Becoming a virtual merchant

Forget the hype and backlash against e-commerce for a moment and step with me behind the curtain to look at a clever technical innovation that could change your perspective.

Forget the hype and backlash against e-commerce for a moment and step with me behind the curtain to look at a clever technical innovation that could change your perspective.

While today's e-commerce companies struggle to maintain costly back-end infrastructures, and warehouses full of merchandise, boxes and shipping materials, you and I are about to do something very unique. We're going to open a completely virtual store, in under 10 minutes, and from the very first time we make a sale, we'll be profitable - no VC investments or angel-fund seed money required.

To date, there's only one company in what I call the virtual e-commerce space, but I wish I had thought of this one myself. If the key to being successful means doing one unique thing well, then the CafePress.com folks may have the keys to the virtual-commerce kingdom.

Easy as 1-2-3
CafePress.com sells custom printed T-shirts, mugs and mousepads with your company logo, your team's name and mascot, or whatever you secretly dream of imprinting on a mug or T-shirt.

But unlike the scores of design shops and small business catering to small-batch, custom merchandise, CafePress.com will let you set up your own virtual store free of charge, so you in turn become the instant merchant of whatever enterprise you're running.

Today there are places where you can set up a store online (Yahoo!, Amazon, even CNET for tech products) and then pay a low monthly fee to sell your wares - but you're still left with the really hard part of e-commerce. Managing merchandise, packing and shipping orders in a timely manner, and processing credit cards. With CafePress.com, you don't do any of that.

Once you set up a store (signing up takes less than five minutes), CafePress lists a base price per item (something like $9.95 per T-shirt) and then you decide the mark-up pricing for your store. Even if you want to charge $1,000 per item, you simply type in the new price, and then CafePress mails you a check for each sale you make minus their own base item cost. Once your store is up and running, you don't do another thing. Credit-card processing, packing and shipping is all handled on their end.

Just add customers
But are the goods any good? To make sure the merchandise was up to snuff in the quality department, and the shipping and packing equal or better to any other merchant, I set up my own "AliceHill.com store" and ordered one of each item. (I secretly believe that CafePress makes most of its money getting the cash from new store owners testing the waters. My bill was more than $50 - or double the average yearly spend per customer at Amazon.com.)

To my surprise, the box I received three days later was nicely packed, and the items were really nice-looking. The T-shirts are thick Hanes 100 percent cotton "Beefy Ts," and the mugs are dishwasher-safe and microwave-able - colors and resolution were vibrant and sharp. Yes, I felt a little silly with my own Alice Hill.com test merchandise all over my desk, but then again, at least my name was on something that looked good. No cut-rate junk for my customers!

The benefit to doing a store this way, is that I didn't have to shell out a dime for hardware, software and stock merchandise. My store is up and running right now and I could care less about inventory levels, hiring more staff for the holidays, or running out of boxes. I can even get my own sales reports as part of my merchant account.

This business model is especially useful to school groups, fund-raising organizations or any small company trying to test the waters before investing in a commerce infrastructure. I wish I had my store going when I was 13 and forever coming up with ways to raise money from my parents with odd jobs and services. Talk about building a better lemonade stand!

For all would-be entrepreneurs looking to try out the online commerce waters without going broke, this one's for you. Check out my store and see for yourself.

And to the folks at CafePress.com - nice job. You put a nice spin on an old business model and managed to make people happy to shell out $$$ for mousepads with their names on them. It's a shame that e-commerce is getting slapped around so hard right now - because this is one commerce model that should have the industry applauding.

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