Electronic commerce - the selling of goods and the completion of other commercial transactions on the internet - has yet to really take off in the UK. Its growth has been inhibited by security concerns but every indication is that ultimately it will become huge.
Research company IDG forecasts that by the year 2001, the volume of e-commerce in the UK will have grown from today's low level in the tens of millions to œ2.73bn.
Datamonitor, meanwhile, reckons that by the end of the year 2000, some 64,000 European companies will be conducting internet commerce, up from a mere 600 or so now.
These British early adopters have done so in the hope of understanding this new way of selling. For most it is an investment in the future that they hope is not too far off, when multitudes of consumers and businesses will see the completion of transactions on the web as second nature.
Certainly that is the view in the US, where president Bill Clinton predicted in a recent memo that by the turn of the century e-commerce will total 'tens of billions' of dollars. Back in the UK, the Electronic Commerce Association (www.eca.org.uk) has over 500 members and is growing fast.
The number of firms offering e-commerce solutions is also exploding - over two dozen products and services were launched at Electronic Commerce 97 show, held at Olympia in October.
Research conducted by consulting firm Bathwick Group among UK's 100 largest organisations earlier this year found that chief executives were more bullish than their IT staff about the benefits of e-commerce. Many CEOs saw e-commerce as a way to expand their customer base, retain customers in an increasingly competitive business environment and boost revenue.
It is not, however, just the large corporations that stand to benefit from the e-commerce revolution. In a recent report, Datamonitor concluded that e-commerce solutions are becoming increasingly popular for small to medium-sized companies.
Overwhelmingly, though, it has been fears over security that have held back the development of e-commerce. Recent developments are helping to allay worries in this area, however. The Interactive Media in Retail Group's recent introduction of an e-commerce code of practic is one such step (see panel p54).
Overall, the standard of encryption and authorisation systems is improving.
The biggest advance here has been the decision by Visa and MasterCard to work together with other major partners to develop the Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) standard for securing payment-card transactions over the internet.
SET is being trialed at the moment and its widespread introduction will unquestionably give renewed impetus to the growth of e-commerce. In a report published this year, the Consumers' Association concluded of SET that: 'The future use of this specification is likely to be a major boost to the confidence of consumers and web site traders.'
But there is more to e-commerce than simply selling on the web. As our case study on paper supplier Salehurst shows (see p58), companies are also developing e-commerce solutions to improve efficiency in dealings with suppliers and clients.
Simon King, general manager of software distribution and e-commerce firm Renaissance, expects e-commerce to take off soon: "It's a huge, huge market that's on the verge of bursting at the seams," says King. "Companies had better be prepared for it because those that ignore e-commerce are going to lose out."
It's an open and shut case. All the evidence and industry opinion points to a massive increase in e-commerce activity.
CASE STUDY - EAGLE STAR DIRECT
Discounting to online customers
Eagle Star Direct launched its web site (www. eaglestardirect. co.uk) in August for the express purpose of selling motor insurance online. In its first six weeks of operation, over 20,000 quotes were offered through the site.
"We are a direct marketing company - that's our forte - so we asked ourselves how we could adapt our direct marketing skills to sell over the internet," says director of Eagle Star Direct Paul Davies. "We looked at what we needed to do to become a real buying site."
As an inducement to use the site, Eagle Star slashed 15 per cent off its standard premiums to customers buying cover on the web. The savings are possible because web sales avoid the substantial overheads generated by Eagle Star's telesales force.
As sales at the site are completed online using credit cards - and Eagle Star offers a 10 per cent discount on credit card purchases - those buying from the site can save themselves up to 25 per cent on their cover.
Dynamic forms ensure users are presented only with relevant information, with the number of questions asked pared down to a minimum to speed up the process. For those seeking detailed information, the site has more data than a telesales operative would have at his or her fingertips.
"It's a very advanced site in that it generates the screens and questions for purchasers to go through so that they can make the purchase in the fastest time," adds Davies. "We took the view that the public is ready to give credit card details. The encryption process we have is quite sophisticated."
