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A good way to ease into selling your goods online is by leveraging free Web services that handle the time-consuming or technical tasks of business transactions for you.
Eileen Mullin is Vice President of Web Projects for Human Resources at Merrill Lynch. This article is excerpted from her new book, Free Commerce: The Ultimate Guide to E-business on a Budget (Prentice Hall PTR, 2001, ISBN 0-13-033767-6).
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Free-Selling Tools

The following Web sites that focus on Internet selling can help you launch your small business onto the Net. Table 1 weighs their offerings in a single, at-a-glance view.

Table 1 Comparing Services for Selling Online

Feature

Bigstep

eCongo

FreeMerchant

Custom catalog support

Yes, but you need to fill out a form for each item to add to the catalog. You cannot upload a database or spreadsheet.

Yes, you can choose from predesigned templates and upload your own images.

Yes. If your products are in a database/spreadsheet, you can upload them with the Catalog Importer after setting up your category structure.

Credit card payment processing

Yes, as a premium service with real-time verification.

Yes, as a premium service with real-time verification.

Yes, but you need to purchase a merchant account and a processing interface from a merchant service provider, not FreeMerchant.

Shipping and delivery support

No shipping outside the U.S.

Support for tax and shipping tables is built in seamlessly. International shipping is available.

An intuitive interface lets you set up shipping parameters, tax options, and shipping and return policies.

Shopping cart support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Inventory verification

No

Yes

Yes

Free disk space

12MB

Unlimited

Unlimited. For best performance, FreeMerchant recommends that its sites have no more than 1,000 items, nor more than 100 items in a category (or 50 with images).


Bigstep

Bigstep.com gives you free online services to build and maintain a Web site. One of the niftier do-it-yourself Web-building tools, it lets you create your own customized catalog or portfolio without needing to know any HTML. To add items to your catalog, you fill out a form for each item. You may find this task to be time-consuming if you already have your data stored electronically. You can add any number of items to your site and ease navigation by creating any number of sections, which you can publish separately as you finish them. You’ll have an unlimited number of Web pages, and you can store 12MB worth of files for free.

As you progress through the creation of your site, all the tasks you have yet to complete are automatically added to a to-do list. You see icons that show you the status of tasks, indicating whether they are started, completed, or published. The site also features an extensive set of marketing ideas and tools for sending online newsletters.

Although Bigstep.com touts its free commerce capabilities (see Figure 1), the site’s credit card transaction processing is conducted through site partner Cardservice International, which charges both a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee. Note that non-U.S. credit card transactions are not supported; neither is shipping outside of the U.S. You can register your own domain name and have it hosted on Bigstep.com, if you wish, so that customers see your own URL and not a subpage off of Bigstep.com.

Figure 1 Bigstep.com provides instructions about how to accept credit cards, promote events, and move through its hosting services.

Getting Started

To use the Bigstep.com service, you must meet the following technical requirements:

  • A PC running Windows 95/98/NT or Macintosh operating system 7.0 (or newer)

  • Netscape Navigator version 4.0 and up, or Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4.x and up

  • A modem capable of 28.8Kbps or greater

After you register, you are prompted to pick a unique, free Bigstep.com Web address, even if you plan to set up your personalized domain name with your Bigstep.com Web site.

Required information includes the following:

  • Your email address

  • Your full name

  • Business name

  • Zip code

  • Country

  • Category that describes your business

  • Your role at your company, and number of employees

Big spender: To accept credit cards, you pay a $24.95 monthly fee plus an additional fee (depending on the credit card) for each transaction. Other fees include a per-transaction cost and a $0.15 batch fee charged for each day you process transactions in that month.

URL: http://www.bigstep.com/

Contact: support@bigstep.net

eCongo

eCongo.com’s e-commerce services include a Web store builder and administrator (no HTML knowledge necessary), multiple integrated payment methods, Web customer service, shipping and delivery management, and advertising and promotion services.

The service offers integrated real-time credit card processing as a premium paid service—starting with at least $34 in monthly processing fees. This is important to remember because eCongo bills its services as enabling free commerce. Visitors to your site can pay by check, COD, phone ordering, and credit card capture. eCongo.com has also partnered with Cybergold to offer a flexible micropayments system for eCongo.com merchants.

As you create your basic online store, you can modify the overall appearance of the store by choosing from among 18 predefined design templates or by uploading your own custom images. The eCongo catalog lets you create departments, categories, and items; as a result, you’ll want to plan, from the user’s point-of-view, where visitors might go to look for certain items for sale. The service supports shopping carts, so your customers can store items online before checkout.

Besides a product catalog, each eCongo store has four information pages automatically added in to it: a contacts page, an FAQ, a help section, and a returns policy page. You can specify the content of each of these four sections by completing a simple form. However, the tools make it difficult to preview your changes in progress. You must select a Manager/Publisher function to request a preview update—which can be time consuming to run—instead of seeing your changes on-the-fly.

Getting Started

When you begin to create an eCongo storefront, you can choose a URL for the store as a subdomain of eCongo—for example, http://www.yournamehere.econgo.com/—or you can use a custom domain name. Next, you specify basic data for the store: its name and description, what categories of products are to be sold in it, and which payment methods and tax assessment will be used (see Figure 2), as well as which shipping options are to be available. The final step is to enter the store owner’s contact information.

