Several years ago, before the explosion in ecommerce, many companies created a basic home page, put it on the web, and that was the end of their online activity. But today, a simple home page no longer suffices. You must ecommerce-enable your website-in other words, be able to sell product via your site.

And since a goal of an ecommerce-enabled website is to provide a shopping experience that’s as smooth and transparent as going to a bricks-and-mortar store or placing an order over the phone, you should never view your electronic commerce applications as an isolated sales channel. Instead, your website should be coordinated with your traditional back-end systems. In an ideal world, you’ll want to implement a full, seamless integration between the two systems.

But it can be expensive. To completely integrate a website with an existing catalog order entry system can be costly. This includes the software that creates the actual website pages, the shopping cart and the product search engine, and an electronic data interchange (EDI) system than enables online customers to receive real-time inventory and order status.

Fortunately, you can coordinate website orders with your back-end even if you don’t have a spare $5 million [or more] lying about. For many (if not most) marketers, building a fully functional website requires a phased approach. Streamlining ordering gradually is not only more affordable, but it also gives you time to become aware of potential problems, which are easier and cheaper to fix when you’re in the earlier stages of integrating your site.

What Do We Mean by a Phased Approach?

Phase 1: Sell only a subset of items (one product family) online, and use manual integration. Customers will still be able to order from your site. But you will need to print out the online orders, keypunch each order into your existing back-end system, and then manually enter the ensuing order status into the electronic commerce system. Because you’ll likely be batch-processing the online orders-downloading all of them once a day-orders submitted early in the day aren’t likely to be fulfilled till at least the next morning, which may result in customers receiving their orders later than they expected.

Given the delay in fulfillment, not to mention the man-hours required to input the orders, manual integration is…