He adds: "Up to 30 per cent of people getting quotes are storing them. I believe that if the price is right they'll come back and buy."
Eagle Star Direct hopes eventually to offer other products online: household, travel and possibly even life cover. The site cost about œ150,000 to build.
"To be able to start up a direct channel for that kind of figure is excellent value for money," says Davies. "We've already written enough premium to cover the cost of the site."
Data is currently re-keyed into Eagle Star's telesales system, but the long-term intention is to introduce more mechanisation, to permit just one set of keystrokes to be used throughout the sale process. The site was developed by online commerce specialist Entranet, which handled the design brief, the front-end development, the back-end integration with the insurer's databases and the creation of a bespoke transactional solution using a secure server. The site is hosted by Eagle Star itself.
CASE STUDY - VIDEO ARTS
Selling to a global market
In September this year, training company Video Arts launched its commerce-enabled web site. The objective for the site was to maintain the company's position as the international market leader in learning resources and to enable customers to buy products online.
The site (www.videoarts.co.uk) targets customers in the UK and the rest of the world, with the exception of the US, which has its own corporate, text-heavy site. The UK site, on the other hand, is graphically-led and uses plenty of humour to hold the interest of site visitors.
"We are a global player on the training market, and we have products available in 28 languages," says Video Arts joint managing director Tina Tietjen.
"We saw using the web site not just as another marketing means, but as a way of making it easier to do business with us, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People will be accessing our site from home as well as from work."
Andrea Dalton, who is in charge of the internet project at Video Arts, talked to 15 agencies before selecting Carlyle Netmedia as site developer.
Thereafter, five e-commerce solution providers were assessed before settling on NetBanx.
The cost of setting up the site is believed to be in the region of œ150-200,000. "Really what we wanted was a method of clearing credit cards simply for customers and sending us the information," says Dalton. Orders come through to Video Arts' back-end system as email, but it is intended there should be more automation at a later date.
"We know people are shopping for learning on the net," adds Tietjen.
"We have interactive learning programmes and, at some time in the future, we want people to have the opportunity to consume these online. We must have e-commerce because it's a building block for the future."
Carlyle Netmedia is hosting the site with NetBanx providing the transactional solution.
A NEW STANDARD FOR E-COMMERCE
On 1 October the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) introduced an e-commerce code of practice. The code is designed to support online merchants and protect consumers purchasing goods via electronic channels.
Merchants complying with the code will be entitled to display an IMRG 'hallmark' on their web pages. IMRG members are able to use the hallmark free of charge. Non-members who wish to comply with the provisions of the code must pay œ1,500 a year.
And it's worth paying for according to IMRG joint-md James Roper: "The code of practice is a benchmark for the basic principles of decent practice in electronic commerce. The industry wants this to work."
The IMRG reserves the right to unilaterally withdraw permission to use the hallmark if it believes a merchant has breached the code. Some of the code's main provisions are that: all e-commerce services should be legal, decent, fair and truthful; no merchant should bring e-commerce into disrepute; merchants should only promote products available for sale; there should be a fair and adequate description/illustration of a product, sufficient to enable the customer to make informed buying decisions; goods must be "fit for the purpose" claimed; merchants must disclose terms and conditions for electronic transfers and clearly spell-out guarantee terms; all merchants must include their physical address and contact name on their web sites; orders should be fulfilled within seven days, unless consumers have been told in advance it is impracticable to do so ... the list goes on.
Such rigorous requirements should go along way to boosting consumer confidence.
CASE STUDY - ALLSPORTS
Serving international football fans
Sports equipment firm allsports began considering trying out an e-commerce web site last year. At that stage it believed it was too soon, but by spring 1997 took the view that e-commerce was becoming more established and, as a result, more viable.
"We felt e-commerce was still in its infancy but likely to grow very quickly in the next couple of years," says allsports IT director Phil Cornish. "It's going to get bigger and we felt it would be sensible to get a feel for it early on.