Figure 2 You can indicate which payment methods you’re prepared to accept when you set up your eCongo storefront.

When the store is ready to go live, eCongo.com automatically submits your Web store’s info to five search engines, with the option to define both the store description and keywords. You also find an advertising generator that is used to produce text advertisements, which can then be exchanged with other eCongo storeowners. Required information includes the following:

  • Full name

  • Email address

  • Phone number

  • Mailing address

  • Country

You are then guided through a setup process that will ask for information about your business. If you apply for an online merchant account, you are asked for the following information:

  • Contact information for your business

  • Information about your business (including location, type of ownership, tax ID number, number of employees)

  • Sales data (annual sales, annual credit card sales, average sale, sales tax, return policy)

  • Business methods (sources of sales, delivery times, advertising, current fulfillment, and credit card processors)

  • Information (including Social Security number) of principals in the business

  • Bank reference information (including average balance, total loans, total other business)

  • Bank account information

Big spender: eCongo offers credit card processing as a premium service. It enables its online credit card transactions through Cardservice International, just as Bigstep.com does, but here the fees are much higher; there is a monthly cost of $34 in addition to a discount rate of 2.8 percent plus $0.30 per transaction. These costs include the provision of a merchant account and real-time transaction fees.

URL: http://www.econgo.com/

Contact: info@econgo.com

FreeMerchant

FreeMerchant.com provides all the basic site-building features of a Web storefront service: a secure e-commerce transaction system, including a shopping cart system, browsable product database system, and an easily customizable Web interface—all completely free. The service does not offer credit card processing, though; if you choose FreeMerchant for your storefront, you may want to consider one of the free credit card processing services mentioned a little earlier in this chapter.

There are some 50 different templates to choose from in designing your site’s look and feel. Like Bigstep.com, FreeMerchant.com can import a street map to show your physical store’s location. The builder’s tools are especially helpful for setting categories, subcategories, and items for sale.

The Payment Gateway lets you establish precisely how you want shipping, taxation, and transactions to work. The catalog maintenance includes an automatic inventory checker that alerts you when you’re low on a product, and either lets customers place their orders (which are labeled "on back order") or stops taking orders for that item. You can also import catalog data from Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets; or dBase, FoxPro, and Paradox databases. To keep track of invoices, FreeMerchant.com can export invoice data to Intuit’s QuickBooks. FreeMerchant.com’s site-traffic logging system is unfortunately limited to reporting only the numbers of hits per specific period, not the most popular paths by which visitors traverse your site. The service also offers an online coupon generator application for you to create coupons you can issue to your customers (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 As a promotion tool, you can generate online coupons through FreeMerchant’s service.

When you fill out a form with your site’s title, description, and keywords, the Site Promotion system lists your site with AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, and others. FreeMerchant.com’s eBay promotion feature requires that you first establish an account with eBay and then fill out a form within FreeMerchant.com so that eBay can point to the product you intend to auction.

Getting Started

When you first register with FreeMerchant.com, you’re prompted to acknowledge that you will not use the service to host an adult site. You’re prompted to create a unique username that will form part of your URL. Your URL is of the form http://www.yournamehere.safeshopper.com/, where yournamehere is replaced by your unique username.

Required information includes the following:

  • Your email address

  • Full name

  • Company name and address

  • Telephone number

  • Information about number of employees, annual revenue, and industry

  • Country

Big spender: No premium services. If you don’t have a merchant account, you need to purchase one. Two FreeMerchant partners, OneCore and U.S. Merchant Systems, sell merchant accounts.

URL: http://www.freemerchant.com/

Contact: freemerchantsupport@freemerchant.com

Mal’s Free E-Commerce Service

Mal’s E-commerce is a little different from the other services described in this section. It simply lets you set up a virtual shopping cart system for your site that it hosts on its server, totally for free. You’ll need to have your own Web page set up—free services such as Angelfire, Tripod, or Homestead can help if you’re just getting started. You can customize the cart with your own look and graphics, so some knowledge of HTML is most helpful on that front. This shopping cart will handle an unlimited inventory, too.

Mal’s online help files and extensive FAQs walk you through enabling the shopping cart system from start to finish. The shopping cart system encrypts the information sent, using SSL. When you receive an order, you’ll be notified by e-mail, which contains details of the order plus a unique shopper ID, but minus the credit card number. You have to collect the card number using an SSL-secure browser and the shopper ID number from Mal’s site.

This system doesn’t offer payment processing, but you’ll find a complete online tutorial with detailed advice on securing a merchant account or finding other ways to accept and process payments (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Mal’s E-commerce site offers extremely useful information for small business owners who are looking to get started with e-commerce.

The site has a message forum, in which you can ask questions if you’re looking to extend your site’s system. The service includes calculators for shipping, taxes, and discounts; and is available in 13 languages, with support for the Euro. A demo storefront is available for you to peruse for brainstorming before you take the plunge.

Getting Started

Click the Join Up button on the home page to join.

Required information includes the following:

  • Your name

  • Company or organization

  • Telephone number

  • Fax number

  • Country

  • E-mail address

  • Type of organization

  • Your site’s name, URL, and a description of what you sell

Big spender: A $5-a-month premium account lets you directly integrate the cart into the credit card payment gateways of Cybercash, Authorizenet, Linkpoint, or Secpay.

URL: http://www.mals-e.com/

Contact: http://www.mals-e.com/contact.cfm

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