Introduction

Every serious business needs a website, but what's the best way of getting your customers to part with their cash online? David Cartwright invests a little of his time so you don't have to

It's easier than ever to go from bricks and mortar to online superstore these days. If you're looking to sell your products online there's a raft of easy-to-use and convenient ways of hosting, designing and managing an e-commerce website, none of which require the services of a programming genius to implement. But there are still some difficult choices and hard decisions to be made before you open the doors and start accepting orders.

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The main question you have to answer is which approach to take in getting your business online. You can run everything in-house using your own servers, though if you do you'll need to consider the issues of resilience in the case of an Internet outage to your building. You could, alternatively, decide to use one of the systems that's entirely Web-based and which you manage through a Web interface, thus removing all reliance on your internal systems. Or you could take the middle ground and host everything remotely, but use a desktop-based system to do the page editing, order processing and product modification, hitting an 'upload' button to send changes to the server.

The principle considerations for an e-commerce system, however, are fairly simple. First, you'll probably want to take debit/credit card payments from your customers (most offerings are able to work with back-end card authorisation systems these days). Second, you'll want the ability to present your products properly - and while it's true that a pretty website helps, what we mean in this sense is that you need the flexibility to group products together, and sell different variants of a single product without having to define several separate but similar products. Finally, you need it to be usable as well as being reasonably straightforward to set up and get running and you need your staff, who may not be particularly technical, to be able to process orders and perhaps make small changes such as fixing spelling mistakes or VAT levels.

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The following six products and services span most of the different approaches you might take to e-commerce - not to mention most of the different pricing scales. And most are relevant to even the smallest business, though the Commerce Server offering from Microsoft is aimed squarely at larger enterprises who need more scalability and are prepared to pay for it.

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