"We feel we've got a product that's wanted around the world but not readily available outside the UK: English football club strips. Clubs like Manchester United have fans across the globe who find it difficult to get hold of kit."
With this in mind, allsports decided to go with a site designed predominantly to sell the football kit of English Premier League Clubs. Allsports looked at a number of developers before selecting Walsh Simmons Interactive to develop and host the site (www.allsportsretail.co.uk). Walsh Simmons was chosen on the back of its e-commerce track record and for its youth-oriented design skills - much of the replica football kit market is made up of teenagers who expect sites to be attention-grabbing and exciting.
A secure certificate was obtained from US encryption software firm VeriSign so that transactions could be conducted in secure mode. The site is not online-transactional - rather, credit card details are captured in secure mode. Allsports staff access the site twice a day, take data and processes any orders.
The site cost under œ50,000 to develop and went live in October. It also includes a membership club, store finder and competitions. In its first week, without any publicity, sales were made to one customer in the UK and another in Sweden.
"We've no idea how those people found our site because we hadn't promoted it at that stage," says Cornish. He adds: "We try to be one step ahead of the game and this is the way to do it."
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SOLUTION SUPPLIER FOR YOUR NEEDS
For client companies intending to move into e-commerce the choice of solution supplier is clearly key. Should it be one of the software giants, a web development agency or a systems integrator? Or indeed a combination of any or all of the above?
Unfortunately there is no easy answer. All clients' circumstances differ, and as a result so too do the solutions they require. The first step for clients is painstakingly to identify precisely what it is they are hoping to achieve by investing in e-commerce.
By identifying this, clients will narrow down the field of appropriate partners. For instance, if a thorough end-to-end solution is required to tightly integrate the client's e-commerce site with its main databases, then a company with expertise in this area is advisable.
Motorola's European cellular subscriber division recently opted to work with database giant Oracle because it wanted an e-commerce system that would integrate with its existing business transactions, which are carried out on an Oracle database. This was achieved using Oracle's Internet Commerce Server.
"Where a lot of people are failing is by putting an internet site up as a marketing tool and not integrating it with the back-end systems," says Oracle e-commerce marketing manager Jenny Edmondson.
But many companies simply do not have the means at their disposal to splash out on full end-to-end integration.
A growing number of suppliers have cottoned on to the possibilities of doing business with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). NetBanx, for instance, has lowered the cost of entry into e-commerce to œ500 for a 'basic presence'.
NetBanx then takes a commission on each transaction, which at 4 per cent or less still offers clients substantial savings when compared to the staff overheads of traditional commerce.
UUNet, through its 'The Bureau' system, has also sought to bring clients e-commerce from as little as œ500 - although at the time of writing it is reviewing its pricing strategy.
Key player Microsoft has replaced its 'Merchant Server' product with 'Site Server Enterprise Edition' and in the process cut the price for its merchant software to about œ3,800, making it more affordable. However, to get a site based on Microsoft e-commerce software up and running, clients will still need the services of third party development specialists. This is true of all but the most basic e-commerce solutions.
"No one company can put together a complete e-commerce solution," says Sun Microsystems e-commerce marketing development manager Richard Barrington.
"It's possible to just take credit card details on the net, but that isn't really e-commerce. Real e-commerce is developing a new sales channel and requires a considerable amount of investment to get it right, like Eagle Star Direct." Conventional retailers unable or unwilling to invest as heavily in e-commerce solutions should bear in mind that there is also the option of joining a cybermall.
In so doing, they pass on the hassle of dealing with online transactions to the company running the mall.
The downside is that cybermalls have not been a roaring success. In the UK it is arguable that there are only two serious internet malls: BarclaySquare (www.barclay square.co.uk) and Buckingham Gate (www.buckingham gate.com).
For the moment, at least, the impression is that consumers prefer to go direct to individual retailers' web sites.
