Whether you're building a storefront that requires a merchant account and inventory management software to handle sales or just an online brochure-style site with dazzling photos and a map to your brick-and-mortar location, there's probably a turnkey solution that can meet your site requirements. You'll need to determine what features you need to choose the right one.
Evaluate the Back-End Features You Need
Don't build a storefront without first considering your back-end needs. If your business relies on a customer database to send reminders or track inventory, make sure your turnkey package allows you to download information directly to your existing database. And if you have an extensive array of products to sell through your site, look for solutions that allow you to upload your product descriptions into a catalog, or you may be faced with entering your information manually. Inventory management, invoice generation, tax and shipping calculation, and a customer service center are other back-end features to investigate.
Determine whether you need a merchant account and a shopping cart. If you're selling products through your Web site, you will probably need a merchant account to process credit card payments. Many turnkey solutions limit your choice of merchant account provider needed to process credit card payments to their in-house service or require that you work with a specific partner provider, while others may let you use any merchant account you like. Find out a little about merchant account providers before you make a selection, so you are aware of the potential fees associated with the services they provide and can make an informed decision.
You'll also need to consider whether you need a shopping cart. A shopping cart program runs as part of a Web site to collect and record purchasing decisions by a visitor. Most turnkey solutions provide their own shopping cart program, and it resides on their server. Shopping carts may simply calculate the sales total, shipping, and tax. More sophisticated applications may include features that let customers search your product database, select product options such as color and size, see various shipping option calculations based on subtotal and quantity, and send the customer (and you) a sales confirmation receipt with an individual order number. Shopping carts should work in conjunction with a merchant account to process credit card payments.
Simpler Web sites that showcase service or promote a brick-and-mortar operation can get by without the features required for online shopping, but you'll want to consider how your business needs may change over time.
Identify Your Order Processing Needs
Determine the best method to receive your orders: online or by fax or e-mail. Receiving orders online may not be the best method for your business, but some turnkey solutions only offer this option. For example, if you're running an online takeout deli, receiving takeout orders by phone or fax may be more efficient for you and your staff than receiving orders online.
Offer various payment options. While credit cards are a popular payment method, checking account debiting, COD, or personal checks delivered via traditional mail are options you may want to offer your customers.
Consider your order delivery and inventory management needs. Some turnkey providers create links to shipping service sites, such as UPS's, where customers can check the status of their order shipment. Most turnkeys do not handle warehousing or shipping.
Many turnkeys provide inventory management either through their catalog applications (where you upload your product information) or by allowing you to download order information to your existing inventory tracking database. You need to determine whether you will need to automatically track orders and inventory and what inventory management and order processing system you are currently using, so you can determine how this may or may not be compatible with a turnkey solution.
For example, this is how freemerchant.com describes what it offers:
"Catalog maintenance includes an automatic inventory checker that alerts you when you're low on a product and will either let customers place their orders (which will be labeled "on back order") or will stop taking orders for that item. You can also import catalog data from Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets or dBASE, FoxPro, and Paradox databases. To keep track of invoices, freemerchant.com can export invoice data to Intuit's QuickBooks. freemerchant.com does have a site-traffic logging system, but it can report only the numbers of hits per specific period."
Find Out What Marketing Support Is Available from Turnkey Solution Providers
Research what level of marketing support is available from turnkey solution providers and whether there are associated costs. To market your site effectively, you must submit your site to search engines. Turnkey solution providers encourage you to promote your site. Most turnkeys' page templates (used to create your Web site) assist you in generating keywords or metatags in the page source code. These tags are what search engines look for in response to a user query (in other words, keywords and metatags are what make your site "visible" to search engines and their users).
Turnkey solution packages usually include submitting your site to three to 10 of the leading search engines. Read the fine print to find out exactly how many and which ones.
Turnkey solution providers also offer other marketing support activities, such as community building through e-mail newsletter delivery (based on content you supply), chat, or discussion lists. Some portals, such as Yahoo!, will feature your site in their shopping section when you use their turnkey product to create your storefront.
Understand the Limitations
Content limitations: While most turnkey Web sites make it easy for you to upload GIF and JPEG images and text, it may not be possible to add multimedia components such as Flash or Shockwave animation, audio files, PDF documents, CGI scripts, etc. You may also find it difficult or impossible to import existing Web pages to your site if they were created with a desktop application.
Portability: Turnkey Web sites are rarely portable, because most employ proprietary scripts or software and may have been created dynamically directly on the provider's server. This means that if you decide to move your Web site to another server or host, you will have to rebuild the entire site. For this reason, you may want to develop a stand-alone Web site but link your customers to Web pages you've created using a turnkey solution for order processing and payment.
Content ownership: Read all the fine print to determine which portions of your Web site the host or provider has ownership of and which portions are yours. In most cases the provider owns all the scripts and software used to make the site function, and you retain ownership of the graphics, photographs, and text you supplied for the Web site. Make sure you have copies of this information in your possession, because it may be difficult to retrieve from a turnkey Web site. Periodically download your site data, such as orders, invoices, usage logs, etc., so you don't lose information critical to running your business.
Minimum commitment: Some turnkey providers require a minimum length of subscription to their service, such as a three-month, six-month, or annual contract, and may require a 30-day notice of cancellation. You may be held responsible for payments for the duration of this term even if you discontinue using their service, so it pays to read the fine print and speak with a customer service representative to clarify these items in advance.
Determine the Tools You Need to Monitor Your Site Traffic
From simple hit counters to detailed usage logs, most turnkey solutions offer a means for you to monitor your site traffic and customer usage patterns. Lower-priced packages often provide more basic monitoring, so if you want an extensive amount of traffic data, you may need to look at mid- or high-priced options. Make sure you understand how to analyze the data and use it effectively.
Determine Whether You Need Your Own Domain Name
Turnkey solutions usually allow you to use your existing domain name by simply transferring it to the appropriate server. If you need to register a domain name, turnkey solutions usually provide a way for you to do so, but may charge a service fee in addition to the price you'll pay InterNIC to register your name. And some turnkeys, such as freemerchant.com, allow you to use a registered domain name or can create a name for you (for instance, "storename.safeshopper.com") free of charge, or you can use both domain names.
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