Practical Ecommerce

What is the best OSC cart for me?

After consulting for clients for over 10 years and writing books on Open Source eCommerce part-time for almost that long, I moved to Mexico last year to concentrate on my writing full-time. Ay carumba! I’ve been here over a year and published or updated five books during that time. I have a house on a lake with a hammock hanging from a big old tree. I live and work in paradise!

Despite many lazy days swinging in my hammock, reading or thinking about what to write, I got the bug to start a new website for myself. I’m not going to reveal the topic quite yet, but like many of my readers I have been going through the agonizing decision of “what is the best OSC cart for me?” I thought it might be helpful if I shared my decision process. Yes, my column this month is all about me, the best OSC cart for me and my needs right now.

First of all, I don’t want any cart or other program that has very recently had a major new release. That means bugs, a support process that may not have had time to mature, a team that may be a little overworked and overwhelmed while they sort out the kinks. Interim releases (like 1.x.x) are fine, those are to be expected. I always wait until at least the X.1 release anyway; a release that is X.0 is guaranteed to have bugs.

Nor do I want a cart that’s been around for so long it has moths growing out of the mothballs. There are some venerable old carts that have served many people well, like osCommerce, for over a decade. And they show it. The newer, “Web 2.0″ look has passed them by, not to mention new programming styles and languages that didn’t exist when they were new. Newer carts have eye candy in the Admin panel as well as in the store, and as the owner I know I’ll spend hundreds of hours staring at that Admin panel. I don’t want something so ugly it makes me want to beat myself in the head every time I process orders.

In addition to the cart, I have other heavy requirements that many online store owners may not have. I want a heavy-duty CMS, or content management system for writing non-sales or non-product pages. The CMS also allows you to install thousands of plug-ins with the push of a button to customize your site.

While many OSC programs have a light, built-in CMS, including Magento, Zen Cart, OpenCart and Loaded Commerce, that is not going to make me happy. I want more. I need power! That means I probably want to stick with a cart that’s compatible with the most popular CMS’ WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal.

Drupal is an excellent CMS, but it’s a little more arcane than the other two. Very powerful and flexible and a million choices. If I specifically needed something that was only available with Drupal I would use it, but I don’t, so I won’t.

WP is a happy little program that powers everything from tiny blogs to huge university websites. There are thousands of plug-ins for nearly everything you could desire. Joomla could be described in nearly the same way. However, Joomla’s back-end Admin panel has many more options available without having to install plug-ins. In previous incarnations the choices were dizzying, but they have scaled back so it is close to a “just-right” program. It also has a really pleasing look and feel in the Admin panel.

So let’s take a look at where these two CMS’ are in their release history. WordPress’ last major release was 3.0 in June of 2010. They release updates frequently, once or twice each month, but upgrading is easy – with just a few clicks from their Admin panel you have backed up your site and installed the upgrade automatically.

Joomla’s last major release (Long Term Release, or LTS) was 2.5, and it was in January 2012. This is so recent that it could be a problem. Not only can this mean bugs are more likely, it also takes a while for plug-in makers and template or theme makers to do the major upgrades to their wares. However I’ve watched Joomla 2.5 very carefully for the past six months and I know that the plug-ins and themes I am interested in are available for this version. Joomla upgrades are just as easy as WordPress. They do not come out quite as often as WordPress, about once a month. This makes life a little more manageable, as I don’t have to upgrade every other week.

So now I’m leaning towards a cart that will work with Joomla. While there are a number of smaller carts that can do this, there are three main carts that integrate with Joomla: VirtueMart, HikaShop, and JoomShopping. There is also a new version of OpenCart for Joomla called AceShop, but it is so new that even though I love OpenCart I won’t consider it right now. Likewise there is a “bridge” for Zen Cart called JooZen (a bridge is a program that synchronizes and lets information pass between two programs, so if a visitor logs on to Joomla they are also logged into your cart). But that’s for an older version of Joomla. I would also prefer to not use a bridge, because that means three programs to keep updated – the CMS, the cart, and the bridge.

Of the big carts available for Joomla, JoomShopping, HikaShop, and VirtueMart, here are the questions I would ask to decide among the three:

  1. When I do a Google search on the name, how many results are there? More is usually better. Are they quality results, or are many of them complaints?
  2. Is there documentation available? I search on “(cart name) + manual” or “(cart name) + documentation”. I also repeat the search on by cart name only.
  3. Is there a large and vibrant community forum for support? I search on “(cart name) + forum” and skim the forums. Are the posts snarky? Do the posters act like “if you have to ask a question, you shouldn’t be here”?
  4. Is there a demo I can play with so I do not have to install it first in order to try it? Search on (program name) + demo. Play with the demos as if it were your own. Usually anything you type into a demo gets erased every hour, so don’t expect it to stay.
  5. Is free or easy one-click installation available so you don’t have to get a degree in programming before you start using the program? I plan to install it manually and I already have my own web host, but many web hosts install for free so don’t re-invent the wheel if you are new to this program. Search on (program name) + free install.

Next month I’ll reveal which cart I chose, and why.

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Comments ( 3 )

  1. seosamba September 27, 2012 Reply

    I love how you layout the business case, as requirements & rationale for them are rarely part of such articles.

    I found that Joomla is great but not very friendly as a CMS, and neither are the cart that can work on top of it.

    As an alternative for small & medium sized shops wanting the power of a real CMS and a full fledge cart, you could have included in there as it couples an intuitive CMS featuring inline editing and a powerful cart.

    If you care to watch the video below, it is striking how a simple common feature like creating product lists for instance can be made intuitive & quick when CMS+cart design is approach differently from the ground up;

    I look forward to see you conclusion however. thanks

  2. Kerry Watson October 5, 2012 Reply

    Hi SEOSamba, I’ll keep an eye on SEOToaster and consider it for a future column on the smaller e-commerce programs available for Joomla.


  3. Prashant Telang October 17, 2012 Reply

    Hi Kerry
    Great article but missed out a major criterion
    Programer’s experience. For example Magento /Open Cart both are equally good all depends on how proficient the developer/ programmer is . I would suggest 30% weight-age to skills and experience of the development firm / developer while finalizing a OSC
    Prashant T.

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