By Eric Leuenberger
Owners of ecommerce businesses have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a platform for selling. From hosted solutions to open-source, enterprise to custom solutions, it can be a daunting task figuring out which is the best option for one’s business.
For most small to mid-sized stores, custom and enterprise solutions are often out of reach early on due to budget constraints. This does not mean however, that as the companies grow, those options are forever out of range.
More often than not, small to mid-sized stores end up starting with either a hosted solution or an open source solution, in part due to the quick setup times, limited resources needed, and ease of use. Custom solutions from the ground up require a substantial investment and can take quite a while to complete, thus reserving that route typically to extremely large companies with big budgets.
Features and functionality aside, the most important factor to consider when making the choice on an ecommerce platform is how it fits into the overall company objective and model. What works for one company may not work for another.
With that in mind, small to mid-sized storeowners are often left with two initial options that make sense starting out; either an open source cart or a hosted cart solution. Both have their pros and cons and hosted cart companies will convey all the ‘right’ reasons one would want choose them. However, from experience working with hundreds of ecommerce stores on many different platforms including hosted, the route that usually ends up offering the best bang for the buck – sales generated to investment spent – seems to continually be open source.
Open Source vs. Hosted Solutions
For the small to mid-sized ecommerce store, the lure of a hosted cart solution can sound like a match made in heaven. With no code knowledge needed, no hosting setup, hosting coming as part of the ‘package’, and ready to go templates, often times there is no need for web development or design teams. Likewise, usually a store can sign-up for an account and be live all within an hour or less. Some examples of hosted solutions include: Volusion, Yahoo Stores, BigCommerce, Shopify, and others.
While the cost savings, and time to live statistics seem perfect for most, cutting corners at this stage of the game is going to dictate a lot of what can be achieved in the future, both in the way of sales, and in the way of change due to the code base being locked down.
It is true that with open source carts, unless there is an in-house programmer on staff, one would need to contract that type of work out, and it can increase some of the maintenance cost from time to time when compared with a hosted solution. However, the tradeoff in control of code is far greater than that which is gained from a hosted solution where the code is unavailable.
When code is locked down, as is the case with hosted solutions, the store is limited in what can be achieved to meet the needs of its visitors. The framework often includes features that are geared toward the ‘average’ ecommerce store, and although these features at times may seem enough, what is overlooked by many is the fact that what works for one business does not always work for another.
Customizing critical areas of the cart to cater to growth and target specific demographics as the store grows requires contacting the company who hosts the cart and asking them to update their code. The problem is, updating their code—since it is a hosted solution shared by other stores—is not likely going to happen, as it not only affects one site, but also often affects all sites using the software.
Stores that choose the hosted route due to its low monthly maintenance and hosting costs often find out as they grow that their hands are now tied. This is first realized when they notice sales and conversion have grown to a certain level, yet seem to never be able to grow beyond that point regardless of what is done. From experience in working with these business owners I find that the sticking point often is the inability to customize code in such a way that maximum conversion is achieved. Examples of areas that are often limited in hosted solutions are the checkout process, product pages, and areas within the shopping cart itself among others.
Something to consider when choosing between open source or hosted solutions is the fact that open source solutions can easily be moved from one server to another server with ease. Hosted solutions are not as easily moved. Data can be exported from hosted solutions, but moving them to a new server often requires rebuilding the cart on a new platform from the ground up.
Pure hosted solutions may seem tantalizing because they not only provide the ecommerce framework to sell products, but they take care of the hosting as well (thus the reason they are dubbed ‘hosted solutions’). But understand this—if the site is slow due to server bandwidth issues there isn’t much one can do about it.
Need more bandwidth because the company is growing? Looking for a dedicated server solution? Open source is the way to go as both issues can easily be satisfied with little hassle. Not so easy with a hosted solution where you share space with others.
Before going any further let’s dispel a common myth. A ‘free open source cart cannot help build a multi-million dollar online business.’ The answer is a definitive false. The fact is, open source carts are no different than a ‘custom coded’ cart built from scratch. The storeowner has full access to the code and can change it anyway they like. The only difference in custom ground up solutions and pre-built open source carts is that the pre-built open source solution saves a substantial amount of upfront cost and can be deployed in a matter of minutes in most cases.
