If you do not expect to take thousands of dollars in orders every month right away, or if you are not ready to invest roughly $100 up front and numerous hours of your time in opening a credit card merchant account and obtaining an SSL certificate for your own secure website, you should definitely check out PayPal.
As of this writing, PayPal is by far the easiest way to start accepting payments for purchases of goods or services via the web. Everything you need is provided, including "shopping cart" pages and "buy now" buttons. You do not need to learn any sophisticated scripting. PayPal allows your customers to pay by credit card or check, and many of your customers will already have a PayPal account, since PayPal is the preferred payment method on the EBay auction site. In fact, using PayPal can increase the chances that your customer will regard your site as trustworthy and choose to do business with you.
My own customers are given two options: use my own secure store and merchant account, or use PayPal. Those purchasing less expensive items usually prefer PayPal. So it's a good idea to provide it even if you have a merchant account.
When A Merchant Account Is The Right DecisionFor those who are processing orders on a larger scale, or who must also be able to accept orders by phone, fax and postal mail, it is often more cost-effective to obtain a credit card merchant account. A credit card merchant bank clears the transactions for you and deposits them nightly in your company's checking account. There are usually monthly minimum fees, in addition to a percentage of each transaction, also known as the "discount rate," and typically a small per-transaction fee as well. Usually these fees compare favorably with PayPal's fees. Also, you are able to dispute chargebacks more easily with a merchant account.
Sound right for you? Sign up for a merchant account via Boutell.Com and Authorize.Net (disclaimer: I am both a satisfied merchant and an authorized reseller of Authorize.Net's merchant account services). Or sign up with another merchant account provider.
You will also need to set up a secure web server, such as the freely available ApacheSSL server; you can arrange this through your web hosting company, but you will need to pay an annual fee to an SSL certificate provider for an encryption key which proves to web browsers that you are who you say you are. Without this key, your users will not see the "lock" icon in their browser that is widely considered synonymous with safe online shopping. And, of course, you will need to greatly improve the quality of your web server's security if you plan to pass other people's credit cards through it; companies have been blackmailed more than once by hackers who have obtained customer credit card information from poorly secured sites.
If this sounds like too much work to do right, arrange for a consultant to do it, use the services of a company like The Processing Network that provides PayPal-like web services for those who do have merchant accounts, or just use PayPal.
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