Accesspoint’s Merchant Manager is a real mixed bag. It is one of the best value solutions around and includes some truly useful tools. It is also one of the few entry-level packages that provides any sort of inventory management facility.
However, although it is largely wizard driven it still fails to handhold the novice user through the build process. It is also let down by its mediocre online documentation and the inclusion of an indifferent statistics reporting package.
Like many of its competitors, Merchant Manager uses a wizard-style interface for setting up the store. However, whereas packages such as Yahoo! Store and iCAT take the novice builder by the hand and lead them step-by-step through the build process, Merchant Manager provides no clear guidance.
The exact sequence of steps needed to set up a store can only be discovered through a process of trial and error. The first step is for the would-be merchant to create and structure categories for the merchandise they intend selling. The Page Wizard is then employed to create all the pages for the store including welcome pages, product pages, forms and static HTML pages.
Once the pages have been created the Media Wizard is used to select and upload images as required. The Navigation Wizard is then run to create and place a navigation bar on each page.
Parts can then be added to the store, either by using the Parts Wizard or by importing a CSV file generated from an existing database.
Although there is a lack of an overall framework for building a store, each of the individual wizards provided is very powerful and has some good features. For example, the Media Wizard can attach “ALT” text to each image. And it can also be used to upload locally created HTML files in to the store.
Another feature of note is its search engine friendliness. Merchant Manager allows META tags to be specified for each page and also allows dynamic pages to be converted in to static files.
The level of online documentation provided, although adequate, could be better. There is a limited store tour and a demonstration store to experiment with. Beyond this, store builders have to rely on a context sensitive help function. The value of this feature is reduced though, by the inclusion of a number of broken links and frequent spelling errors.
Merchant Manager is one of the most attractively priced packages currently available. There are two pricing options, standard and enterprise. The standard package costs $75 per month and includes 15MB of Web space and 5 POP mailboxes. The number of items a store can hold is limited only by the Web space available and there are no traffic limits. The enterprise edition costs $150 per month and adds to the standard package. It includes 25MB of space and 10 POP mail boxes as well as access to several additional tools, such as support for membership services and secure purchase orders.
Additional fees are payable for domain name registration and the use of the optional real-time credit card authorization facility.
Merchant Manager accepts and processes orders via a built-in shopping cart, with online transactions being secured via SSL.
There are a large number of pre-defined methods available for accepting orders for example, online, fax, telephone and snail mail. Similarly, there are a good variety of payment options including credit cards, check, COD or charge to account.
The setting of shipping rates is a little awkward but does provide enough flexibility to cope with most shipping scenarios. Merchants can specify the shipping rate to be applied to an order based on its total weight, total price, shipping destination, or according to a UPS pricing table. In addition, shipping charges for specific items can be set with the Product Wizard.
The process of setting US sales tax levels is more straightforward. The store builder selects from a drop down box the States where they wish to apply sales tax too and then specifies the applicable rate.
Merchants can either have orders automatically faxed to them or can opt to be notified by e-mail when an order has been received. The order-tracking screen allows the merchant to view closed and open invoices. It provides a complete record of all past sales, including what was ordered, who handled the order, and the customer data collected for that order. It also allows customers to check the status of their orders by following a link that is automatically provided to them in an e-mail order receipt.
One definite highlight of the Merchant Manager package is the ability to set stock levels for some or all items. When a new part is added to the store, the stock level defaults to “unlimited”. However, the merchant is able to override this setting by entering the amount of stock that is available. The Merchant Manager program then monitors the stock level and automatically marks parts as unavailable when the stock drops to zero. Although this facility is fairly rudimentary, it is a feature that is totally missing from most other entry-level packages.
Most day to day administration tasks are accomplished through the same wizards that were used to create the store in the first place. In addition, there are a number of tools provided that can assist with some more complex tasks, for example e-mail list maintenance, banner ad management and search engine submission. The higher priced enterprise edition also includes the ability to run discount clubs.
Although a site statistics package is provided it is not as comprehensive as some of the packages bundled with other Web commerce solutions. However, the available reports do cover all the basic information needed to run a store including how many users are visiting the store, where these visitors came from, what browsers they were using, and what pages they viewed.
By Paul Lang, Editor, Sell It!
September 12th, 1998