Off-the-shelf e-commerce – Software Review – Evaluation

Amee Abel

Five software packages that promise to put your business on the Web

VISIT AN OFFICE-SUPPLY STORE, and you’ll see ways to turn your office into a store: In today’s roaring e-commerce era, even outlets like Staples and OfficeMax are stocking software kits that promise to walk you through the task of setting up a classy online storefront for your home-based business. Can these out-of-the-box alternatives to Web site and e-business hosting services really put your company on the Internet?

To find out, we tested five shrink-wrapped solutions ranging in price from $50 to $499. We used each package to set up a fictitious home-based business–a bicycle shop called Family Bike that needed to find a home on the Web.

In addition to helping us create professional-looking sites; reliable shopping carts; and secure, real-time credit card transactions, we checked each package for the ability to set up catalogs with special attributes–important for businesses that sell items in multiple sizes or colors. We also wanted to import and use an existing Family Bike logo throughout our Web storefront.

Finally, our ideal application would interface with other software to allow automated inventory tracking and invoice creation–and, ideally, convert an existing database to an online catalog automatically.

After trying them out, we were disappointed that none of the kits proved 100 percent up to the task, though most had plenty to offer the budding online entrepreneur. For example, all five products could create sites and shopping carts and handle credit card transactions, but we had mixed results with the rest of our requirements.

Overall, we’d urge shopkeepers with large product lines and long-established accounting methods to check out the upscale ecBuilder Pro. Smaller merchants who can stand some manual data entry would be well served by one of the lower-priced packages, notably eMerchant Pro and WebSite Complete eCommerce Edition.

EcBuilder Pro

HOC RATING 1234567

Though pricey, ecBuilder Pro combines surefire storefront setup with powerful back-end features, such as customizable tax calculations and shipping information, order and inquiry management, and e-mail notification of purchases.

Businesses with big inventories will appreciate ecBuilder’s unique ability to import and export data in the spreadsheet- and database-friendly comma-separated variable (CSV) file format. We were equally impressed with the program’s ability to handle graphics–ecBuilder Pro supports 34 image formats and automatically resizes images as necessary.

A series of 14 interactive screens helps you set up your site. We quickly composed a Web storefront, selecting from 30 different handsome templates and a variety of color schemes. Adding our company Logo was a breeze; the template designs included places for it. EcBuilder’s only real drawback is its shopping cart. When ordering, a customer can’t specify product sizes or colors until the very end of the shopping process.

Unlike most of the other packages we reviewed, ecBuilder Pro doesn’t Lock you into a specific host, though it will submit your site to the search engines of your choice after you publish your site.

EcBuilder Pro is a great tool for creating a Web storefront, but we only recommend it for businesses that sell products without varying attributes–and have $499 to invest.

A Excellent tools; professionals results

B The most expensive product we tested


HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates Products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9’s or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

Rating: 7

EMerchant Pro

HOC RATING 12345678

With advanced features such as customer-selectable product attributes, a Live-chat feature, the ability to handle multiple shipping and tax zones, and automatic customer invoicing, eMerchant Pro turns your Web site into a profit center.

You Load the software on your PC, but must go to the eMerchant Pro site to build your storefront. A site created with eMerchant Pro must be hosted by eMerchant Pro.

Along with some of the most attractive template choices in this category, eMerchant is one of the few we tried that provided e-mail notifications of transactions. Cross-selling and up-selling–the techniques by which a clever Web site reminds customers about product tie-ins or recommended items–are unique to eMerchant Pro.

On the downside, eMerchant Pro is fussy about the size of your images. For us, this meant spending hours with an image editor to size and resize images. In addition, every product we sold had to be entered manually while online.

Still, with its 100MB of hosted Web space, professional Layouts, excellent merchandising abilities, and low $99 price, eMerchant Pro is one of the most complete e-commerce products for home-based businesses.

A Slick templates; great merchandising

B Web site hosting limitations


HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates Products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9’s or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

Rating: 8

QuickSite Internet Business StartUp Kit


Unlike the other products here, QuickSite Internet Business StartUp Kit’s focus is on teaching you how to run an online business. The kit includes both a CD-ROM and a video guide, along with a copy of Microsoft’s FrontPage Express Web editor and a multimedia tutorial on planning and creating your own business Web site.

Despite the detailed advice on how to plan, execute, and promote your site, QuickSite falls short when it comes to actually helping you manipulate its many professional templates. For instance, none of its designs included space for our company Logo.

We found working with the templates to be confusing. For example, although the tutorial recommends that you finalize your site before uploading it, we couldn’t actually test our cart until after we sent everything to the host. A related annoyance is that the software doesn’t include a shopping cart unless you register with the QuickSite Web hosting service.

We can only recommend the QuickSite Internet Business StartUp Kit as an adjunct to another e-commerce package–possible given QuickSite’s low $50 price tag. The kit’s business and Web site planning help are worthwhile, but its actual storefront construction doesn’t compare to the competition’s.

A Expert advice on setting up your site

B Little advice on how to use software


HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates Products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9’s or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

Rating: 6

WebCatalog Builder

HOC RATING 1234567

WebCatalog Builder’s easy approach to site creation is appealing, if Limited. While the program can quickly create an online catalog and shopping cart, it Lacks design flexibility.

The software prompts you to fill in a series of forms to create catalog pages. The package doesn’t Lock you into the Smith Micro Web host–it can publish your catalog to any host.

WebCatalog Builder’s image handling was primitive compared with the other packages. To add graphics to our site, we had to copy the images to a specific directory on our PCs hard disk. Once there, they could be accessed from WebCatalog Builder’s product information page and inserted into our Web site.

Unlike the attribute-savvy eMerchant Pro, WebCatalog Builder doesn’t allow for product variables such as color or size. And while the product’s manual promises additional templates and search-engine registration from Smith Micro’s site, these features were still under construction at the time of our review.

