Shopping Cart Software

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Source Title:
osCommerce or....?
Story Text:

In my search for decent shopping cart solution for a project, i asked for some opinions over at cre8 and am, as a result, 90% sold on using CreLoaded which is a osCommerce derivative with many of the most popular mods pre-loaded. The considerations for this project dont stop there though, and have led to all manner of thoughts and questions on Ecom sites this weekend...

Community

One of the things I've been thinking hard about is the need, or what I feel is the need, to bring community, interaction and user generated content to an ecom site. One important thing that i've learnt about blogs from doing this site, is that they breed lnbound and outbound links on a monumental scale. I can't envision tackling a shopping site without bringing some of that into it in some way.

Some of the things i've thought about are:

  • Blog - fresh, linking out generously content
  • Forum - Possibly something for the future as they're a bitch to seed but providing a visible feedback mechanism seems like a good call.
  • Comments on products - some obvious pitfalls, but managed well, could provide real value
  • RSS - although for a small ecom it may be overkill, it's not hard to do, and RSS for products seems like good thing.

Part of the dillema is how to integrate it. Do i have the blog section as the homepage and put products in /store or vice-versa? It's tough to get people to link to a product page for many types of small ecommerce sites, but much easier to get people to link to blog posts, so one thought s to use that, and work on getting the blog posts ranking, and then link prominently to related items etc.

I was wondering what thoughts others had on the general subject of interaction, community, links and ecom sites...

Comments

On a related note...

Graywolf has a great post on CSS Zen and Commerce sites that was really worth the read today...

Christ on a bike, I'd avoid Creloaded. Its bloaty and adds even more crap to the default osC, and almost always invents neat ways to stop other contributions being added easily. If you have to use a loaded install, lookup Zen cart, its another forked oscommerce, which is almost certainly as bad as creloaded.

If you're sworn on osCommerce (and I've not tried interchange et al for comparison), run off default and install only the contributions you need, and strip out the rubbish you don't need. You'll know whats going on a lot quicker if you're proper familiar with whats been installed.

(FWIW, back when creloaded was phesis, trying to install a 2.1 contrib on it [then also based off 2.1] destroyed the add cart mechanism to the point where we couldn't figure out why. We ended up scrapping it and going from default)

One problem...

The one thing that led me to creloaded was that there as sooo many mods for osc that i just couldn't find a way to work out what the best ones were - there's hundreds of them...

but thanks for the tip, im quite comfy with modding out php stuff so it's not too daunting a task if i can just work out a way to find modules easier...

contribution modifications

I'm loathe to clog up the thread with oscommerce specific talk, but here we go.

off the top of my head, I usually install (and then hack to get working with other bits):
category tabs (navigation)
a decent url rewriting thing (none are excellent though, and the best ones rely on querying product name for each link id, stupidly. I'll get around to fixing that eventually)
meta tags controller
category meta tags
category descriptions
product listing in columns
x-sell (cross sell. allows you to suggest other products)
simple template system (STS)
product snippet on listing results
better logging
better search (a bit intensive, most of the mods are hacked together by amatuers, and improving db search isn't my fortay)
product reviews on product page
improved category tree
gift vouchers
random order numbers

once they're all implemented, you'll probably find its a usability and scalability nightmare, so you start trimming back unwanted functions, and cleaning bits up, and making adding reviews etc easier. In a perfect world, I'd sit down and improve the checkout, its 4 pages (plus PSP), and slightly cumbersome.
If you don't want to go multi-language [which I never do] I remove the languages directory, and put DEFINEs onpage, and so on.
Oh, and if you peak at the source code output, you'll note its a nested table hell dimension. You'll want to either modify the box class (quickly confusing) or go about removing references to the box class, and just echo the string out with neat, semantic, short code.

Crikey...

Thanks Wibble, im going off OSC by the minute! heh..

Do you have any thoughts or experiences in incorporating community and interactivity into these things?

I fear you may be making it over complicated

Customer wants to know:

what you sell
how much it is
when will it be deliverd

Thats it.

You want to know.

who they are
what they have bought
how much it was
how they are paying
where they want it deliverd

Thats it.

>I can't envision tackling a shopping site without bringing some of that into it in some way.

And I can't imagine doing it your way. Our way is simple, this is what we sell, this is how we sell it, if you don't like that go somewhere else. The strength in this model is that you then concentrate on getting the right products at the right price and with the right delievry. Amazingly that seems to make the customers happy and leads to sales.

 

Nick, at the very real risk of totally misunderstanding what you're trying to get going, I will offer these: http://www.chinaberry.com/ (children's catalog stuff mostly) and it's parent/sister http://www.isabellacatalog.com/ (mostly female-oriented). Now I'm pretty sure the stuff these have isn't at all your cuppa, but they both incorporate some of the "community" aspects that their paper catalogs always had.

I've heard that trying to incorporate "community" into ecomm is a bad idea; these catalog sites seem to somewhat disprove that.

Overcomplicating...

