When people talk about e-commerce today, they are usually referring to online selling. Whether you are an e-tailer selling directly to consumers or a B2B vendor, you need an infrastructure to sell your wares. You need a virtual storefront.

Setting up a virtual storefront is very much like building an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar store. You rent space from a landlord, open a bank account, organize your store, put out some shopping carts, set up a row of cash registers, and (since you are most likely a direct merchant) ship the goods to the customer.

Here’s how the two models differ:

Brick-and-Mortar Store Virtual Store
Physical Space Web Space
Bank Account Merchant Account
Aisles/Shelves Database/Online Catalog
Shopping Carts Shopping Cart Software
Cash Register E-Payment System
Carry-Out or Delivery Ship via UPS, FedEx, etc., or Deliver Online

These differences make e-commerce uniquely challenging – and uniquely rewarding. Foremost among the challenges is figuring out what you are buying from an e-commerce software or services vendor. Dozens of companies want to help you set up your virtual store. Some of them offer bundled services or software suites that cover all the virtual store functions listed here. Others promise to solve only one or two pieces of the puzzle. Since the tools involved are still new and unproven, many e-merchants have opted to build their own virtual storefronts from the ground up. Regardless of the exact solution you choose to set up your storefront, you’ll still have to cover those six functions:

Physical Space vs. Web Space
While people have been renting buildings for centuries, commercial Web-hosting is barely half a decade old. Therefore, you’ll have to do some homework to identify the solution that best suits your needs before you sign your virtual “lease.”

Bank Account vs. Merchant Account
Obviously, you will need to have both kinds of accounts as an e-merchant. A merchant account is simply your link between the online and brick-and-mortar financial worlds.

Aisles and Shelves vs. Databases and Online Catalogs
Stocking the aisles of a supermarket or hardware store is a fairly simple process. In contrast, stocking a virtual store involves creating and maintaining a database and deploying a user-friendly interface to it on your Web site. Most “shopping cart” programs integrate a database into their package.

Shopping Carts vs. Shopping-Cart Software
The simple act of filling a shopping basket can be difficult to mimic in a virtual store. Fortunately, plenty of software has been created to help customers buy your products in a way that will not dampen their enthusiasm.

Cash Registers vs. E-Payments
Checking out of a virtual store is very much like making a credit card purchase at an actual store. Most transactions on the Web today are handled with credit cards, but other payment options – such as e-checks and micropayments – are also available.

Carry-Out vs. Shipping
At a traditional store, you bundle up your purchases and walk out the door. Most virtual shopping experiences culminate with a package being shipped via UPS, FedEx, or another shipping company.

As you build your virtual storefront and shop for software, bear in mind the following guidelines that will optimize your customers’ virtual shopping experience and, ultimately, maximize your sales:

  • Do your homework. Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines (yet) for buying e-commerce software. You’ll need to clarify your needs and identify the range of solutions that will meet them.
  • Shop around. E-commerce software is a very competitive field, so be sure to explore a variety of vendors for the best deal.
  • Check out your peers’ experiences. E-commerce is a brand-new milieu that is attracting many vendors with varying levels of experience and reliability. Before you buy any solution, talk to two or three businesses like yours who are using the product now.

workz.com Bottom Line
E-commerce is here to stay. It has already revolutionized the sale of books, cars, CDs, and travel services, and it is creating entirely new kinds of businesses. A virtual storefront – while challenging in its own way – can be cheaper to operate than an actual one, and it lets you offer your customers entirely new and streamlined shopping experiences.

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