ComicStands.com: An E-Commerce Start-Up
ComicStands.com: An E-Commerce Start-Up
ComicStands.com was an electronic commerce store that specialized in selling comic books, action figure toys, and other comic related merchandise. The company sells all of its merchandise worldwide over the Internet; it has no physical storefront. Customers pay mostly by VISA or MasterCard, although personal checks are accepted. Products are packaged and sent to customers via UPS and the US Postal Service. The ComicStands.com store site went live in June of 1999 and has been operating for about three months as of the time of this writing. The company and its web site are operated solely by the proprietor out of his home office.
The owner has a clear vision of the purpose of the web site and direction it will take. He believes that his e-commerce model will specifically enable him to:
|sell specialty items — comic books|
|to establish a positive company image|
|to add information value for current and future customers|
|to contain the costs of operation (e.g., no physical storefront rent or clerks)|
|to develop new customers worldwide|
|to research competitors and new products to participate in the business model of the new millennium by gaining first hand experience.|
Most comic book publishers begin delivering comic books to distributors and retail stores every Wednesday. Customers typically purchase comic books through convenience stores or specialized comic book bricks-and-mortar stores. Customers are typically, although not exclusively, young casual readers or serious adult collectors.
Since ComicStands.com is focused on the comic book market, the products section of the web site gets updated every Thursday in order to prepare for taking orders the following Wednesday. Comic book products stay in inventory until the next issue is released or the item is sold out, whichever occurs first.
Web Site Creation and Maintenance
A key question facing most companies, including ComicStands.com, who are wanting to provide an electronic commerce site on the Internet is whether or not to develop and run their own sites in-house — to host or not to host. It is relatively easy for anyone to develop a simple static Web page, but it is an entirely different matter to develop an e-commerce site with order processing capabilities. The latter requires hard tofind technically savvy personnel, specialized software often costing between $1,000-5,000 and on up, and fairly robust hardware and network connections.
In general, the ideal choice for most small businesses is to contract with a third party to develop and host the web site. Costs for third-party hosting vary widely, for example, from a $100 per month for small stores selling up to 50 items on Yahoo! Store or Hypermart to $15,000 and up for personalized design features along with monthly hosting connection charges and additional charges for each product or feature update.
In the case of ComicStands.com, the owner was technically savvy, but possessed little working capital and did not want to borrow money to get started. From a practical standpoint, the owner was also doubtful that an e-commerce hosting company could even provide the necessary weekly updates and information content in a timely manner. Finally, he viewed the site as an opportunity to learn about e-commerce business models first hand. Even if the site fails, he will have obtained great work experience with which to get a job in the future. In short, the owner chose to develop and maintain the site himself. He already had a high-end computer (200 MHz MMX technology) but needed to purchase specialized e-commerce software for about $1,000.
Some site features and business policies that the owner had to address included shopping cart features, payment methods, order confirmation, security features, shipping, and return policies.
|A shopping cart keeps track of what you have selected to purchase and allows you to view what is in your cart, add new items to it, or remove any items from it. To order an item, you simply click the items and all the details about it are stored automatically. When you are ready to pay for your purchases, you click a button (usually labeled proceed to checkout) and commit your purchase transaction.|
|Payment methods for credit card purchases need to be established and typically require establishing a bank merchant account. Security is usually built into e-commerce software and uses encryption methods to safeguard personal data. Frequently, the services of a third-party authentication service are also used to validate a site’s security.|
|When customers make purchases, you need to build in a function that automatically confirms receipt of their orders (usually by sending the customer an e-mail with order number and other information on it).|
|Finally, it was necessary to establish a merchandise return policy and shipping policies. These policy issues are business decisions more than they are technical decisions. You can visit his web site, ComicStands.com, under the left-hand site Information Booth to find out more about these features.|
The owner confronted several limitations of the e-commerce package currently being used. For example, one of the initial challenges for ComicStands.com is the procedure for updating its web site. The e-commerce software currently used by ComicStands.com requires that products be entered into its database manually. The program then generates HTML-based pages that link to the program’s shopping cart. Updating manually requires filling out web-based forms, which is very time-consuming. The speed of processing web-based forms is also constrained by modem speed and the speed of the web server. If an item is no longer for sale, it has to be removed in a hurry from the database so that customers do not get frustrated by ordering out-of-stock items. Also, the software used does not automatically save the sales history of a given item.
The e-commerce package provides web based sales orders to be printed and downloaded as text. However, there is no internal system to produce either sales orders or purchase orders, and then automatically link these to accounting packages. Sales and purchase orders are important both for accounting purposes and as a basis for decision making. The owner plans to look for software in the future that will add these integrated functionalities, as well as others like maintaining mailing lists and financial reports generation. Advances in e-commerce software functionality and ease of use are rapidly occurring, but are still not for the novice computer user.
In summary, the majority of the owner’s time is clearly spent on just maintaining technical aspects of the site. The remainder of his time is spent on such tasks as actually shipping the orders, purchasing, inventory control, marketing, and bookkeeping. He plans on hiring other employees soon to help with order fulfillment, shipping, and returns processing.
So far, ComicStands.com has cost the owner the price of e-commerce software and countless hours of development time. Estimating conservatively, the owner spent a minimum of 20 hours per week over a three-month period just to get the site up and running. If he paid himself $25.00 per hour, his initial development costs alone were $6,000 (80 hours per month x 3 months x $25.00). It is estimated that he probably spends another 10-15 hours per week to just maintain the site with weekly updates of products. It is too early to tell whether sales revenues will justify this investment.
Although ComicStands.com is a privately held company that is understandably reluctant to share sales data, the owner did indicate that monthly sales growth is slowly increasing. His main concern now is the marketing issue of how to get more people to visit his site and actually purchase items. To use an analogy, he has “built the ballpark, but recognizes that they won’t necessarily come!”
Questions for Discussion and Exercises
- Using your favorite Web browser, go to website similar to ComicStands.com and explore the site. Compare and evaluate the sites for design, ease of use, order features, and content.
- Describe security features, return policy, and shipping policy that ComicStands.com should have. Be sure to consider this from both the owner, as well as the customers’ perspectives.
- The owner asks you to explore answers to the following question: “How do I get more potential customers to even know about my business?” Identify and discuss at least three possible marketing strategies that could be used to increase the visibility and awareness of the web site to potential customers.
Do you think the site will be successful in the future? Why or why not?
(Apparently before you help them the company went under, but please disregard that.)
Hint: You may design an actual website for this case.