Yep, that would be me, as you know :)

What i find daunting is the prospect of getting links into product pages, and what i find interesting, is adding ways for the customer to talk to us, if they wish...

I think you could do that without over complicating it, it would be a matter of designing and writing so that those questions you listed are answered on first glance, and given top priority, but if they want to dig a little deeper, here's how....

But then i've never done one before so im certainly listening to what those with greater experience have to say, thanks.

Examples

Thanks vkaryl, are those your sites? They're both the same persons work at least. Nice examples, i like to see what other buyers have said for sure, a la amazon...

I agree with NFFC for most e-commerce but some subjects are natural subjects for info and advice if you have the time and expertise to provide them. I imagine if you deal in antiques for example then lots of people would like to talk about french polishing or reproduction or whatever.

It would be a natural companion site - I'm not at all sure the effort you'd have to put into it would be proportionate to the additional sales received though, unless someones currently sitting on the shop without a huge amount to do all day every day.

We have a lot of sites which offer community style content to attract visitors and they do pull in the numbers but the conversion rate drops, in some ways it's worthwhile because if you sell holidays they'll hopefully come back next year even if they've already booked this, but if you're selling a dining table it isn't a repeat purchase....

Our absolute best ever performing site is literally just a shopping basket with some nice features.

 

Not mine, Nick. I wish! I do order from them, having been a "paper cat" buyer from them for years.

As a "buyer" I do tend to agree with NFFC and Gurtie: what gets me back is ease of use (you know, get me in, get me out, ship my stuff and don't bother me!) However, it's a frequent occurrence for me that I go looking for info on some of the sites I buy from regularly, and most of them do NOT have anything like what I look for. So maybe there is a need (and it may depend entirely on your niche too!)

 

I bought a new mountain bike this weekend, looked at several online shops that had sales. Shocking how bad some of these sites were – sales pages hidden away, broken links etc. Most listed the bike specs with a standard picture, the one that clinched the sale added a little(2 lines) extra info (kind of rider & terrain the bike was aimed at). Whether i want this kind of info depends on the kind of product. Their FAQ was short and to the point, as was their about & contact page, which basically reassured me they were genuine and been around for awhile.

I rarely buy anything without reading a few reviews from different places - looked at several other sites for reviews of the bike. Love product reviews, but have a big problem believing testimonials about a companies service etc, they just don’t seem genuine – if anything testimonials put me off.

 

>Our absolute best ever performing site is literally just a shopping basket with some nice features.

Most of ours are pretty similar. Its a ecom site, it won't change the world, what it should do is get the customers in and then out through the checkout, how many of them you suceed with is the only measure real of sucess.

>What i find daunting is the prospect of getting links into product pages

You shouldn't need to, the internal nav should take care of that. On the broader subject of links in to ecom sites it is hellishly hard. From my UK angle it has got much hard these last few years, there was once a set of good directories, shopping sites etc but most of them have almost all gone to shite. It is very hard to get any signals of quality coming into such sites. The way its going only the *big* guys or those who can really think out of the box re linking will prosper, and remember the big stick of an ecom site...if you are looking to build a brand then your SEO needs to have a risk factor of as near to zero as possible.

I'm with NFFC here...

...I don't go to shopping sites looking to have a chat with the other customers. I go looking for the products I want at a good price, with a respectable/reliable atmosphere to the place, period.

You're definitely overcomplicating things here. Any "community" aspect to a shopping site beyond simple product reviews is overkill. You don't walk into a brick and mortar store and find little park benches along the aisles, with customers sitting around having in-depth discussions with each other about the comparative value of the products on display, do you? ;-)

NFFC's spot on

> what it should do is get the customers in and then out through the > checkout

Totally agree. Good produst descriptions and photos (including an ability to enlarge) an obvious price, areas you'll ship to, shipping and returns policy, payments methods - these are all the things that'll get them in and buying.

I understand your community aspect (and can see Gurtie's point that for some sites it may be useful) but how much do you want to distract your customer from their task at hand - ie buying.

I've done a few sites in osCommerce that while they were a pain in the ass to build the end result has been good - usable, search friendly ec. If you've experience with PHP you should be fine Nick.

OK

So, let's throw "community" to one side, it was perhaps a poor choice of words, and im sold anyway :)

I still like the idea of being able to ask questions, and see questions other users have asked - what do you guys think of that?

Also...

Though im now keenly aware of my tendency to overcomplicate heh.. i do like the idea of blogging the subjects at hand in order to gain and give valuable links...

 

>I still like the idea of being able to ask questions, and see questions other users have asked - what do you guys think of that?

It depends on the product but generally if they need to ask a question the site isn't good enough. Just to add to that, we aren't in the business of pleasing 100% of the people, we aim to do an awesome job for the 95% of people that are "normal". Those of a more obbsessive compulsive nature may be best advised to transact their business affairs offline. We will not make things more complicated for that 95% of people to try and satisfy the 5%.

 

Quote:
It depends on the product but generally if they need to ask a question the site isn't good enough.