If you’re Looking for a fast way to produce a simple catalog, WebCatalog Builder, for $100, can do the job. However, there are better values available.

A An Easy way to get started on the Web

B No templates or other extras


HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates Products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9’s or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

Rating: 7

WebSite Complete eCommerce Edition

HOC RATING 12345678

WebSite Complete’s interface combines WYSIWYG editing with simple interactive forms. Unlike eMerchant Pro, WebSite Complete does its work offline, making it faster to add products. Unfortunately, there’s no facility to import Large catalogs of product data.

WebSite Complete includes customizable tax and shipping calculations, in addition to being able to do all the requisite processing of credit cards and automatically respond to an order with an e-mail confirmation. The package even helps you set up merchant accounts, register your domain name, and submit your site to various search engines. You can also peruse several sales analysis reports.

WebSite Complete requires that you host your site on its provider’s servers in order for the commerce features to work. At press time, pricing for store hosting had not been established, though Go Daddy Software promises it will be competitive.

We were impressed by WebSite Complete’s Large Library of slick templates and advanced image-manipulation abilities. There’s even a wizard for producing short animated clips using Macromedia Flash.

For its $100 price, WebSite Complete offers graphics and business tools similar to those of the more costly ecBuilder Pro, plus a variety of value-added services that can be indispensable for a home-based business.

A Pro reports; superb image editing

B Only Go Daddy can host your site


HOME OFFICE COMPUTING rates Products on a scale of 1 to 10–with few 9’s or 10’s–based on value, performance, innovation [medals go to rare standouts in these areas], ease of use, and suitability for home offices. The A and B symbols indicate pros and cons.

Rating: 8


Already have a presence on the Web but don’t have e-commerce capability? Look no further than your Web browser to find a plethora of online shopping-cart solutions. These handy software utilities add the ability to pick, click, and buy to your existing site.

Tell your favorite search engine to find “shopping cart” and you’ll get dozens of hits. Many of them will be for Common Gateway Interface (CGI) or Peri scripts–both languages used to program interactive forms for Web pages. Installing them isn’t difficult but usually requires some knowledge of HTML.

Don’t want to tweak code? Check out iCat’s Commerce Cart ( The company will host the commerce back end for your product catalog for a small fee ($100 monthly or $1,000 annually for up to 100 items), take care of secure credit card transactions, and produce accounting and statistical reports. Yahoo Stores ( can also provide the commerce back end to an existing site.

Finally, don’t overlook the store-building solutions offered by your current Web host. Just be sure your host is ready to handle the traffic your site may generate–and that you know what charges will apply as you add commerce to your site. -A.A


Just because you’ve built it doesn’t mean they’ll come. You’ll need a three-pronged approach to help customers find you on the World Wide Web–offline publicity, search-engine promotion, and banner advertising on related sites. Moorpark, Calif.-based Web promotions expert Bruce Clay ( has some suggestions for making it all come together.


When you want people to find you online, the best place to start is in the real world. Take advantage of your site’s grand opening to send a traditional mail notice to your existing customer base. You can also add your Web address to all the advertising you already do in print, radio, or TV. The point is to send people to their computers thinking about your business.


According to Clay, 95 percent of Internet users will use one of seven search engines-Yahoo, InfoSeek, Lycos, Excite, AltaVista, WebCrawler, and HotBot–and most won’t search deeper than the first 10 pages of results. That means you must do more than simply submit your site for listing, he adds. “You must integrate your Web design with search strategies, because without smart promotion, a great site will fail,” Clay explains. Do this by learning everything you can about how search engines work, studying your competitors’ sites, and fine-tuning your content to reach potential searchers.


Whether you buy banner space or swap for it, advertising on other Web sites can be an effective way to lead customers to your own. Your Web site’s host probably offers some kind of banner exchange network, allowing you to host a few banners on your site in exchange for credit that lets you place a banner on someone else’s site. While most of these exchanges are free, the credit ratio they offer and the variety of sites available for your banner will differ from network to network. –A.A.


If you don’t want to take the time to develop your own Web site, you can always hire someone else to do it. For $499, IBM’s Small Business Center will build and host a simple, three-page Web site for you. Its Web Starter Kit (888-IBM-5800, gives you up to 200 words and two images per page, your choice of 50 template designs, the ability to add your own logo and art, search-engine registration, and a unique domain name for six months.

If you want to add a shopping cart, you can upgrade to the e-commerce edition for $799. It adds two more pages, a 24-item catalog, and secure credit card transactions. Once you’re set up, you can use IBM Editor software to edit and update your site on your own. Both Web Starter Kits allow you to purchase additional pages and catalog items, as well as banner development, copy-writing, custom design, and photo-retouching services.

–Eileen Bien Calabro


ECBUILDER PRO $499 Multiactive Software Inc.


EMERCHANT PRO $99 Big Picture Technologies


QUICKSITE INTERNET $50 Primecom Interactive




WEBSITE COMPLETE $100 Go Daddy Software



ECBUILDER PRO Win 95/98/NT, 16MB RAM, 50MB hard disk

space, MIME e-mail client, Internet Explorer

4.0 or later

EMERCHANT PRO Win 95/98/NT, 16MB RAM, 20MB hard disk

space, Internet Explorer 4.0 (included)

QUICKSITE INTERNET Win 95/98/2000, 8MB RAM, 30MB hard disk


WEBCATALOG BUILDER Win 95/98/NT or Mac OS 8.5, 16MB RAM,

60MB hard disk space

WEBSITE COMPLETE Win 95/98/NT, 16MB RAM, Internet Explorer

ECOMMERCE EDITION 5.0 (included)

COPYRIGHT 2000 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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