CASE STUDY - DIXONS
The constantly updated catalogue
Dixons officially launched its e-commerce web site in October 1997 after experimenting with it through the summer. The site, developed jointly by Interactive Developments and Dixons, features a range of over 2,000 electrical goods such as PCs, videos, hi-fis and mobile phones.
Prices are updated every day from Dixons' database, and the retailer claims an "unprecedented service for internet shopping", with next working-day delivery in mainland UK. The site (www.dixons.co.uk) is also able to detect automatically if purchases of more than one item merit a discount, and deduct the appropriate amount.
Dixons has been watching the development of e-commerce for some time, and felt that recent technological advances meant that the internet could now be used to meet customers' demands in an effective manner.
The site was developed using Microsoft e-commerce software Merchant Server, which includes in-built order processing to handle all transaction details.
Product data is downloaded from Dixons' mainframe system to a Microsoft SQL Server database feeding the internet application.
Any changes made to the mainframe are automatically reflected on the site so that it always displays valid and current information. Dixons can also set up promotions and special offers using Merchant Server. Credit card transactions are encrypted to protect them, although Dixons plans to make use of the new SET standard when it becomes available.
Dixons chose Microsoft and Interactive Developments because of their work on the Tesco site. "We had a web site up last year," says Dixons visual merchandising director Mike Nevin. "It was a basic informational site and frankly wasn't very good. We decided it wasn't representational of our business and began looking at a transactional site.
"I don't think we realised at the time how complex it would be because we had to incorporate things like our buy-now-pay-later scheme and cover plan insurance. With the coming age of digital TV this is a good learning curve for developing home shopping.' With Dixons' in-house team as joint developers, external site development costs were kept to œ70,000.
CASE STUDY - SALEHURST
Keeping clients informed
Salehurst is Britain's largest independent supplier of paper to the magazine publishing industry. Established in 1984, it floated last May and now has a œ30m turnover.
Among the drivers behind its growth have been the provision of a just-in-time delivery service and Salehurst's commitment to supplying clients with comprehensive information. To further this process it has created an 'extranet' enabling customers to access areas of its web site (www.pips.co.uk) not open to general users.
Salehurst chairman, Michael Jackson, says that the thinking behind the investment in the online service is "to embrace the client more closely, so that he or she becomes part of the purchasing operation".
Clients using what Salehurst has called 'PIPS' (Paper Information and Publisher's Services) online gain direct access to the database. Not only can they see static database information but they can interactively build quick estimates for themselves.
Paper represents anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of magazine publishing costs. Salehurst's new system enables clients to better understand the paper buying cycle and, as a result, improve their own budgetary control. They can see for themselves their slow, fast-moving or redundant stocks and keep track of unit costs.
"Nobody else in our industry does this - that's why it is so important for us to do it," says Jackson.
Eventually, the intention is to allow customers to add information on paper purchased from other suppliers to give them a fuller picture of the marketplace.
Longer term, Jackson hopes it will be possible to match information from the paper mill, the publisher's printer and the publisher. Then, once the printer confirms delivery, the negotiated sales price will be accessed automatically to produce an electronic sales invoice for the customer and payment to the paper mill.
"If we create this virtuous circle of information and invoicing it will make the whole process easier," says Jackson. In all, the total investment in the project will reach œ300,000.
Paranet Systems used WebSpeed Workshop tools from Progress Software to develop the processing capability at the site. The WebSpeed Transaction Server system houses the Salehurst database.
Internet service provider Zoo manages the server side of the project - the WebSpeed transaction server has been installed at Zoo which offers internet connection via its host server.
CASE STUDY - BOOKPAGES
Automating sales in a tough market
Bookpages has been selling books online via its website (www.bookpages.co.uk) since December 1996. Sales have been growing at 28 per cent a month, with customers able to choose from a staggering 1.2 million titles.
"We're pretty sure we're the second largest internet bookseller," says Bookpages managing director Simon Murdoch. The company faces competition in the UK from the Internet Book Shop as well as chain retailers such as Waterstone's, and globally from US-based Amazon, amongst others.
