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February 2, 1998

Viaweb Store 4.0

As the old joke goes, Internet commerce is like teenage sex: everybody talks about it but only a few are doing it. One of the major reasons that Internet commerce has been slow to develop is that it has been extremely difficult to establish a full-fledged storefront on the Web. Although many products address the needs of site builders', most are too inflexible or demanding for non-IT professionals to get them quickly up and running.

Viaweb Store 4.0 seeks to avoid these issues by completely eliminating them from the local workplace. Rather than add another complex system to your local network, Viaweb Store is a self-contained, Web-based commerce server that runs on Viaweb's own Web site, where it is managed by Viaweb's professionals. All you have to do is create a storefront on their system using a Web browser, and then Viaweb does the rest.

Although this may seem somewhat unnatural to die-hard Webmasters and code jockeys, it is a very functional environment for small business owners or understaffed marketing departments. Viaweb is not only simple to use but also extremely flexible and quite manageable.

Setting up is easy to do

Creating a storefront on Viaweb's site is a very straightforward affair. A tutorial guides you through the basic steps, and only takes a few minutes to complete. You simply answer a few questions and a basic version of your storefront is automatically created.

Once the basic storefront is defined, you can go back and edit your site as you choose. I added products, inventory codes, product images, and descriptions with ease. Once this information was published, I could easily change specific aspects of the site.

I had no problems defining special billing options (such as purchase orders, bill-to options, and a variety of credit cards) and special shipping terms (including carriers and rates). Also, I could specify whether or not to include local sales tax on the order.

Managing the sale

Essentially, Viaweb is simply an electronic storefront, providing a platform for transactions to occur. Once a purchase has been made, you still must ship the product, and you remain responsible for getting the money from the customer.

But Viaweb offers impressive online transaction management services to help you with those tasks. Viaweb provides a generic "shopping basket" service that is shared across all of the storefronts that they host, although merchants can add additional fields to their order forms to support custom features (such as monogramming).

Once the customer chooses to buy the product, Viaweb is then able to process that transaction through a number of channels, ranging from major credit cards to purchase orders. You can also create your own payment system, such as a vendor-specific credit card.

Credit card verification is provided online by Viaweb. Viaweb also can process the actual credit card transaction through CyberCash, for an additional fee. All other forms of transactions (such as purchase orders, direct billing, and non-CyberCash transactions) must be performed by the merchant.

Viaweb can notify you of transactions via fax or e-mail, or you can choose to download a list of possible transactions from Viaweb's site using Secure Sockets Layer. Transactions can be sent to you in several formats, including QuickBooks, comma-delimited and Excel.

Site promotion department

Viaweb also provides a variety of tracking and promotion tools, allowing you to monitor what works well for generating business.

For example, Viaweb provides a variety of site traffic statistics, including the entrance and exit pages, the search keywords that led viewers to your site, the amount of purchases per item, the number of visits, the pages that have the most sales, and more.

In the site promotion area, Viaweb also provides a number of resources to generate repeat visits. Among the services offered are mailing lists (for sending notices to your customers), automatic seeding of pages onto various search engines, and automatic tracking of cross-site linking. Viaweb also promotes all of their sites on its Web site Viamall (http://www.viamall.com), an online collection of all of Viaweb's hosted storefronts.

The cross-site linking features allow you to create relationships with other sites that can then sell materials from your site, taking a percentage of the sales they generate.

Overall, Viaweb provides an extremely easy-to-use virtual storefront operation. Rather than spending a fortune on a local solution, you simply set up a virtual transaction center on Viaweb's remote servers, promote your site, and then retrieve the orders as they come in.

This Web store offers a very capable, hosted Internet-commerce solution. Although companies with high-end I-commerce needs and in-house expertise will likely want to keep the ownership of these kinds of systems local, smaller companies without system-management capabilities (or budgets) can benefit tremendously from Viaweb's outsourcing model..

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