Kurant offers easy money for ISPs and ASPs
Selling Internet services is no quick buck. Burdensome telecommunications and equipment costs combined with fierce competition and scarce manpower leave many service providers with insufficient cash to offer new and different services. What these service providers need is a marketable application that sells and manages itself and costs next to nothing to get running.
With StoreSense 4.0, Kurant Corp. offers service providers an unusually sweet deal. In one fell swoop, StoreSense will put you in the e-commerce site hosting business, without your having to shell out much cash or hire a gang of Web developers. Just plug the included Cobalt Networks Inc. RaQ server into your network, and after a few hours of Web-based configuration -- no programming or HTML hacking required -- your StoreSense server is open for business.
Small merchants will be your customers, purchasing and managing their own e-commerce sites from you via Web browsers. All you as the service provider need to do is keep the server running and do enough business to generate US$500 in monthly fees to Kurant.
We rate StoreSense Very Good because it's complete and easy to get running. We would have given it our best score if it didn't limit both the providers' and the merchant customers' ability to customize the solution. Every StoreSense provider sells exactly the same service, making the amount it charges the only thing to differentiate it from its competition. We also wish Kurant would scale its hardware to match the provider's volume. Once you outgrow Kurant's rather small server, scaling StoreSense is up to you.
Ready to run
The word turnkey is so often misused that we were pleasantly surprised to find StoreSense 4.0 actually comes out of the box ready to run. Kurant loads the RaQ with its Java-based software and configures the MySQL database and Apache Web server. All the RaQ asks for is an IP address. The StoreSense Java software launches itself when the RaQ powers up.
All interaction with StoreSense 4.0, both for the service provider and for its merchant customers, is Web-based. The provider's first task is to register the system with Kurant. The provider's StoreSense sends sales data to Kurant, so per-subscriber billing is automatic. The provider defines the characteristics of its Site Store, including name, address, phone number, and such, to create a built-in e-commerce site that will automatically pitch to and sign up new merchant customers.
The Site Store is one of StoreSense's strongest features. It does a fantastic job of selling the service by providing great marketing materials that make merchants want to sign up immediately.
But a rather big flaw exists. Part of the sales pitch is a sample storefront that, unfortunately for the service provider hoping to snag new business, is hosted at Kurant. From there, a prospective customer can navigate to a list of other providers that host their services via StoreSense, including, of course, the competitors. This is a serious setback, but it's the only problem we uncovered in StoreSense's thoroughly informative and effective self-marketing.
Watch your head
StoreSense 4.0 creates a fairly complete e-commerce solution for service providers to market to small merchant customers, but many factors limit the maximum size of a merchant who would benefit from the services: the lack of support for most customization, restricted EDI (electronic data interchange) with suppliers, slow Web interfaces, and extremely limited support for accounting software (only Quicken's QuickBooks is supported). A startup merchant with fewer than 50 catalog items and a few hundred sales tickets per month will thrive on the services offered by StoreSense-based providers.
But these merchant will remain confined in that small-business model even when they grow. For example, the merchants cannot separate the management of the business from the selling of merchandise because StoreSense insists on handling both for its service providers. Kurant could improve StoreSense considerably by strengthening its data import and export capabilities for an easy work-around.
StoreSense is a closed solution in that it doesn't support customization via programming. Service providers can differentiate their StoreSense offering by changing the environment in which it runs, but the core StoreSense application is untouchable. Kurant's position is that a common base of software makes StoreSense easier to maintain and support. Indeed, the provider needn't lift a finger to get a new merchant going. StoreSense takes the merchant's order, sets up its storefront site, and creates a secure administrative interface, and then the merchant does all the work of creating the site using the Web-based tools StoreSense provides.
Both the providers with their Site Stores and their merchant customers have quite a bit of control over the look and feel of their respective sites. StoreSense pours each store's unique data into XML templates to shape that site's appearance. By uploading new templates, a merchant can dramatically alter the look of its site, and each template can be linked to a particular type of device or browser. A Web-savvy merchant can use Kurant's supplied HTML, WML (Wireless Markup Language), and HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language) templates to rapidly adapt a storefront to wired and wireless devices.
We'd like to see Kurant extend this customization model to include server-side scripting for both the provider and their merchant customers. For example, our testing found StoreSense too limiting in its handling of sales tax and shipping charge calculations, a shortcoming that might have been addressed with a few lines of Perl if StoreSense had allowed it.
Based on the customizable templates, the merchant sites StoreSense creates for the service providers are clean and easy to navigate. Buyers can search for items by manufacturer and category, and payments are handled online. The system will automatically send customers e-mail confirmation of orders and shipments. For low-volume software (such as shareware) sales, StoreSense will assign a unique serial number to each unit and forward comma-separated invoice data via e-mail or HTTP to a system that processes the order.
The balancing act
It's difficult to balance ease of use with customizability. Because we spend much of our time testing highly programmable e-commerce solutions from the likes of IBM, Microsoft, and Miva, we're probably more demanding than the typical merchant who uses a StoreSense provider. The restrictions Kurant imposes on both providers and their merchant customers are understandable given the size of the organizations it targets. We also think there's a benefit to being able to say "no" when a merchant asks a provider to customize its e-commerce site. StoreSense's appeal, aside from its low cost, is that it requires so little attention. If a provider could add custom code, the increased complexity might add to its development and support costs.
StoreSense 4.0 certainly has its limitations, but we haven't seen any other e-commerce application this cheap or easy to host. If more vendors followed StoreSense's lead and cooked up self-selling, self-managing applications, application hosting would be a more profitable endeavor.