With only a limited marketing budget at his disposal, Murdoch has been doing much of his promotion on the web through news groups and mailings.
Turnover for the company's first year of operation is a creditable œ700,000. It is hoping to grow this, however, with a target of œ2m set for 1998. About two-thirds of sales are to overseas buyers. UK orders over œ25 are delivered free.
The site was developed by software company Triptych Systems - a Bookpages sister company - using VeriSign SSL encryption. Microsoft Windows NT and IIS software were used with an SQL server database; the server is connected to the internet via Demon Corporate Services.
Credit card details are turned into encrypted e-mail to Bookpages' order fulfilment system which sends order request data to suppliers electronically, making it a very secure system according to Murdoch: "The risk of someone intercepting your message is minimal," says Murdoch. "Intercepting it would be like finding a needle in a haystack."
The setting up the Bookpages online operation cost in the region of œ300,000, with about a third of that amount going just on web site costs.
"Margins in the book business are quite thin, so we have to keep work as low as possible and automate as much as possible," says Murdoch. "We're sure lots of people will use our site to see what books are available - to see if there's a book on Venetian architecture for example.
"Marketing over the internet has worked really well for us. Setting up a site and not telling people about it is like having a phone and not giving anyone your number."
Bookpages also sells off the web through BT and News International's joint venture online service provider LineOne.
E-COMMERCE SOLUTIONS SUPPLIERS
Web-centred communications company that designs and delivers online catalogues using iCat Electronic Commerce Suite
Contact: William Pryor
Tel: 01225 312 391
Web: www.arq.co.uk Brightware
Winner of Microsoft's 'Best Web Site Solution' award this year, the firm's software drives the web site of the American Finance and Investment - the Cybersmart Instant Mortgage site, www.loanshop.com
Tel: 01707 871 530
Specialist in e-commerce solutions that works closely with Sun Microsystems
Contact: Rob Bruce
Tel: 01753 701 067
Developer and producer of e-commerce web sites
Contact: Karen Booth
Tel: 0171 439 896
Web: www.carlylenetmedia.com Centric
Focuses on developing, hosting and maintaining powerful interactive marketing and sales-oriented sites for companies looking to develop online sales channels
Contact: James Matthewson
Tel: 01249 701701
Provider of technology for e-commerce and push-marketing
Tel: 0117 955 8225
A web design and development agency with expertise in online commerce sites for retailers
Contact: Carl Christensen
Tel: 01865 821 821
Web: www.domino.com Entranet
Specialist in the creation of online commerce. Developed Eagle Star Direct's site
Contact: Mike Williams
Tel: 01491 878 787
ISP and systems integrator that helped field sports chain Roxton Sporting develop its Polonet internet shop dedicated to polo
Contact: Robert Houghton
Tel: 01242 821 000
GE Information Services
Specialist in business-to-business e-commerce solutions; has worked for Tesco and its supplier Kingcup Mushrooms on a pilot programme to exchange orders and invoices electronically
Contact: Mark McDonnell
Tel: 01932 776 000
Web: www.geis.com Hyperion
Specialises in e-commerce. The firm recently put together a prototype implementation of a public key infrastructure (PKI) system to support financial service transactions over the net for Interactive Investor
Tel: 01483 301 793
Provides solutions to allow customers to "make real electronic transactions, connect to suppliers, manufacturers and other partners and give their customers better service"
Tel: 0171 202 3000
Flexible e-commerce solutions for putting retailers and catalogues on the web
Contact: Matt Darwood
Tel: 0181 387 4074
Electronic business services, including e-commerce consultancy and transaction solutions. One of the firms behind Buckingham Gate cybermall Contact: Michelle Rusbridge
Tel: 01344 473 921
Builds business web sites using its Amazon platform product.
Contact: Roger Willcocks
Tel: 01932 772 266
Developer of e-commerce sites specialising in Microsoft-based solutions.
