What is it: a service that lets you sell over the Internet. You provide the product details as a set of Web pages, and The Bureau turns them into interactive pages and takes care of processing orders and payments
Applications: selling clothes, shoes, books, food, wine, plants, CDs and so on. Also, software, reports and other high-value information
Hardly a day goes by without someone organising a conference or a seminar on Web commerce, or announcing a new industry initiative on the subject.
All this makes trading over the Internet sound rather complicated. But it needn't be. The trick is to let someone else do the bulk of the work for you.
Uunet Pipex is the UK's largest Internet Service Provider. It offers a Web commerce outsourcing service called The Bureau. The basic idea is that you present Pipex with some Web pages and it makes them into a live commerce site, using its programming skills and its own secure trading server.
A good starting point is a set of basic HTML pages that describe your products. The first step might be to add a Buy button to each item. Pipex can do this for you or you can do it yourself. If you need to create a catalogue from scratch, Pipex recommends using an authoring tool such as Icat. It is designed specifically for the job and has lots of pre-defined templates, which saves time.
Once your pages are complete with suitable buttons, you display them on your Web site as normal. When users hit a Buy button they are linked from your site to another set of pages on Pipex's server. Here, order and payment details are dealt with in a secure environment. It is not obvious to users browsing the site that they are dealing with Pipex because they still appear to be on your site.
Pipex uses Open Market's OM-Transact to manage the work at its end. This software handles all the back-end ordering and payment transactions, including dealing with the bank and interacting with users.
Users see an on-screen order form. They fill in their purchase details, and are invited to pay by credit card; currently, Pipex can deal with either Visa or Mastercard. Users are asked to type in their credit-card number and expiry date. The browser software encrypts the information and sends it to the Pipex server.
Credit-card details are sent straight through to Natwest Bank, which provides the clearing facilities for the service, still in encrypted form.
Neither Pipex nor the company selling the products sees the credit-card details, so the process is more secure than credit-card payments in restaurants or shops.
Natwest's system checks with the credit-card company, and if there is enough money in the account, it sends back an authorisation code to the Pipex server. All this is done in a matter of seconds.
The next step depends on the type of goods or service being sold. With 'hard', tangible goods, such as clothing or wine, the Pipex software sends a message to the vendor confirming that it's OK to dispatch them. In the case of 'soft' goods, Pipex may also be able to handle fulfilment of the transaction. Soft goods include software, high-value information, such as reports or stock prices, and access to closed areas of a Web site.
In either case, the Pipex server provides the buyer with an electronic receipt, showing the purchase and price, that can be printed out or saved.
If vendors are dispatching the goods themselves, they need to inform Pipex by email. Only then is the credit card debited: Pipex sends another message to Natwest to activate the transaction. Vendors don't need their own contract with credit-card companies; the credit-card companies pay customers' money over to Pipex via Natwest, and then Pipex sends vendors a cheque at agreed intervals.
The cost of all this depends on how much business you do and the particular deal you agree with the service provider. For small projects you can pay Pipex a u500 fixed fee, and also let it skim 9.5 per cent off each transaction.
However, if you plan to sell a lot of goods or services, it may be a good idea to pay more money up-front and less on each transaction. For example, you could pay out u10,000 in the first year and 5.5 per cent for each transaction.
The message Pipex sends to vendors shipping hard goods themselves can take several different forms. This can have a bearing on how easily Internet commerce integrates into the existing business.
For a small project, an ordinary fax or email would probably do the job.
But if you have a suitable order-entry system, it may be possible for it to process a more structured email automatically. Sage and Pegasus systems, for example, can make sense of structured text with just a bit of optional software. EDI is not yet supported, though Pipex says this will be included in the next release.
According to Richard Nuttal, director of electronic commerce at Uunet Pipex, one or two new vendors are signing up with The Bureau each week.
He says it usually takes users with a Web site about two months to get trading up and running.
Verdict: The Bureau is an effective way to start Internet trading with the minimum of delay. Since the key issue is not the technology itself, but how customers respond to this new channel, it may well be sensible to outsource the online transaction process
In the next issue we will publish results of Business Computer World's exclusive survey on Internet commerce.
Contact: Uunet Pipex on 01223 250742 or at www.uunet.pipex.com or by email at [email protected]
Price: from u500 fixed set-up fee, plus 9.5 per cent for each transaction for small sites, to u5,000 setup fee plus u5,000 annual rental and 5 per cent for each transaction for large sites
User report: the Isle of Eigg Trust is currently using The Bureau to collect credit-card donations. It has received more than u1,000, including several donations from the US. The charitable trust is raising the money to buy the island, near Skye, for the benefit of the people who live there.
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