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Review: ccnow.com

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, E-Commerce Consultant
Web Commerce Today, Issue 44, March 15, 2001

CCNow Inc. http://www.ccnow.com/
706 Philadelphia Pike, Suite 5-B
Wilmington, Delaware 19809
877-CCNOW-77

For small online retailers who either can't easily obtain a merchant credit card account or only have occasional sales, CCNow has a lot to offer. Merchants outside the US can now sell in US dollars with no investment at all. Though the shopping cart and shipping features lack some sophistication, CCNow fills a very important niche for small e-tailers in the US and abroad.

CCNow as the Online Retailer

Obtaining a Merchant Credit Card Account can be a major hurdle for US small businesses and even more difficult for companies outside the US. An account typically costs several hundred dollars in application fees, and you are assessed monthly minimums whether or not any products are sold. To obtain a Merchant Account, businesses outside the US typically must set up a corporate presence in the US and pay US corporate taxes.

Enter CCNow. They handle the credit card transaction, and pay merchants the money they collect minus their 9% fee (8% in November and December). They walk a thin line to do so. Credit card association rules specifically prohibit credit card factoring, that is, taking a credit card payment on behalf of another company. The way CCNow stays legal is to function as the online retailer of their "clients" products. If you sign up with CCNow, you agree to the legal terms that when a customer places an order, CCNow buys the ordered product(s) from you for immediate resale to the customer. CCNow is the actual retailer, and the credit card purchase is in their name. You act as a wholesaler who is paid to ship the product on CCNow's behalf. Confusing? Well, maybe a little.

But CCNow is serious about staying on the right side of the law. They prohibit you from taking phone and fax orders and then filling out the online form on behalf of these customers. That is illegal, they tell you, and they'll suspend your privileges if you do this.

CCNow does provide a toll free number where customers can call if there is trouble with the order. They interface with customers regarding billing inquiries and other questions. They handle all major credit cards and welcome buyers and sellers from anywhere in the world. Since CCNow is the actual retailer, and they are located in the State of Delaware that has no sales tax, customers won't owe sales tax on any US order.

Types of Products

In order to provide this kind of service, CCNow is selective about the kinds of products you may sell. Only tangible products are allowed, products that you would physically ship to the customer's address. They don't allow you to sell downloadable software, services, subscriptions, memberships, information, etc. They've found that tangible merchandise incurs a much lower rate of inquiries, disputes, and fraud than service-based sales and electronically delivered products.

CCNow protects themselves from unscrupulous merchants who don't ship products by a delay in payments. For example, if a purchase was made March 16 through 31, payment would be delayed half a month until April 16. If you're a new merchant and have sales over $1000 in that period, a reserve portion would paid on June 1.

Website Required

Unlike some e-commerce systems, CCNow merchants need to have their own website. The product information is shown on the merchant's website, but the "purchase now" links take your customer to the CCNow order system where the purchase is completed. Your website doesn't need to provide SSL security, since the security is provided on CCNow's secure order form.

I see this approach as an advantage for the merchant. Since you control your own domain name, you can use CCNow for the earliest stages of your online business. But when your volume increases you can move to a more cost-effective system with your own merchant credit card account and payment gateway without losing your customers. Fortunately, website hosting is widely available in the US for $12 to $20 per month.

You use a standard webpage design program such as FrontPage 2000 construct your website, provide product information, and place product photos on your pages. You add the shopping cart feature to your website by copying HTML code supplied by CCNow for each product, and pasting it into your webpages. This requires that you have some HTML knowledge, though not a lot.

Shopping Cart and Products

For many small merchants, the shopping cart system included with CCNow will be sufficient for some time. It functions just like shopping carts on much more expensive systems. When your customer clicks on the "add to cart" or "purchase now" link, the coding contained in the link transfers this information to the shopping cart on CCNow's site, which displays what she has just clicked on.

Merchants enter products using a simple web interface in their own password-protected area on the CCNow site. Each product contains five pieces of information:

  1. Product number or SKU
  2. Product name
  3. Price (US dollars)
  4. Weight (optional)
  5. Available for shipment or backordered

In addition, each product can contain one or more attributes such as size or color. For T-shirts, for example, your customer could select Extra Large size, Red color. None of these attributes alter to the unit price (as in some more sophisticated systems). If you have a monogrammed product, you can give instructions for what information your customer needs to fill in. When the customer places an item in her shopping cart, she is asked to indicate the size (or whatever) at that time.

If you have many products in your online store you can save time by maintaining those in a database off line. It is possible to upload a tab-delimited text file containing product number, name, price, and weight for each item, though items with product attributes must be updated separately from the web interface. Unlike store systems that generate their own product pages, uploading a new file of prices and products for the shopping cart is only half the task. You'll still need to manually change prices on your own website's product pages.

Ordering System Options

The shopping cart and ordering system pages can be configured in several ways to meet your own specifications. Your can indicate a URL for your company logo that will appear on each of the ordering pages. In addition you have the option of adding a "company name" field for customers. You can allow or disallow US residents to give separate billing and shipping addresses. After the order is completed, you can indicate a URL on your website to which the customer is redirected. The style of the "add to cart" buttons or links can also be customized.

When a customer completes an order, CCNow e-mails the customer a confirmation, and sends you a copy so you can fulfill the order. Since you don't handle the credit card transaction and never see the credit card number, the order with the customer's address can be safely e-mailed to you without compromising sensitive information. You can also look up orders on your password-protected interface on the CCNow site. As the merchant, you can also generate two reports: (1) Gross Sales by Month and Card Type and (2) Net Sales by Month. A special feature of the CCNow ordering system allows them to act as the payment system for any orders you may have secured through an auction on eBay or elsewhere. If you have an affiliate program through Commission Junction and some other systems, the CCNow ordering system can also take the HTML code to track sales through your affiliate's links.

Shipping

Currently, the shipping system of CCNow's ordering system is a weak link. At this writing, they provide only a "basic shipping option." This consists of a single amount to be added to the order for shipping (no matter how large the order) -- one amount for US customers, another amount for Canadians, and another for other international customers. As a work-around, CCNow tells you to build the shipping costs into your price, but doing that would decrease sales to domestic buyers for competitive items.

Fortunately, CCNow has developed an "extended shipping" option. They promise that it "includes the ability to compute shipping charges by weight, by region or country, and by delivery method. Also supports other options such as percent of total, free shipping for large orders, and minimum/maximum shipping charges." As for now, it's not available.

Summary

For small merchants, CCNow allows you to get started with a very low initial investment. All you need to provide is your own website. For foreign merchants who want to sell in the US market, CCNow is especially welcome. However, I see two drawbacks to CCNow. First, the 9% service fee (8% during November and December) is substantially higher than the average 2.5% discount rate you would pay with a US Merchant Credit Card Account, so if you have a lot of sales, you're better off obtaining your own merchant account. 9% is a pretty stiff off-the-top fee. It will require you to price products with a fairly high mark-up to allow you to make a profit. Second, the "basic shipping option" is pretty weak. Until the "extended shipping option" is available, this limits your ability to receive accurate shipping costs depending upon customer location. This, in turn, affects your ability to compete effectively with lower online prices. Fortunately, there is no set-up or monthly maintenance cost with CCNow, so there's nothing to lose in getting started. For many small merchants, CCNow is a great place to start.

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