When Written: Nov 1999
We have found many companies who are put off selling on the web, thinking that it is too complicated and expensive to get started. This certainly used to be the case a year ago but is no longer so. Here we will describe setting up a complete e-commerce site using off-the shelf components to handle credit cards transactions all within a budget of £ 1000. First we will deal with the items that you are going to need to get going. Lets us ignore the technology for a minute and concentrate on the financial arrangements that need to be put in place before you can handle Credit cards over the net.
Give us Credit
You, or rather your company will need to become a credit card merchant with cardholder not present status (as in mail order). On top of this you also have to apply to the Credit card Company to handle transactions over the Internet. This all seems complicated but it is not really. Lets take the simple route, you apply to Barclaycard for merchant status, don’t worry about handling other credit cards. If you are a merchant for say, Barclaycard (www.bms.barclays.co.uk), then you can take Visa Dalta, UK Electron, MasterCard, JCB, Switch and switch solo cards as well. It is only cards such as American Express and Diners Club that require a separate account to be set up, and for the majority of companies, the ability to handle Barclaycard and Mastercard is quite sufficient.
First Stop Barclaycard Merchant services
We decided to use Barclaycard as the credit card clearing house simply because they were one of the first in this country to embrace the Internet and have a great deal of experience in this field. To qualify for merchant status your company has to satisfy certain criteria, which are not too onerous, and should you be refused, there are other routes to handling credit cards over the net, which we will talk about in a while. So first you contact Barclaycard Merchant services (tel 0800 616161) and request an Internet Merchant Pack. When this arrives there are several forms that need to be filled in and returned along with a cheque for £ 125 as a one off registration fee. Read the documentation and these forms very carefully as you are agreeing to certain terms of trading, which should you break could mean you having your merchant status revoked. One of these terms regards delivery of goods, so before you start selling on the ‘net make sure that you can supply the demand and that you have contingency plans should the demand be greater than expected. One of the forms concerns your web server setup and this can be quite daunting as there are all sorts of questions abut security and encryption, but again there is an easy answer to this. When your company is accepted then an offer of commission rate will be made. This is the percentage that you will pay to the credit card company on every successful transaction, and is usually between 5% 1% typically 2.5%. This is negotiable at any time, obviously if you have some track record of trading then your case can be argued more forcibly than if you are a start up company. You will also receive the all-important Merchant number.
The Easy Way
Next you could go down the route of setting up a secure server and having all the worry of the keeping the level of security demanded by the credit card companies. Instead of this there is an easy solution and as we believe in easy solutions where possible, this is what we chose. Firstly, you need to approach one of the many internet credit card handling companies. These companies will handle the processing and validation of the credit card details so that no where on your site will you have to worry about the security of credit card numbers. They will also check the available credit on the card, obtain authorization from the Credit Card company and inform you and the customer whether the transaction was successful. Now again all this costs but this is usually on a percentage of each transaction basis so the more you sell the more you pay.
Netbanx offer a wide range of services
For this job we chose Netbanx (www.netbanx.com), again because of their experience and track record along with their range of products. So after a brief ‘phone call yet more forms arrived. Again nothing too bad here, again some more questions about security and web server setup. However by using an off the shelf product such as I-cat or Actinic Catalog then most of these questions can be ignored. Making the process easier, also saving you money as Netbanx are doing special rates should you use one of the range of supported products rather that writing your own. When you send off these forms , with your money, in this case £151, after a few weeks you should get approval from Netbanx and an information pack and software which explains in more detail how to set your server up to link to their system. Despite rumors you do not need a Ltd company with 3 years accounts, the credit card houses are very flexible on their requirements. We even know of a company that had not trouble gaining merchant status even though the MD was a discharged bankrupt who can not get a personal Credit card! So don’t think that this route is not for you, it really is fairly painless. However if you can not get merchant status, or don’t wish to, as you are just selling a couple of items or ‘dabbling your toes’ then companies such as Netbanx offer a bureau service. With this service they handle the whole credit card transaction for you, including collecting the money from the credit card company. Obviously, for this they take a commission, which can be as high as 9% depending on the level of transactions, but of course you will not have to pay the credit card company’s commission as well. This arrangement suits many small companies but there is a small drawback to this arrangement. You will receive your money, less commission, 30 days after the end of the month of the transaction, so you could be waiting nearly 60 days for your money. Now this is not too bad if you are just selling a downloadable product, but if it is any thing that has to be produced or bought in, then this delay could cause cash flow problems for a small company so make sure that you make allowances for this in your business plan. You do of course have a business plan don’t you ? Don’t even bother try selling over the Internet with out some sort of business plan, to make sure that the anticipated gains outweigh the guaranteed costs.
