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ICat offers storefront enhancements

The online catalog software vendor is readying a site with free products for online merchants and is unveiling a Web-phone customer service product.

Online catalog software vendor iCat next week is expected to unveil a public Web site where merchants can download software and e-commerce services for free, letting electronic retailers assemble a full Web storefront from free parts, sources close to iCat said.

Companies often use free services to lure potential customers. Once the customers come to the site to download the free products, they learn about the upgrades and enhancements available for a fee. Firms such as iCat bet on enough customers wanting the for-fee products to make a profit.

For example, iCat rival Intershop lets Web developers and Internet storefront use its e-commerce free for building sites, charging only when a store goes live.

Next week's iCat announcement follows another this week that iCat has teamed with NETcall Telecom to let Web merchants using iCat software link their Net storefronts to live customer service agents.

ICat is one of the first e-commerce software providers to make phone connections available to customers, particularly among software for smaller merchants, where iCat is strongest.

With one click, Web shoppers visiting a NETcall-enabled storefront can be connected to customer service reps who can answer questions and facilitate transactions. The goal: To turn Net shoppers who are researching purchases into on-the-spot buyers by giving them a more familiar way to buy--over the phone.

ICat will offer NETcall's SomeOne service to storefront developers using the iCat catalog software.

"iCat gains an intriguing technology service and NETcall should benefit strongly from iCat's good name and market reach," opined Current Analysis, an industry analysis firm, in a research note. "We expect other commerce solutions providers to add various telephony services to their offerings during the second quarter of 1998."

Clicking a "call me" button on the merchant's Web site triggers a message to NETcall's server, which first calls the merchant, then calls the shopper over standard phone lines to make the connection. The live agent also can cross-sell or upsell other offerings.

NETcall's SomeOne service also offers call center services, conference calls, online account management, transactions, and reports.

The service is offered for a $40 set-up fee, $3 per month, and 18 cents per minute for U.S. calls, with no required hardware or software.