By Roger Harris
March 2001 - Recent dot-com failures notwithstanding, e-commerce remains a vibrant part of the U.S. economy. Forrester Research Inc., for instance, estimates that business-to-business e-commerce in North America will surpass $2.7 trillion by 2004. On the consumer side, shoppers spent more online last holiday season than they did the year before, according to a PC Data survey – despite predictions of a holiday spending slowdown.
To help companies exploit the growing cyber-marketplace, software developers are constantly cranking out new products. Here is a look at some of the e-commerce software options now available.
For smaller companies looking to get started on the Internet, do-it-yourself Web sites can be quickly launched through Yahoo, America Online, or other online services. The cost is minimal, and you can be online in a day or two.
"If all you want is Web presence, that is probably the way to go," says Ruviano Martinez, a product manager for IBM. "But if you really want to build an application, you will want something more sophisticated."
There are pros and cons to the do-it-yourself approach. On the plus side, both Yahoo and AOL offer step-by-step guides to setting up an e-commerce Web site and they enable a certain degree of customization. Users typically pay a fixed monthly fee plus a small "revenue sharing" fee based on a percentage of sales driven by the service provider.
On the downside, do-it-yourselfers are in effect "renting" Web space and don't have access to the range of functions available via e-commerce software from leading developers such as IBM and Microsoft.
IBM's e-commerce software starts with the WebSphere Commerce Suite Start Edition. Designed specifically for small- and medium-size businesses, the Start Edition provides, among other features, an online store creator, a secure payment processing server, database software, and design tools.
Start Edition, which sells for about $9,500, also supports Euro currency.
"Getting you started is exactly what the Start Edition is intended to do," says Mr. Martinez, product manager for IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite Marketplace Edition. "It provides you with all of the capabilities to start simply and bring your storefront up very quickly, as well as the flexibility to layer on new functions as your company grows."
With various e-commerce standards in use, the WebSphere suite supports Open Buying on the Internet (OBI), Extensible Mark-up Language (XML), Secure Electronic Transaction, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), Open EDI, and Open Trading Protocol (OTP).
Another option is Microsoft's bCentral.com service, which offers everything from Web hosting to site building. Extras include Traffic Builder Pro, designed for companies with large Web sites. For about $500 a year, Traffic Builder Pro delivers a search engine, customer e-mail services, and advertising on hundreds of thousands of Web sites.
For companies that want an even more sophisticated system that can be maintained in-house, IBM offers the WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro. The Pro version has all of the START Edition features plus advanced catalog tools that provide online extras such as shopping advisers and intelligent search options for consumers.
Pro also enables businesses to integrate front- and back-end systems and more complex financial information, according to Mr. Martinez.
WebSphere Pro sells for about $38,000. Both the PRO and START software systems are compatible with Windows NT, IBM AIX, and Sun Solaris operating platforms.
One company that has used IBM products to dramatically boost sales is Flower-Net (www.floresflowernet.com.mx), an online flower shop in Mexico City that markets services to the 10 million Mexicans living in the United States.
With the WebSphere Commerce Suite, Flower-Net offers customers a searchable catalog, increased credit card security, and a series of personalized functions, including customer address books and a customized card option.
Juan Luis Berumen, general manager of FLOWER-NET de Mexico S.A. de C.V., says the company saw a 100 percent return on its e-commerce investment in less than a year.
"We were able to start this business with minimal up-front investment, and we can maintain very low monthly fixed costs," Mr. Berumen says. "We now have an infrastructure we can leverage to support new e-commerce ventures."
Mr. Berumen and his partners next plan to use IBM software to launch a new company to sell PCs and peripherals over the Web.
Some forward-looking e-commerce operations also will want to consider creating an online store that is accessible via wireless devices. Consumer interest in using Palm Pilots, cell phones, and pagers to shop online is growing, most analysts agree. Both IBM and Microsoft offer software designed to enable businesses to add wireless connectivity to their e-commerce sites.
"Wireless is big in Europe," says Mr. Martinez. "That's where business is headed."
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