Now Catalogue it
Now you have the credit card financial side sorted out. But how are you going to implement this on the web? For this, we chose Actinic catalog (www.actinic.com) instead of writing our own code. We wanted to be up and running quickly and with this excellent product you can be up and running in half an hour! This is not an idle boast by a salesperson, we timed ourselves! Actinic’s catalog not only does the catalogue, shopping basket and order functionality, but goes the next stage and provides a mechanism for the company to handle, track and fulfill orders as well as a reporting tool that enables to see how quickly you are getting rich! All this for £ 350, at such a price it can be difficult to recommend writing your own code. The purest will argue on various points about this approach, but what we are trying to achieve is a quick and cost effective, yet versatile way of setting up shop on the web. Should your company grow into another Amazon then obviously the solution would change and develop accordingly. This product will work on any server that supports Pearl and so will work on NT and Unix/Linux web servers. In fact we will be setting this system up on a small Linux box just to keep costs down and to give a welcome break from Microsoft products. Should you not have your own web server then there are ISPs that will run the necessary server-side bits to run your Actinic Catalog.
We will be using Antinic’s Catalog which runs on windows 95/98 and NT. However the server-side components use Perl and so as far as your web server is concerned it can run any operating system as long as it supports Pearl. As we have mentioned before NTs IIS does not support Perl out of the box but a quick visit to http://www.activestate.com should sort this omission out. We chose Atinic Catalog as it is easy to setup and all the linking to credit card clearing houses like Netbanx are built in.
So you have your copy of Catalog all freshly installed, now what? Firstly got to ‘Design/Themes’ and try out the various looks that have been pre-created for you. Next go through the ‘view/preferences’ , here you can set up all sorts of parameters that configure the way your on-line shop will look and behave. Whether you use frames or not is just an option click and a re-upload, if only every thing in web development was that easy! You can change the messages that are displayed and the images used for various parts of the web site. Further changes are made available in the ‘design’ menu, here you can select a theme for the catalog which is a good starting point and under ‘options’ further changes can be made to the navigation buttons, the shopping basket, in fact all areas of the catalog can be customized. One thing to watch out for however is that some of these changes will be overwritten if you re-apply a theme, so it’s worth trying the themes out and settle on one before you start major customizing. You can as we did, create your own theme, it’s not too difficult but does involve editing some text files the advantage of taking the trouble to do this is that it is easy to re-apply some of your preferences. The procedure for doing this is outlined in the advanced user guide, which is installed as a word doc and is a vital document to read, as it not only outlines how to do some of the advanced customization but also the permissions that you need on the web server to make it all work, however more of that later.
Now you need to put some items into you Catalog, we suggest that you do this manually first for a few items, so that you get the feel of how the product categories work and so that you can structure your real data accordingly, before you use the excellent import wizard to bring data into the catalog. The import routine only supports text files of comma or tab separated values, but in real terms this should not be a problem. Although at first glance the capabilities of the catalog may seem a little restricted, it is possible to configure it to do all sorts of things like handle different prices for varying quantities and calculate shipping costs based a number of parameters. Actinic have even created a theatre ticket booking system for the London Symphony Orchestra which gives some idea of the flexibility. There is a referrer.pl script provided so that you can track which site people are coming from, so that if you offer incentives to other web sites who put a link to your ‘shop’ a la Amazon etc, then you have a mechanism for tracking this. We know that there are other ways of doing this, but it is an example of how the people at Actinic have thought through the process of doing on-line shopping. Another indication of this philosophy is that the product does not stop at just providing an on-line catalog but has another module which will download the orders and enable you do the usual printing of delivery notes, invoices, picking lists, edit an order etc. In fact all the very necessary and boring bits of an on-line solution, that so many times are forgotten in the rush to get something up on the web. In fact you can install Actinic Catalog on a machine so that the user can only process orders and not change the site, also very useful.
