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GlobalPhone Press Coverage

Serving Your Customers
By Staff
May, 1999

Getting your site up and running in all its wizard- and HTML-generated glory is the easy part. The fun begins when customers appear. That means dealing with credit card transactions, taxes, and shipping charges.

In the land of cyberimmediacy, most customers want to pay with credit cards. To handle their orders, you'll need a merchant account with a bank. If you already have one, cool--use it. Unfortunately, most traditional banks want a DNA sample when the owner of a new e-commerce site asks for an account. Generally a bank insists on seeing your last few tax returns, demands that you have an account with the bank, and wants to visit your store (which could be difficult, since it might not exist in traditional terms).

All this makes Merchandizer's offer of an e-commerce merchant account through Cardservice International very attractive. At press time opening a merchant account was free, and Cardservice was refunding Merchandizer's $149 site-setup fee. Cardservice charges $10 a month plus 2.15 percent of credit card sales and 20 cents per transaction. Besides the cost of the merchant account, you will have to pay for the actual processing and managing of credit card transactions. The cost of processing those orders offline, or online in real time through Authorize.Net, is approximately $35 per month.

At press time ICat also offered credit card processing through Cardservice, but its fees were higher, starting with a one-time $145 merchant application fee. The company also charged $10 a month, 2.5 percent of sales, and 40 cents a transaction. Processing through CyberCash, which works like Authorize.Net to finalize payment, cost another $48 per month. At press time Yahoo was creating its own replacement for CyberCash.

There's no getting around it: Accepting credit cards will set you back at least $50 a month. But after enduring the hassles of making your site credit card­friendly, you'll find creating shipping and tax tables mercifully easy.

At ICat's tax page, I browsed the listing of states, found California, entered it into the tax table, and was done. With Merchandizer the task was similar, but I had to know my tax rate. Yahoo let me apply tax rates by state and zip code--ideal for tracking different county and local rates.

Setting up the shipping process was easy too. ICat let me charge for shipping by order or item; I used Yahoo's Auto Wizard to create shipping tables based on the amount or weight of the order. With Merchandizer, I picked from the list of options and used shipping fees based on weight.

One nice touch: Merchandizer let me add a handling fee to the shipping charge. The company has also integrated United Parcel Service's online tracking system, so customers can pinpoint their orders' progress. You still have to schlep the package to a UPS drop-off center to ship it, unless you have an account with the company. Check out the UPS site for more information.

Once you've set the shipping and tax tables, the site takes care of itself. All three services provide "shopping carts" where customers can "place" purchases. When they are ready to check out, the site automatically totals the cost of the items in the cart, adds shipping and sales tax, and sends an e-mail acknowledgment.

If customers need to get in touch, they should be able to find your contact information on the site. To avoid the cost of a toll-free phone number, you could even use an online service called WebCallback. When a customer types their phone number and clicks a button on the screen, WebCallback's server connects your phone line with the customer's.

Once those curious customers start buying your wares, you'll discover one of the bonuses of online selling: reports that show you how the site is working.

All the services we tried include reporting tools to help you keep track of online sales, orders, and customers. They're all good, but some are better than others. For instance, Yahoo's reports yield tons of customer information. Among the most valuable are customer click trails and product search strings, which enable you to see what parts of the site interested your shoppers. Handy on-screen graphs reveal sales figures, page view statistics, and order activity. Yahoo also provides convenient access to statistics and to all the tools you'll need to manage your store from the same page.

Not to be outdone, Merchandizer offers plenty of sales, order tracking, and customer monitoring reports, too. The prospecting tools are standouts. For instance, you can e-mail site visitors who filled in the form but didn't purchase anything. And Merchandizer gives you a bird's-eye view of the number of people checking out your store, when they visited, and what pages they see.

ICat is less impressive in this regard. True, the service includes methods for tracking customers, items, and store and income activity, as well as ways to view customer lists and order summaries. But unlike Yahoo's graphical reports, ICat's reports are uninspiring--they simply list details about customers, orders, and other site activity.

After you view a report about, say, how many orders came in today, you'll probably want to examine the numbers more carefully. All three vendors provide ways to export the data. Yahoo shines at exporting orders, customer details, and statistical data. You can import and export into Microsoft Access, Excel, FoxPro, and Paradox. Even better, Yahoo exports data directly into Intuit's QuickBooks. Merchandizer imports and exports using Microsoft Access and Excel files. By the time you read this, it'll also be able to export directly into the contact manager GoldMine, a neat way to keep track of customers and stay in touch with them. ICat imports and exports data to Microsoft Excel.