Online business hits speed bumps

Online business hits speed bumps

It's paradoxical: companies are looking to the Internet more and more as a channel for business. But prepackaged World Wide Web servers that perform the core function of business - buying and selling - have failed to find a mainstream user base.

"Catalogue servers" or "merchant servers", which allow companies to present an array of products, take orders, process payments and manage shipping, have been around for more than two years.

Although they have a loyal niche following, most users have given them the cold shoulder. Even users aggressively pursuing sales on the Internet often rely on roll-your-own solutions.

"I think we're just now getting into the first level of a take-off period on this, where momentum is building. But historically, there have been some impediments to adoption," said Bob Chlebowski, senior vice-president of electronic commerce at Wells Fargo & Co.

"There are still some impediments."

What are those impediments? Interviews with a half dozen users failed to reveal a consensus. One user said the job of automating Internet sales is too simple and doesn't require special software. Another user said it is too complicated, and the systems available have failed to address the task.

Chlebowski said most products don't inter- operate well with back-end order processing, inventory management, shipping and other business systems.

Price is the issue

But he said a recently announced product from Actra Business Systems LLC in California, a joint venture of Netscape Communications and General Electric Information Systems, may solve some of the biggest interoperability problems.

Actra earlier this month announced plans for a series of products designed for business-to-business transactions based on the Electronic Data Interchange standard, due to roll out throughout the year.

The Actra offerings are based on the Merchant Server from Netscape.

Price was the issue for Percy Young, manager of store systems at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse. Sales systems from firms such as BroadVision and Open Market cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sales systems from companies such as Microsoft and ICat are insufficiently robust for big-business sales. "That's an awful lot to spend if you're not really sure if Internet commerce is a reliable business option," Young said.

Low-priced products available today from companies such as Microsoft and ICat are mostly for Windows 95 or Windows NT, which Young said aren't powerful enough for serious business applications.

Like Wells Fargo, Burlington Coat Factory is looking to a new product as a solution. It plans to test Oracle's Internet Commerce Server, due late this month. The server, formerly known as "Project Apollo", is an add-on to Oracle's relational database and was designed to facilitate business-to-business and business-to-consumer sales.

But automated Internet sales systems have their adherents. For instance, Fruit of the Loom in Chicago has built a national Internet-based network with its distributors, using technology from Connect and Snickelways Interactive.

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