Perls of wisdom
Now you have your trial catalogue, next stage is to put it up onto your webserver. We first configured an aging Linux box which had a 486 processor and 16M of Ram, mainly just to see if this sort of combination would work. After a bit of a battle with permissions to get Perl scripting to work in the right directories, the next stage is to configure the network settings in Catalog under ‘view/preferences’. Nothing too bad here and helped considerably by a ‘test’ button to make sure everything works correctly. The error messages can be a little cryptic at times, one which gave us problems for a while mentioned about permissions and Perl, when in fact it turned out that we had left a full stop off a URL, still, that is the nature of error messages. Once the test passes then one click on the upload button and all the necessary configuration of the server side scripts and all the pages with the contents of the catalog are uploaded, after a little while your catalog is on-line and ready to do business. It really is as simple as that. We found that perhaps not surprisingly the 486 box was a little slow in processing the Perl scripts and so we transferred the catalog over to a twin 120 Pentium NT box, this also gave us a chance to test it under NT. On this box performance was excellent. Now all this assumes you have your own web server where you can install what you like on. However if you have some shared space on a web server, the owner of the server, usually an ISP, will have restrictions on what scripts you can run, just in case they affect the other hosted web sites. If this is your case then you can put your catalog and even your whole site at one of the ISPs who do offer Actinic Catalog hosting a list of these is available from Actinic (www.actinic.co.uk). A further enhancement that Actinic offer is the ability to create network configuration files that can be used to enable you to easily switch between uploading to a test web server and uploading to the live server.
Once you have the basic site up and running you will want to customize the look even further. Again Actinic offer help in the form of being able to edit the templates it uses to create the final web pages, however it can be very difficult to figure out which template does what, although there is documentation in the help file about this, you are still forced at times to revert to putting test text messages in the templates and seeing where they appear on the web site. This confusion is added to by parts of the HTML pages being generated by the Perl scripts, and so to edit these you have to go and edit the script files themselves, thankfully these are well commented so the job is not too onerous. Normal HTML and client side scripts can be inserted in any of the text by using the format !!< your HTML or script or text >!! .
Although the initial setting up a catalog and getting it live can be done in half an hour (we know because we did it) the all important customization of the pages can take many days work, it just depends on how fussy you are. This is one of the draw backs to buying an off the shelf application verses ‘rolling your own’. However the time to getting the site live is still much shorter doing it this way, it’s just that you must be ready to accept some limitations.
Third and final
If you have been following our story on setting up a simple e-commerce site over the last two months, and judging but the emails, many of you have. We now come to the final part. Your e-commerce site should be up and running in test mode, now comes that moment of truth when you make it live. All that is required is to is to switch from test mode to production mode in Actinic Catalog and to inform the nice people at Netbanx that you wish to make the system live. Any test purchases that you try will now deduct real money from a real credit card account, however these test transactions can be credited out by contacting Netbanx with the transaction number. A small ‘gotcha’ is that Barclay Merchant services will charge you £1 to process a refund, so watch out!
Order Processing – very important – often forgotten
Often when talking to clients about on-line shopping sites, the thought processes end with the user placing the order. What the company does with that order, how they know there is an order and can they handle the response? These are all question that should be asked. The solution offered for web commerce should handle this important area, it is one of the reasons that we chose Actinic’s Catalog for this series of articles. So perhaps it’s time to explain here what happens when an order is placed. After the user has entered their address details, they are taken to the secure Netbanx site where they are asked for their credit card details. If these pass validation with the credit card company, an order details confirmation screen is displayed for printing and an email confirming the order is sent to the user. A second email is sent to a pre-designated address, which has been set up in Actinic catalog informing the recipient that an order has been received on the web site. This recipient then needs to download the new orders using the ‘retrieve orders’ option in Catalog. This downloads all the new orders and displays them in a window, where there are options for viewing and amending the order details, Printing the Picking lists and Invoices and to delete an order. Actinic Catalog does not need to be running all the time and in fact just a version just to deal with the order processing site can be installed on a users machine. Safe in the knowledge that they will not be able to alter the design of the site or the stock details.
That is all there is to it, the final solution is hardly an Amazon.com but it gives a very comprehensive solution with the minimum fuss and cost.
Article by: Mark Newton
Published in: Mark Newton