Review: Hostway's E-Commerce Hosting

Good in some ways, not so good in others, Hostway has put together a very respectable hosted e-commerce offering.

As part of ECommerce-Guide.com's review series of online hosted e-commerce by ISPs, we turn our attention this week to Hostway and its hosted e-commerce plans. Like its ISP peers, Hostway offers e-commerce plans that include a combination of hosting, Web site creation tools, promotion and e-commerce shopping cart applications. Depending on which route you take in terms of shopping cart choices, the Hostway e-commerce experience can range from excellent to downright frustrating.

Hostway currently offers three flavors of e-commerce plans — Gold, Gold Plus and Platinum — starting at $17.95 a month (paid on a yearly basis) up to $44.95 month (paid on a yearly basis). As is expected, the fundamental difference between the plans is the amount of included bandwidth, disk space and email accounts. For the purpose of this review, we evaluated the Platinum offer, which includes 1.2 GB of disk space, unlimited monthly traffic as well as both Hostway's Merchant Manager 2.5 and Miva Merchant 4.24 shopping cart applications.

Hostway has managed to include a blogging tool (siteBlog), interactive components (quizzes, polls, forums and guestbooks), basic search engine submission, email and a easy to use online site design tool (SiteBuilder) into its e-commerce plan.

Hostway's Platinum Plan also includes the excellent Urchin Web Analytic Software package, which is among the best pieces of software you're likely to use for analyzing your web traffic.

Setting Up
The Platinum plan includes both Miva Merchant 4.24 and Hostway's own Merchant Manager 2.5 application. As I already have some familiarity with Miva Merchant (in ECommerce-guide.com's review of Interland's e-commerce offerings and, more recently, reviewed the newly released Miva Merchant 5). I elected to begin my exploration of Hostway's e-commerce solution with what I haven't seen before, namely the Merchant Manager 2.5 shopping cart.

Getting started with Merchant Manager 2.5 is easy enough, with a typical wizard which is usually there to help you get going. Unfortunately, the Merchant Manager store setup wizard is inadequate as a step-by-step setup tool for setting up a functional e-commerce storefront. The five-step setup wizard only sets up your basic store identification. The first three steps are about your contact and store information (name, address and such).

The fourth step involves a seemingly unrelated group of options to set (Display cart after adding a product, Allow guest to tell a friend, Display category counts, Show new products section in online catalog and Default search operator). After going through that you get to the fifth step screen, which greets you with, "DONE! You have completed initial store setup." After that point, the step-by-step wizard handholding is over and you're on your own.

That same fifth step screen also includes three links for next steps: Add Product Manufacturers, Set Up Tax Options and Add Products. If you jump back to the main "Store Summary" page there is also a Setup Checklist (which includes: Store Setup Wizard, Manufacturers, Tax Manager, Products, Payment and Shipping Modules). Why the Setup checklist is not fully guided by a master wizard is beyond my comprehension. I found myself "lost" after each step trying to figure out what to do next.


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Hostway's Style Editor is not as easy to use as many WYSIWYG Web page templates to customize your e-store. (Click to enlarge)

The help function is somewhat helpful in that in provides verbose detail on the features of Merchant Manager, though a proper step-by-step tutorial that will leave a user with a fully functioning, user customized site is lacking.

Layout control in the form of a WYSIWYG visual design tool is also lacking from Merchant Manager (in stark contrast to the excellent SiteBuilder tool that Hostway includes for the rest of your site's design). Instead, a Merchant Manager user must trudge through a minefield of options in a futile attempt to get a site customized.

Ultimately, though, the long list of customizable options gives a site owner more control over content and layout.

If you're already suffering from repetitive strain or carpal tunnel issues, Merchant Manger is unlikely to help. The "Products" function does not allow a site builder to import their own product catalogue from another source, so each product needs to be manually entered into Merchant Manger 2.5.

Merchant Manager 2.5 also includes a thorough selection of payment options including, Authorize.net, LinkPoint, VeriSign, PayPal, SecureTrading, Worldpay, YourPay and check. Shipping options are also very thorough including, FedEx, Flat Rate, Per Item, Table Rate, United Parcel Service, United States Postal Service and Zone Rates options.

One of the items that can often be overlooked in a hosted setup is the tax setup — which is not the case in Merchant Manager 2.5 thanks to an included tax setup wizard.

Reporting is also covered well by the Merchant Manager solutions including reports on: Products Purchased, Out-of-Stock Products, Customer Orders-Total, Inventory List and Delivery Time.


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Using Hostway's Miva Merchant to run your store is a better choice than the ISP's own software. (Click to enlarge)

Promotion of your e-commerce wares is also part of the Hostway solution. Merchant Manager can also be set to automatically update Google's Froogle shopping database with your latest product info. A basic banner manager for promotions, as well as a basic newsletter application, is also included.

Perhaps the best part about Hostway's e-commerce platinum plan for me, after first experiencing Merchant Manager, is that Hostway has also (thankfully) included Miva Merchant as another shopping cart option.

Though, currently, Hostway only includes Miva Merchant 4.24 (not the latest 5.x release), it is still a vastly superior option to Merchant Manager and one that I strongly recommend. Miva (as noted in our review of Miva 5 — which is an incremental improvement over version 4) has both easy to use wizard interfaces as well as an advanced interface. In Hostway's hosted version there are two included design templates (which can be customized somewhat). Though, again, there is no visual editing tool. Miva's robust payment and shipping options are all there as well as the ability to add affiliates.

Final Thoughts
All in all, Hostway has put together a very respectable hosted e-commerce offering. The plan offers e-commerce builders healthy amounts of storage and bandwidth as well as some nice bells and whistles like Urchin for site analytics. The core payment and shipping options that are included are also very solid. The weak point for me was the Merchant Manager application, which I suspect is likely to frustrate more than its fair share of users. The choice between using Miva or Merchant Manager really isn't much of a choice in my view for potential users of Hostway's e-commerce plans.

In the end though, it really is all about choice, which Hostway provides in good supply with the various included e-commerce plan options. As such, Hostway's e-commerce plans may very well be a good choice themselves for e-commerce builders.

Sean Michael Kerner is a regular contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com.

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