Selecting the Right Type of Online Storefront - dummies

Selecting the Right Type of Online Storefront

By Jan Zimmerman

The easiest and least expensive online storefront business solutions offer the least flexibility and fewest features. If you’re just starting your business, you can use one of these solutions to establish your store and then invest in a more complex, fully featured, e-commerce solution as you grow. The following explains storefront options, sequenced roughly from simple to complex.

No-storefront selling solutions

By far, the least expensive way to start selling online is to use the no-storefront selling solution. In other words, forego all the hassle of a website and storefront. Simply sell your products directly at Amazon Marketplace, eBay or other auction sites, or craigslist or other classified sites. You won’t have your own domain name, but you can link from a separate, small, HTML website to your listings on most of these.

Social media selling solutions

Unfortunately, you can’t sell directly from most social media outlets; they simply aren’t set up to support e-commerce. However, you can add a storefront widget to your blog, your Facebook page, or another social networking site to provide your buyers a convenient window into your store.

Alternatively, you can link directly to specific products or store pages from your profile or wall, or you can include a link in a post or tweet.

One-stop store builders

One-stop store builders (think web Store in a Box) are generic, somewhat inflexible solutions, but they quickly solve most of your problems — except content. It’s true that one-stop store builders help you buy a domain name, build template-based web pages, stock a product catalog, supply the shopping cart and check stand components, provide a payment system through PayPal or a merchant gateway, and host your site.

Inexpensive and relatively easy to use, the entry-level versions work best for small stores. Many hosting companies offer these packaged solutions, but they’re available also through eBay Stores, Yahoo! Stores, and elsewhere.

Specialty store builders

Sometimes called malls, specialty store builders have a mission. Usually, a hosting company decides to focus on a particular industry or geographical area and markets e-commerce templates tailored to the needs of that audience.

The host then creates a directory of all its shops as a virtual mall and promotes the mall as an online destination. Some high-end malls, such as, allow buyers to use a universal shopping cart across all their stores, saving the user time and making purchasing easier.

Watch out for malls that are nothing more than a directory of links. Ask about traffic and promotion for the mall. Also, be cautious if a mall doesn’t let you use your own domain name.

Assembly storefronts

Many companies host storefront solutions on their third-party servers that you link to from your site, wherever it might be hosted. These assembly storefronts have all the essential components for e-commerce, but you might need technical assistance to smooth the link interface.

Integrated storefronts

Developers integrate commercial, off-the-shelf, or open-source e-commerce components with your existing site to create a seamless online store solution. Depending on its size and other factors, your storefront might be hosted on a dedicated server, your shared server, or the developer’s server. This approach is more complex but also more customizable and flexible than others. Translation:

Integrated storefronts cost more money. Some developers license and resell the same storefront solution to all their e-commerce customers. This approach is fine, as long as the store does what you need. You have the advantage of working with someone who is expert in that particular package and secure about the future as well. If something happens to your developer, you can find someone else who knows this package.

Custom e-commerce solutions

For maximum flexibility and control, some developers prefer to write their own e-commerce packages. The upside: A custom shopping site that’s industry-tailored might be cost-effective for your particular business. The downside: Depending on how many other stores use the software, it might not be fully debugged and might need a lot of testing. If you ever change developers, you’re most likely to lose your storefront.

Enterprise e-commerce solutions

Usually expensive, integrated solutions for large, high-end stores interface with retail, point-of-sale (POS) bookkeeping, inventory, manufacturing, customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and other systems.

Choosing a solution at this level generally means you have made a significant investment and are working with a team of technical, merchandising, and content developers. An enterprise solution from UniteU was assembled to build the storefront for RCC Western Stores.