An inexpensive way to launch an e-store fast

Not everyone can afford a flagship e-commerce solution such as Microsoft Site Server, and a big e-commerce solution isn't always the right answer for a company just getting started on the Web. Small and midsized companies might find that the current formula for automated e-commerce solutions is a poor fit for their existing business processes. LaGarde's StoreFront 2000 provides an inexpensive and easy entry into e-commerce for Microsoft FrontPage users. StoreFront fits easily into existing business processes, especially phone- and fax-centric ordering and fulfillment processes. With StoreFront, you can create a small store quickly but still be able to scale up without having to start over.

What Is StoreFront?
StoreFront is a set of add-ons for FrontPage 2000 that can effectively let a Web hosting provider and a moderately script-savvy Web author create electronic stores in a fraction of the time required to launch larger solutions such as Site Server. StoreFront uses Active Server Pages (ASP) and a Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL Server, or Oracle database to provide the catalog, order basket, fulfillment processing, order tracking and report generation, and administrative interfaces to create Web stores. StoreFront provides choices for payment processing, including phone, fax COD, electronic checks, and major automated payment processors (e.g., CyberCash, Authorize.Net).

You can create any number of stores with StoreFront. The basic package that runs with Access costs approximately $200; the SQL Server and Oracle versions of StoreFront start at $300. The other startup cost is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate, which starts at about $150 and goes up from there depending on which Certificate Authority (CA) you use. (See Brett Hill, "IIS Informant," June 2000, for additional information about certificates and SSL.)

I find the Access database perfect for quick startups, mostly because it's so portable and available and all the Microsoft Office applications can use the data. When you get up to approximately 1000 items in the database, you just upgrade your StoreFront license and your database and import the Access-based catalog into SQL Server or Oracle. The store keeps running. A StoreFront Web store is a scalable solution that lets your business grow easily.

If you don't work for a Web hosting company, you might be thinking, "That's nice, but it's not going to help me." Well, you can also use StoreFront to track and bill jobs. For example, I used StoreFront to create several internal Web sites for different departments in the same company. Setting up the StoreFront e-store took me approximately 4 hours. Management personnel could track their work orders in the StoreFront Reports. Using StoreFront for tracking, my catalog contained items such as Create Web Page, Scan Image, Produce Video Clip, Create New Subweb, and Set Permissions instead of East Indian incense and Italian shoes. StoreFront gives you the option to have orders sent to a store administrator through email, which is one of its most important and convenient features. The store owner, (me, in this case) receives an email message containing the order, and the buyer receives an email message confirming the order.

Like anything else that runs on a Web server, StoreFront requires the IIS administrator to do some work. In this article, I go through the basics of the product and some of the lessons I've learned. Next month, I conclude this series by going over the process you can use to launch a StoreFront Web store and the tasks that you perform on the server side to set up a StoreFront Web store.

On the Web Author's Workstation
When you install StoreFront on a workstation or server, the installation process adds the StoreFront menu and toolbar to the FrontPage client. The StoreFront tool appears to the right of the FrontPage Help menu. The StoreFront tool has six menu options:

  • Import Wizard—used to create a new StoreFront store
  • StoreFront Administration—used to configure all the stores variables (e.g., set up policies, credit card processing, shipping calculations, state and county taxes)
  • Product Manager—the interface to the product database (i.e., catalog)
  • Reports—the interface to the shopping orders, customer information, and other store reports
  • Link Builder—automatically generates links to the product search results page, the order basket page, and the user's stored cookie information
  • Help—complements the printed users guide

With the Link Builder tool, you can generate links that include embedded scripting and SQL queries that search for a specific product, that add a selected product to the order basket, or that retrieve an order that a user started in the past and saved. For example, you can generate a Click here for more information about this product hyperlink that contains a specific lookup key for the product. When the user clicks the button, the query goes to the StoreFront server-side application and is used to search the product database for products that match the user's selected criteria. The results go into the search results ASP page, then the user receives them.

