Taking bCentral for a Walk

STR finds Microsoft's small-business portal for pet products is useful but lacks some features

When STR Enterprises Inc. decided, about a year ago, to put its pet supply business online, it didnt go fishing for some hotshot e-commerce executive to run the show. Instead, the company of 100-plus employees, in Panama City, Fla., gave the task of building its Web presence to one of its brick-and-mortar pet store managers, Neil Cummings.

Cummings, who before getting into the pet supply business worked on computers in U.S. fighter aircraft, was no technology slouch. Still, for his first e-commerce effort, he, along with his six-person staff, needed handholding.

They got it—after some trial and error—by signing on with one of a growing number of online e-commerce portals for small businesses. STR uses Microsoft Corp.s bCentral small-business portal for basic Web site development, hosting, search engine and banner advertising services. In six months, the service has helped STR grow the number of customer transactions on its e-commerce Web sites, Cummings said, from just two to three a day to an average of 100 a day.

One major appeal of bCentral was that it required no setup fees—just a $24.95 monthly charge for a package of basic services that includes Web hosting, Cummings said. He currently takes advantage of bCentrals Web banner exchange program—included in the monthly fee—which puts his sites banner ads on thousands of other Web sites. Cummings uses the bCentral portal service, which registers his URLs with hundreds of different search engines. The portal also offers credit card processing, customized e-mail newsletters and online yellow pages services.

Besides the low monthly cost of bCentral, Cummings said the Microsoft name behind the site influenced his decision to try it instead of another new, small-business portal company. "I had to feel comfortable that the [small-business portal] I chose was going to be around tomorrow," he said.

Cummings path to bCentral was neither direct nor painless. STR used Web hosting and e-commerce services from Verio Inc., of Englewood, Colo., to launch its first store—a pet health care product site called National Pet Supply—last April.

"Everything about the experience was difficult," Cummings said. The setup process was cumbersome, the site run by Verio functioned slowly, the shopping cart function was unsatisfactory, and customer support was poor, he said.

Cummings switched to bCentral when it launched a second e-commerce site, National Vet Supply, which also offers pet health care products online. He later moved the National Pet Supply site to bCentral as well.

Cummings has a wish list though, for small-business portals. Expanding site design options is a must. Also, hed like to see small-business portals offering more choices for credit card vendors since fees can vary drastically depending on the vendor.

On bCentral, Microsoft offers credit card processing services from only one vendor, CardService International Inc., of Agoura Hills, Calif., which charges a separate $19.95 monthly fee plus per-transaction charges.