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Ilana Debare
April 19, 2006

We want to develop a Web site for our retail store, which specializes in European linens, housewares and antiques. Can you recommend a boilerplate Web site program for small retailers? We'd like one that is as popular and easy to use as QuickBooks is for our finances.
- Mendocino manager

"I wish there were a single clear solution like QuickBooks. The good news, is that there are a ton of options these days for creating a business Web site. The bad news is that you have to wade through these options and somehow figure out what's best for your particular business. Here's a rough map of your choices:

  • Hire a Web designer. If you have a high-end business that requires a really distinctive-looking Web site, hire a designer with both graphic and technical skills. But this will cost a minimum of $5,000.
  • Build your own Web site using software like DreamWeaver or Front Page. This requires some skill with HTML coding. If you're not a tech type, I'd advise staying away from this approach.
  • Build your own Web site using templates from a company such as TemplateMonster.com or 4Templates.com, then shop around for a shopping cart component and a Web site host. These companies offer a wide variety of templates that you can customize and require no HTML knowledge.

"When they started, templates were rather boring and badly put together, but over the last year or two, a lot of companies have come up with really good templates," said Debbie Everson, owner of SearchMaz, a San Francisco firm that helps businesses market their Web sites.

  • Buy into a turnkey operation, using templates provided by a company that will also provide e- commerce capabilities and host your site. This approach has mushroomed over the past few years, with firms such as Yahoo, ProStores (owned by eBay) and Homestead Technologies offering all-in-one packages.

For a non-techie, small-budget retailer taking its first steps onto the Web, the best bet may be a turnkey operation from a well- known company. Once you've got some experience selling on the Web, you can decide whether to shift to a more customized option. "The best entry is to go to the small-business area of Yahoo and look at their programs," said Patrick Cook of the Small Business Technology Institute, a San Jose nonprofit. "They have everything from basic sites to e-commerce. As your business progresses, you can grow with those plans. With Yahoo, you have the strength of their name, a robust and secure e-commerce solution, and the biggest servers with the biggest pipes. It may be somewhat impersonal, but you know they have the faculties and the corporate muscle." There's much more to learn about starting your site than can fit into one column item. The Small Business Administration in San Francisco and San Jose offers a variety of free and low-cost workshops in e-commerce.