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E-commerce off the shelf

Viaweb and Staples have joined forces to offer would-be online merchants a simple way to create Web storefronts.

    E-commerce provider Viaweb and Staples (SPLS), the giant office-supply superstore chain, have hooked up to offer retail customers off-the-shelf Internet storefronts.

    This week, 600 Staples stores began selling e-commerce software from Viaweb for around $80, which lets wanna-be Web merchants open an Internet store with up to 1,000 items for three months.

    "This deal puts easy-to-use software in front of the large number of people out there who are looking for something easy to use," said Paul Graham, chief executive of Viaweb, which normally charges $300 per month for a store with 1,000 items. For $100 per month, merchants who want to test Internet commerce can post up to 20 items.

    E-commerce analysts are enthusiastic about both the deal and Viaweb's server-based software.

    "For people who've been hanging back wondering if they should put their small business on the Web, Viaweb's product says, 'Yes, you can get involved and you don't need a rocket scientist to do it,'" said Emily Green, an analyst at Forrester Research. "This deal with Staples is absolutely a good idea."

    Nicole Vanderbilt at Jupiter Communications agrees. "Staples is right in line with Viaweb's solution: low cost and targeted almost precisely at Staples' strategy of appealing to small-office, home-office users."

    The Viaweb Store box at Staples won't include any software, because the merchant software is stored on Viaweb's servers. Using a browser and an identification number inside the box, would-be merchants use a Web browser to set up their stores, and analysts say some merchants have done it within 15 minutes.

    Web stores are hosted on Viaweb's ViaMall, which the company claims gets 5.2 million page views per month, making it one of the most popular Web malls.

    But Graham prefers to talk about his service as "renting software," not hosting Web stores.

    Whatever the terminology, Viaweb has relatively little competition at the low end of the e-commerce market. Viaweb Store is designed for non-technical users, while most online storefront software is created for technical sophisticates, such as systems integrators or programmers.

    One competitor, iCat, sells software that targets the easy-to-use market, but it doesn't come with a hosting option.

    In addition to providing tools to set up a Web store, Viaweb Store provides secure online ordering, tracking tools, and an automated service that submits virtually every new store or new page to Internet search engines, which generate most of ViaMall's traffic.