Users mull buying or building Web site upgrades Inc. is considering scrapping its Open Market Inc. catalog software because it thinks the off-the-shelf package isn’t flexible enough to handle the content customization the company now wants to do. is already working with a consultant, weighing a Unix-based, database-driven Web site that most likely will replace the Microsoft Corp. Site Server-based system that gave the New York-based retailer a quick and relatively inexpensive entry to the Web.

Both plans illustrate the difficult choices companies confront as they expand or create on-line business sites. Either they can build and maintain their sites, tailoring them directly to their needs as long as they have the resources to do it, or they can launch a site rapidly using an off-the-shelf e-commerce suite and hope it won’t require too much customization or limit their options down the road.

Packages from Redwood City, Calif.-based BroadVision Inc., IBM Corp., San Francisco-based Intershop Communications Inc., New York-based InterWorld Corp. and Burlington, Mass.-based Open Market can help with everything from setting up storefronts and catalogs to payment and transaction processing.

And the suites have improved considerably in the areas of content management, personalization, dynamic pricing and the handling of multiple orders and large numbers of items, analysts said.

“Even today, you’re seeing many of the largest companies reconsidering their internally developed software because it’s not just an issue of how much it costs to deliver. Eighty per cent of the cost of software is in maintenance,” said Paul Scarpa, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

Yet Scarpa said he recognizes that approach may not make sense for established on-line retailers, such as CDNow Inc. in Fort Washington, Pa., which have experienced staffs maintaining well-tuned proprietary code that gives them flexibility to change site features quickly.

Using its own resources “allowed us to grow at a phenomenal rate and [has] given us control over our own destiny,” said CDNow chief development officer Michael Krupit. Krupit said his company recently used packaged software from Mount Laurel, N.J.-based Bluestone Software Inc. to create its new Cosmic Music Network. “We found it costs just as much to integrate third-party technology as to build upon our own proprietary platform,” he said.

CDNow has opted for specialized packages only in targeted areas such as search technology, personalization and customer management.

Full e-commerce suites “dictate an architecture” that the company must design to, and “you end up paying a lot of money for technology that isn’t tailored to your development environment or site needs,” Krupit said.

“I think the suites are still at an embarrassingly early stage, given how long they’ve been out there,” said consultant David Strom at David Strom Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y. “There’s still a fair amount of programming you have to do, even if you buy a suite.”

Although packaged e-commerce suites may need to improve, many analysts recommend that companies check them out – particularly those that are just getting started. They also caution firms to do a careful needs assessment before making a commitment.

Rather than take a build-your-own approach, is scoping out packages to help customize its site because it doesn’t want to do the hard coding itself, said John Hoffman, director of business applications at the Chicago-based company. A spokesman for Open Market said the products Britannica uses weren’t designed for content management, adding that a content tool is being enhanced. found that its Microsoft system didn’t have “enough robustness,” so it’s turning to “best-of-breed” products to help with customer profiling and personalized marketing, said CEO Kathryn Creech.

But for sites with limited expectations and budgets, a suite may suffice. Steven Little, CEO of The Queensboro Shirt Co. in Wilmington, N.C., said his company chose IBM’s Net.Commerce and is turning a profit after spending about US$125,000 to get started, with the help of an outside development firm, in Lenexa, Kan. “You can’t do everything,” Little said.

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