Clients include Tesco and Dixons
Contact: Roger Collins
Tel: 01606 350011
Web: www.idev.co.uk Intershop
Founded in Germany, with its headquarters now in California, the firm markets the 'Intershop Online' e-commerce solution. Users of the Intershop Online product include Hewlett-Packard, Siemens-Nixdorf and Bosch
Tel: 0181 324 1300
A leading systems integrator and site developer that worked on the redesign of the BarclaySquare cybermall
Contact: Dennis Knight
Tel: 01932 893 300
Internet system supplier offering e-commerce package
Contact: Glenn Rothwell
Tel: 0118 958 0058
Australian business software firm providing "customer-centric" software.
It currently has strategic marketing alliances with Data General, Hewlett-Packard and IBM
Tel: 01865 784 343
Microsoft recently replaced its well-known Merchant Server e-commerce product with the more functional (and cheaper!) Microsoft Site Server Enterprise Edition
Contact: Peter Bell
Tel: 0870 601 0100
MM Electronic Business Solutions
Electronic business company offering site design, hosting, secure commerce and credit card processing.
Contact: Con Gillespie
Tel: 0117 966 6900
Will design, build and host e-commerce solutions for basic price of œ500. Thereafter takes fee of 4 per cent (negotiable) on each transaction
Contact: Gary Hutton
Tel: 01223 845594
The firm is an ISP, but also provides e-commerce solutions, web development and internet/intranet consultancy
Tel: 0171 460 0500
International vendor of electronic directory and commerce technology
Contact: Anne Wills
Tel: 0115 952 0571
Supplies the software and consulting to help reach total end-to-end e-commerce solutions
Contact: Jenny Edmondson
Tel: 0118 924 0000
Markets a publishing system designed to provide visitors to commercial web sites with a "personalised multimedia experience"
Tel: 0181 255 4004
The company behind the WebSpeed solution for building secure, transaction-based systems
Contact: Justin Wright
Tel: 01256 816 668
Web: www.progress.com Prospera
Provider of turn-key e-commerce solutions based on Microsoft software
Contact: Jonathan Torode
Tel: 01296 330 011
Is shortly to launch PSIWeb Worldpay, a secure multi-currency e-commerce solution
Contact: Valerie Holt
Tel: 01223 577 125
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Renaissance
Electronic software distribution and e-commerce solutions provider
Contact: Simon King
Tel: 01638 569 700
Sells commerce servers and works with partners such as Brokat, JCP and Broadvision to provide security and integration solutions
Contact: Richard Barrington
Tel: 01276 451 440
Systems integrator working with partners such as Icentral (Shopsite) and Venus Internet secure hosting
Contact: Bob Browning
Tel: 0181 400 6115
Web: www.textor.com TDS Group
Provider of information and technology solutions. Its work includes marketing and project management, the countrywide business marketing database (The Business Census) and BT's trial business-to-business e-commerce system, Trading Places.
Tel: 01494 474647
Providers of the 'ShoppingMagic' solution, the firm has helped launch London online grocery retailer operation The Food Ferry
Tel: 0171 716 3070
ISP UUNET has its 'Bureau' e-commerce system for secure transactions, supported by NatWest Bank
Contact: Geoff Page
Tel: 01223 250 100
Web: www.uk.uu.net VeriFone
Designs and manufactures electronic payment systems
Contact: Jim Cook
Tel: 01895 824 031
Web development and production firm with a background in interactive TV. Won DTI 'Information Society Creativity Award' for its RealTrade electronic ordering system
Contact: Rob Love
Tel: 01273 774 469
Email: email@example.com Walsh Simmons Interactive
New-media marketing and design company which has built e-commerce sites for the likes of Wine Cellar and allsports. Has put cars on the net for client
Contact: Stephen Walsh
Tel: 0161 839 9337
Web: www.walshsimmons.co.uk Xplora
Web development company involved in the e-Christmas multi-language, multi-currency site launched in November which sells hundreds of Christmas gifts across Europe
Contact: David Godwin
Tel: 01932 267 799
This article was first published on revolutionmagazine.com