Applications: marketing any product that can be sold through a catalogue
Any company which wants to sell goods on the Internet should seriously consider the Icat Electronic Commerce Suite. This three-in-one package contains all the tools needed to publish online catalogues and take customer orders. However, although it is a multi-functional piece of software, the product is marred by an extremely awkward user interface.
The package consists of three modules. The first, Commerce Publisher, creates interactive catalogues and publishes them as Web pages. A catalogue can contain details of thousands of products, arranged by category and section. As well as product descriptions, it can include pictures, sound files and video clips. Customers can search for products in an index, or just browse.
With the second module, Commerce Exchange, you can take orders and accept payment. Customers use a virtual shopping trolley to assemble their orders, and pay for the goods at a checkout. The software supports several secure payment options. Finally, Commerce Player allows catalogues to be published on CD-ROM. With these disc-based catalogues, customers can order goods conventionally or by email.
The Publisher and Player modules are available in Windows and Macintosh versions. Commerce Exchange runs on a variety of server platforms, including Apple AIX, Linux, Irix, Sun OS, Sun Solaris and Windows NT.
Creating an Icat catalogue is mainly a matter of planning. Commerce Publisher allows you to arrange your products into a four-level hierarchy, although not all four levels need to be used. The structure is not rigid ? you are free to place a given product in more than one category if this makes it more likely that a customer will find it.
You can also group products into ?families?. These work across category boundaries, and typically link products to help cross-selling. For example, laser printers might be listed under computer equipment, and toner cartridges as consumables. By placing the two items in the same family, you can alert someone who is buying a laser printer to the availability of the toner cartridge.
Once you have established the structure, you can enter details of the products. For each item you want to sell, you supply an identifier, product name, description and main price.
There is also space for a further 48 optional fields (24 text and 24 numeric), the names of which can be customised. These could be used for sizes, colours, delivery costs and similar details.
You can also assign various support files to the products. Typically, these would be graphics files which contain pictures of goods on sale, but they can also include sound files, video clips and other multimedia attachments. These could be used to play demonstrations of the products, for example.
The overall look and feel of the catalogue is determined by a template. The package comes with more than 200 ready-made templates, which should be adequate for most users. You can make your catalogue more distinctive by modifying the supplied templates or creating new ones, although this involves learning a simple scripting language.
In most cases, entering the product data is the most time-consuming part of the publishing process. This can be streamlined by importing data from an existing database. To do this you must first create an intermediate data file in either a simple comma-delimited or tagged form.
Most PC database programs can export one or other of these formats. But the whole process would be slicker if Icat could read data directly from other popular databases, perhaps via ODBC.
This would make it easier to update the catalogue as new products are launched or prices change. At the moment, you have to go through the laborious export/import cycle every time you revise the catalogue.
When your catalogue is ready for publishing on the Web, you save it in HTML format and transfer it to your Web server. For many users, this is the end of the story. Customers can browse or search your product details via their Web browsers, and order goods by phone or post.
But to get the best out of electronic commerce, you need to implement Icat?s Commerce Exchange module. Essentially, this is a set of CGI (Computer Graphics Interface) scripts which run on the server. This part of the package allows you to accept orders, obtain the customer?s delivery address and receive payment.
The Commerce Exchange module works with credit-card processing services from First Virtual, Checkfree and Open Market. With these systems, vendors can obtain secure online authorisation for credit-card transactions, even if they themselves don?t have credit-card merchant status.
As soon as the customer has paid for the goods and the credit-card transaction has been completed, the vendor receives an email notification of the order. By customising the format of these email messages, you can arrange for them to be input straight into your order-processing or delivery system, which reduces human involvement in the process.
To help keep track of sales, you can call up various reports and summaries. These are accessible over the Internet, and can be viewed from any Web browser ? subject to the relevant security controls.
For the most part, the Icat Electronic Commerce Suite is an extremely capable package which should meet the needs of most Web-based vendors. But one of its main drawbacks is its clumsy user interface.
The main problems are in the Commerce Publisher module. In particular, setting up the catalogue?s structure and entering the product details are more difficult than they should be. The screens are illogical and confusing, the menu structure is obscure, and the overall path through the program is not obvious.
In tests, it was difficult to do even the most basic tasks, such as creating a new catalogue or opening an existing one (the lack of standard New, Open, Save As and Close commands on the File menu is a significant obstacle). Even the help system is poorly structured.
Given the time that most users will spend in this part of the package, Icat needs to put more effort into getting it right. The whole of the user interface needs to be revamped, with a more WYSIWYG approach and better previewing options. As a minimum, the program should be changed to follow standard Windows conventions. If these obstacles are overcome, this would be an extremely attractive product.
Verdict: this suite is the total solution for an online sales operation. It will help produce eye-catching interactive catalogues, and it can overcome many of the difficulties associated with collecting payment over the Internet. But its poor user interface makes it difficult to understand and use.
Contact: Icat UK on 0181 387 4070
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