Building E-commerce Sites the Easy Way

If only it were as simple to build an e-commerce site as it is to buy from one. An examination of the state of prepackaged electronic commerce software reveals a bewildering array of packages, plug-ins, and options.

One company that is trying to bridge the gap between novice online commerce developers and complex storefront software is Miva Corp. The company’s product, Miva Merchant, provides a virtual storefront with a configuration, look-and-feel, and features that can be controlled through a browser. The goal of Miva Merchant is to allow greenhorn e-commerce developers to create and deploy full-featured sites while still providing the customization tools advanced users demand.

Miva Merchant is a prepackaged set of database and application modules that use an XML-based scripting engine to deliver business-to-consumer commerce services. The XML language, called Miva Script, provides the foundation for all the modules in the storefront software. The script language is interpreted at the Web server by an add-on application engine called Miva Empressa. Empressa bolts into many standard Web servers, parsing Miva Script code in much the same way that ASP script is handled by add-on Dynamic Link Libraries in Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Service (IIS).

Miva Merchant was recently upgraded to version 2.0, and it continues to be an easy product for site administrators. It took only minutes to install Miva Merchant and Empressa on our typical Windows NT Server 4.0, with Service Pack 4 installed. Thoughtfully, Miva bolted its server-related administration tool right into the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

Setting Up Shop

Miva’s administration tool is a password-protected, frame-based series of Web pages that help customize the look and feel of the store front, add product information, and categorize the products available. For our test, we created a fictitious home decorating store that specializes in antique drawer pulls, doorknobs, and switch-plate covers. There are two ways to enter items to be sold: one at a time through the Web interface or through the upload of flat files.

We can’t imagine anyone using the Web interface for loading product information -- it was tedious and error-prone. We also found the flat-file strategy to be imperfect. It took some trial and error to get the format accepted correctly by Miva. Since our fabricated commerce site would have probably used SQL Server, Oracle, or some other database for inventory activities, it would have been nice to use a more flexible strategy for exchange of product and category information.

For each item, Miva Merchant allows you to supply a product name, description, product code, and thumbnail image. You can also provide other crucial details such as price, weight, and whether the item is taxable. The flat-file strategy gives you the option of replacing previously existing products or updating their database records in place. Extending the flexibility of the system -- such as being able to sell drawer pulls of different sizes -- requires the attributes to be added to each item. You can have as many attributes as you want for each item, but managing the attributes is only possible using the Miva Merchant browser-based administration tool and not through the flat-file updates.

The most recent release of Miva Merchant is tremendously flexible in product organization and pricing. For instance, we were able to establish one pricing policy for normal customers and another for those that registered with our site. We were able to set up a product discount scheme that gave frequent customers a discount not available to users just browsing the site.

Miva Merchant does an excellent job of covering the basics of product and order management, including sales taxes, currency formatting, a variety of payment methods, and shipping calculations. It was easy to get our site started and to provide product categorization and searching. One of the nicest options is a module that allows real-time calculation of UPS shipping costs.

Payment modules include "Check Payment" and "Fulfillment," which allow a commerce site to get started without having to negotiate a relationship with a third-party credit card processor. Still, Miva Merchant doesn’t help when you want to start accepting credit cards: You still have to arrange for a separate credit card processing module from a provider such as Cybersource, Cybercash, or Merchant Online.

Multiple Stores, Back-End Chores

Using the same interface, the Miva Merchant administrator can set up a single store or manage a set of stores. We discovered that an administrator could delegate specific tasks to others. For instance, at our fictitious site we tried having one staff person manage doorknobs and another switchplate covers. It worked perfectly and even allowed us to set up individual administrators for separate stores.

As an e-commerce site grows, inventory tracking and automated customer management will probably have to be done using another tool. Miva Merchant concentrates on building a merchandise database and delivery service for your electronic commerce site. Many commerce sites that are just starting out will find Miva’s ease-of-use gratifying, but as an online merchant’s needs grow Miva’s inability to integrate with databases and a lack of inventory or customer management tools will force users to either tinker with Miva’s underlying script technology or leave the product behind.

That is too bad. Miva Merchant is a truly easy-to-use tool for order processing and product management. It is a product that can relieve the sense of bewilderment when contemplating a product database for electronic commerce, but most online commerce users will eventually need to go farther than that.

Miva Merchant 2.0

Miva Corp.

San Diego, Calif.

Price: $495 per DNS domain; additional stores can be added to a single domain -- $99 per storefront. Requires Miva Empressa engine: $495 per server

+ Easy-to-use storefront/product manager

+ Server components managed using MMC

+ XML-based scripting is customizable and server-neutral

+ Supports third-party, add-in modules for payment processing

+ Support for multiple storefronts and multiple administrators

+ Flexible product pricing and categorization capabilities

- Poor support for bulk import of products

- No integration for inventory or customer management

- Customization of Miva Script is too complex

- Merchants will be forced to add functions or outgrow the product