementing your online shop, you have a number of options available to you:

An off the shelf template-driven package

An integrated solution

A virtual store

An Off the Shelf Template-Driven Package

An off the shelf package like Actinic, Cart 32, osCommerce or Shopfitter offers you a template-driven environment in which to build your eCommerce site.

They can either be used to tack an eCommerce component onto your existing website, or to construct an online shop from scratch. These packages offer an integrated shopping cart, and varying degrees of customisability to enable you to adapt the templates to your company look and feel using a program like Microsoft FrontPage.

With this solution you will still need to arrange a merchant account and a means by which to process transactions (often glamorously called the "credit card back end")

An Integrated Solution

If this sounds like too much trouble, you may wish to consider an integrated approach. WorldPay, whose core business is managing online credit card transactions, offers a Start Up package specifically tailored to small business. The package offers a convenient solution to quickly getting your site off the ground, providing you with software to build your online store, a merchant account and transaction processing facility under one roof.

A Virtual Store

Another option is to subscribe to a virtual store like Free Merchant or Intershop. These 'stores' are web-based systems where everything is configured through your browser.

Such online systems are a good starting point if your eCommerce requirements are fairly basic. They will generally offer a facility to collect payment and process your orders for a percentage fee or flat rate. However they aren't particularly customisable both in terms of visual design and functionality.

In summary, note two key factors. Firstly, there's nothing to stop you starting off with a virtual store (low startup costs, higher running fees) to see if your products sell well. Then, when you've proved the value, you can move to a more custom solution (higher startup costs, better long-term value). Dip your toe in first, and then expand as necessary. Secondly, and in a similar vein, you need to get your head round the charging structures involved. Custom-built solutions obviously are largely paid for upfront, as with any large technology investment. However, virtual stores and many integrated solutions can be paid for as a percentage of purchases made. Just as credit card companies take a small percentage of your gross sales, the same arrangement can often be made with shopping cart providers. Our advice here is simple: just as with credit card interest rates, percentages vary wildly from product to product. To protect your business, be sure to shop around for the best deal.

The most beautifully designed site and seamless transaction process will come to nothing if the order fulfilment side of your business isn't up to scratch. In years gone by this has often been the doom of a promising online venture. Bad news travels fast, so be sure to deliver the goods- literally. Only ten years ago, mail order companies used to say "Allow 28 days for delivery". In today's fast-moving online environment, keeping customers waiting more than three or four days will leave them disappointed. Keep your service levels up, and particularly beware of being a victim of your own success.

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