The StoreFront users guide presents detailed steps for starting a new store or importing an existing store. The first step is to either create a new StoreFront Web store or import the StoreFront files into an existing Web site. When you select either option, StoreFront creates the necessary directories, copies the required StoreFront files into the Web site, and creates the Access database (i.e., storefront.mdb).

Next, the Web author must set the configuration options for the new store by choosing StoreFront Administration from the StoreFront menu, which Figure 1 shows. The Web author can use StoreFront product page templates to create static and dynamic product pages. StoreFront gives the Web author several levels of control over product presentation. The author can create specific product pages, each with a unique layout. Because each product can have a customized page, I use the product ID (e.g., COEQ65010a) as the filename.

When the ASP page is called, StoreFront uses the latest information from the database to generate the HTML dynamically. You can use a generic page template called Details.asp as the target for a link search query. This single-page template can display the details of any product in the database. However, every product appears in the same display layout. Web authors can modify Details.asp in FrontPage at any time. They can modify the presentation layout in the Normal view and the ASP code in the HTML view.

The StoreFront search page, Search .asp, which Figure 2 shows, is great because it works right out of the box. The Categories and Manufacturers in the product database populate the drop-down list boxes. StoreFront dynamically generates the results page, which Figure 3 shows, and lists all the products that meet the search criteria. The user can order right from the search results page.

On the Production Server
You need to perform a few simple setup steps to prepare the production Web site, the database, and the site and database security. (I'll go over the steps I use in next month's article. My process is a little different from what you'll find in the StoreFront users guide.) The setup instructions in the users manual are good, and you can find help and step-by-step instructions online at http://www.storefront .net/software/support/serveradmin.htm. As I said, it takes me only 4 hours to set up and test a Web store on the server. Connecting and testing a payment-processing gateway can take a lot longer, but that's the same for any e-commerce product.

When the store is live in production, the Web store administrator (this administrator can be the Web author or an employee of the store owner) can make changes to the product database, orders, reports, and customers through the StoreFront tools in the FrontPage client. The administrator can also use the StoreFront HTML-based store administration tools that are installed in the \admin directory of the Web store when you install StoreFront. Figure 4 shows the StoreFront HTML Administrator interface and the Add Products form. As you can see, the interface is compact and convenient. In my first two implementations, both store owners opted to use the HTML Administrator interface to maintain their Web store rather than FrontPage with StoreFront installed. The reason is that the HTML interface is simple and easy to understand; users don't find it daunting.

In addition to managing products and creating and viewing reports, store administrators can use the HTML Administrator interface to change the Web store fonts and colors, but they can't change the ASP or HTML pages in the Web store. Thus, customers can feel like they're in control, but they can't edit, change, or otherwise alter the ASP templates and Web pages.

Lessons Learned
My most difficult problems launching my first Web store were all related to linking the Web site to the correct database. Almost all my misunderstandings revolved around which database the FrontPage client was talking to and which database the Web server was talking to. The process I'll describe in next month's article helps keep the confusion out of the build process.

Another lesson I learned during store creation was that you can't publish while someone is working on the database (i.e., global.asa) or while any StoreFront tools are open because FrontPage will never finish publishing. So, you have to get out of FrontPage and come back. This problem occurred most often because the StoreFront Administration window was open. (The window tends to hide behind the FrontPage client, so you don't know it's open.)

Next Month
StoreFront is a nice, lightweight, inexpensive solution for a small to midsized e-store. Using StoreFront, you can set up a Web store in a fraction of the time necessary for the larger solutions, and the customer has many e-payment options from which to choose. StoreFront gets the job done quickly.

StoreFront has several important functions and features that I haven't covered in this article, such as the promotional mail function, which lets the store administrator send bulk email to store customers. Also, I haven't begun to do justice to the reports. Next month, I'll go over the specific process that I've developed to create and launch stores. I'll also talk about some of the learning experiences that I've found most important when creating and publishing a StoreFront Web store.