Ideally, with access to the code of an open source application, it will eventually be customized enough to meet the needs of customers and business requirements that it in itself will have become a ‘custom solution’ as the company develops.
There are no limits to what can happen with open source, and if anyone says a million dollar business cannot be built on open source platforms they have not done their homework. Google is the king of the open source movement, and they are worth over a billion dollars. Although the infrastructure of the company is a tightly guarded secret, the majority of their applications are open source.
4 Open Source Solutions
Several hosted cart solutions were listed above. Below are listed 5 of the most commonly chosen open source carts. Along with them are listed pros and cons of each.
1) Zen Cart (www.zen-cart.com)
-Fully customizable because code is on the store owners server
-Feature rich out-of-the box
-Active community of developers
-Lots of free add-on modules and plugins
-Doesn’t require a lot of server overhead to run
-Quick 5-minute install
-Admin is not the easiest to navigate
-Customization requires some knowledge of PHP
-Upgrading the core of the cart to new releases is very time consuming and difficult
Some say Zen Cart’s template gives the store a design that is too basic or simplistic thus they don’t feel it is professional enough when compared to other options. It is true that the default template which comes with Zen Cart is pretty ‘home grown’ looking. However, one does not have to choose the default template. There are plenty of professional looking free templates to choose from as well. Furthermore, with the right developer and knowledge, stores based on the Zen Cart platform can look like the top of the line cutting edge big guys of today without a problem.
2) PrestaShop (www.prestashop.com)
-Clean, nice, easy to navigate admin
-Feature rich out-of-the-box
-Nice looking out-of-the-box default template
-Efficient coding means fewer overheads on the server so it runs faster than some others
-Quick 2-minute install
-Customization requires knowledge of PHP coding
-Script is based on the Smarty template system requiring knowledge to change look
-Can be very buggy and updating is not easy
-Feature plugins that are free in other carts might cost to implement in PrestaShop
PrestaShop, one of the most popular online shopping cart engines, has a very strong community and list of expanding plugins. The administration side of things is one of the most user friendly of all open source carts. Decent functionality and the ability to fairly simply modify it make it a good choice for programmers or those with access to them. The downfall here is all the bugs in even the stable releases that require programming knowledge to correct.
3) Magento Community Edition (www.magentocommerce.com/download)
-Clean admin that is easy to navigate
-Easy upgrade from one version to the next
-Out-of-the-box template is better than most (but customization is always better.)
-Built in SEO ‘friendly pages’
-Quick 5-minute install
-High overhead so it needs a server made to handle it or the site will be slow.
-Decent add-ons / plugins can be costly to purchase.
-Free Community version is too stripped down to match features of other free carts
-Must know PHP and Magento framework to make any custom changes to code
Magento’s backend is clean looking and user friendly although not a simple task to navigate. The front end template that comes with the base package is nice enough to resemble some big players, and the built in SEO friendly structure helps, however, the cost of maintaining Magento is high compared to other open source platforms and it does require a pretty decent server with a lot of power to keep it running fast. For this reason it is often not the best option for businesses on a limited or tight budget. It can be a good option for those who are looking for an open source platform and who have the budget or technical staff to support it. The nicest part about the Magento system is its ability to be upgraded at the core with very little effort—by far one of the most user friendly and intuitive of all open source carts at this.
4) OSCommerce (www.oscommerce.com)
-One of the original open source carts so there are a lot of plugins for it
-Fast 5-minute install
-Stable code that has been around a while
-Community is not as active as it used to be
-Must know PHP to make updates
-Admin interface is not easy to navigate
-Core not updated regularly
-Default template isn’t professional looking
Being one of the original open source carts, and a forerunner to Zen Cart, OSCommerce has been around a while. Its administration section is not as intuitive as one would like and the default template that comes with the cart will need changing to get a more professional look but overall the cart is not a bad place to start for small stores on a tight budget.
When compared with Zen Cart (a direct fork off early OSCommerce versions) the two are pretty similar however, as far as features and community involvement and security features go, Zen Cart might just take the cake there.
Which platform is best?
Given all the options and varying needs of stores, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and company objectives as well as budget will often dictate the best route. What may be a viable alternative for one store could be far off for another.