Product Review: Intershop Simplifies Storefront Creation

Although most companies interested in establishing an electronic-commerce presence want to get their sites up and running and taking orders yesterday, it takes time to plan and develop an online storefront solution. Nevertheless, Intershop Version 4.0, from Intershop, is designed to get ecommerce sites up and running quickly; this latest version comes in several flavors that target individual companies of all sizes, as well as commerce service providers, or CSPs. Advanced site customization will require HTML experience and other scripting capabilities but should not pose a problem for experienced developers.

The Service Route

Intershop has expanded its set of solutions to include CSPs, recognizing that many merchants are choosing to use an online e-commerce service to set up storefronts rather than hosting them in-house. The Host and ePages editions of Intershop will be used by these service providers; the Merchant edition, which I tested, will appeal to companies that want to set up their storefront in-house and quickly; and the Enterprise edition is well suited to large companies that want to integrate their e-commerce site with their other back-end systems.

By providing a full range of solutions, Intershop opens itself up to a wide range of competitors. Services such as Yahoo Store compete with Intershop's ePages on the low end. The Merchant edition competes with IBM's Net.Commerce solutions, offering similar features, such as catalog design, templates, and ODBC support, at an equivalent price (although Net.Commerce provides a Lotus Domino Web Server for e-mail and discussion group functionality and InterShop Merchant does not). Intershop's top-level Enterprise edition competes with BroadVision's high-end commerce solution, which costs US$20,000 more but offers such advanced features as the capability to track behavioral shopping patterns.

To test the Merchant solution -- which is identical to the Host solution except that it is licensed for only one store -- I examined the three demo stores that are included with the product and can be used for learning the features and functionality of Intershop. I also created my own store with the use of the store design wizards and templates. I evaluated the process for enhancing a store's site, such as adding new products, product attributes and variations, as well as placing items on sale.

Both a site administrator and a store designer are required to set up your e-commerce site, although these duties may be handled by one person. The product offers two separate browser-based interfaces, one for the site administrator, who installs the software and sets up the store, and one for the the store designer. By using the store-building wizard, the site administrator creates the Sybase XI database.

Once the site is created, the store designer designs the look and feel of the individual store. Managers use seven management tabs to add inventory stock, process orders, and maintain customer profiles. When processing orders, inventory levels are automatically adjusted. Placing items on sale was done easily via both the Settings manager for defining discounts and the Product manager. For instance, I created an end-of-summer sale on a product, and set it to run during specific dates. And a personalized shopping experience can be created from within the System Administrator, as seen in the sample Golf Store.

I was pleased with Intershop's many different store creation templates, which included background layouts for architectural, music and sports industries, to name a few, and product layout pages. Merchants can get their stores up fast with these templates, which can be used as is or modified using the template editor or an external HTML editor as one gets more familiar with Intershop.

Templates are created with HTML and Intershop's Template Language Extension, which enhances HTML functionality. Thus, HTML experience is necessary for modifying or enhancing your store. For instance, as with past versions, to create merchandising schemes such as cross-selling or upselling, additional code is required, such as Java script. For Perl programmers, Intershop supports Server Side Scripting for integrating with other programs.

High-end customization can be done using the new optional Extensible Markup Language-aware Java-based Intershop Development Kit for extending store functionality and integration with third-party applications. Payment systems such as Cybercash and Cybersource can be done with Intershop's Cartridge Development Kit. This release also comes with 30 design templates, a store-design wizard, and multiple-language packs for multilingual sites. Further, Intershop now includes contextual online help expandable to full online documentation. Future versions will offer a customizable back office.

Intershop offers merchants a solution that can continually grow with their commerce sites. For example, sites can start with e-Page, the entry-level solution available from CSPs, and upgrade to the Hosting solution as more advanced features are needed. Further, integration with many other business processes can be done using development tools. The variety of solutions offered and its ease of use makes Intershop an e-commerce solution worthy of consideration.

(Senior Analyst Lori Mitchell has been reviewing high-technology products for the past eight years. She has covered Internet-based workgroup, collaboration and training tools for the InfoWorld Test Center since 1996. She can be reached at lori_mitchell@infoworld.com.)THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOODIntershop, Version 4.0Summary: Intershop is designed to help merchants get storefronts online quickly and affordably. Site administrators can use templates to design shops and enhance sites with HTML coding and scripting to provide strong merchandising schemes.

Business Case: Merchants can lower their electronic-commerce investment by finding a commerce service provider that uses Intershop to host electronic-commerce sites, although hosting their own Intershop site is also affordable.

Pros

+ Add-on Extensible Markup Language-enabled Java-based development kit+ Multiple payment systems+ Store-building wizards+ Server-side scripting for Perl programmersCons- No automatic cross-selling features- Must rely on programming skills to enhance siteCost: Intershop Merchant: US$5,000; Intershop Host: $12,500 (five-store license); Intershop Enterprise: starts at $50,000. Alternatively, companies can lease a storefront from a commerce service provider for as little as $50 per month.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows NT, Sun Solaris, Linux, SGI Irix, Compaq Tru64Intershop Communications Inc., San Francisco; http://www.intershop.com

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