Good point, i agree that the page(s) should answer all questions that may crop up for 'normal' users - i quite often want to ask something though when im out shopping (which isnt that often..) I think i'll most likely provide someway for that to be done, even if it's only an email address...

That 5% can be a pain in the butt can't it

Seriously NFFC is right (again) the site should answer your main questions. You could also add a FAQ that addresses the most commonly asked stuff - after that an email addy should do the trick.

KISS

NFFC is on the money. If you can give them the info in the cart before checkout the better. Add a drop down with shipping options and prices, reload the form when they select it. Showing the total. Add in a zip code box so you can prefigure the tax in the cart before checkout. Store the info they enter and prefill it into the checkout. Go with one long checkout page as opposed to shorter multiple ones.

If you keep getting the same questions over and over you aren't getting the point across. When I used to work for the man we used to answer those questions in a bold, non black, non red, color right next to input box in the form. Also when the checkout form has errors the better job you do at showing the customer where the error is the better. Highlight it, draw a different color box around it, (see VictoriasSecret for an example) and keep the error message as clear as possible.

 

But PLEASE make sure your overall experience works better than VS! VS is REALLY hard to use on dialup. So are a lot of other places. While I realize that those of us on dialup are a pretty small percentage overall, even broadband has bad days - and sure as shootin' that'll be the day they all want to order from you....

Best shopping experience I've ever had on dialup: newegg.com or cabelas.com - both are quite fast (considering) on dialup, both are just super simple to use, both have search THAT WORKS....

I tell you whats really nice [but unfortunately costs a big premium, and probably isnt easily integrated to osc et al] -- those sites with a checkout procedure that only asks for my postcode and house number, and attempts to discover the address from that. For 90+% of people it'll be right, and it just makes filling things out that bit quicker/easier/better.

 

you can buy that for the UK on a per use basis (well almost - you choose a quantity and pay upfront but you can choose very small accounts) from postcodeanywhere.

You just set the account up, specify the urls it should work from and dump some code on your page. I've never tried it on an off the shelf cart but as long as you have full access it should be fine.

graywolf ...

Is there such a shopping cart on the market?

 

eBuyer do the shipping calculations right in the cart (ie. before the checkout), but not any zip code thing because they're mainly UK based and our tax (VAT) is the same across the board.

With regards to the checkout, and specifically form design, LukeW has a good article on the right way to go.

Whatever, every checkout ought to have a little graph or timeline demonstrating how far it is from completion. Present the final order in a good summary before they submit it too (and after, along with other good deals, and newsletter/parcel tracking details etc)

Shopping Carts

Im still headed the osCommerce route, but i dont mind paying for a solution if it will help us get what we want - which after pouring over this thread again this morning, seems to be simplicity and intuity - is that a word? heh..

Does anyone have any recommendations or experience with solutions other than OSC?

Thanks ...

Thanks, wibblewobble (and I've seen the Luke W analysis).

As always, I'm looking for a really good (hopefully great) user-friendly shopping cart that is also SE-friendly. What you and NFFC have said is exactly along the lines of what I want -- simplicity/ease of use plus putting the right things in front of the customer.

I'll hack it some if I have to, but would prefer not to hack *a lot*.

My 2p

I am not one for open source usually so dont know much about oscommerce other than lots of people on freelancers.net use it.

Definately have a blog or whatever to get inbounds and for all the cluetrain niceness but keep it seperate from the cart - keep your sticky seperate from your smooth! (Community and content ought to be sticky, get them coming back and contributing. Once they are in "shopping mode" it needs to be teflon-coated-100mph-white-knuckle-ride to the "thankyou" page. You dont want anything to divert the customers attention from the mission of buying other than to add more products to their shopping basket)

For postcode stuff we have used a couple of server hosted packages QAS and www.afd.co.uk - both quirky and can be pricey but easy peasy (might be worth the investment though if it reduced fraud). Dont know of anyone good who do international though.

Are you going to sell high priced items and allow delivery to other addresses other than customer?

Other carts

x-cart, Litecommerce & Zen Cart all looked quite good to me, but I’ve never actually used any of them – was looking to integrate DB with offline app.

Other carts, part deux

There's also Actinic (terrible) and and the aforementioned interchange. Both seem really cumbersome though.

Interchange Rocks

I'd take a look at Interchange. Like OScommerce it's open source. Unlike OScommerce it's easy to add new features, change templating on every level and fit the shipping and tax to your business.

I use it for anything database driven.

Interchange examples?

Do you have a couple of examples you could post Ian?

 

Is there such a shopping cart on the market?

This was a custom built piece of software.

Thanks

Thanks, graywolf. Though I do wish some of y'all who've developed such software would just package it up and put it on the market.

plan for the future too

if you're buying something off the shelf then make sure it can handle vouchers (both % and flat rate and allow a minimum spend (ex postage), delivery date blackouts (by day, period etc) and products can be allocated to multiple categories.

And an export facility for feeds would be pretty high on my list too if you don't want to code your own stuff.

Slick

Thank chris, that's pretty good advice i think!

Talking of slick, i just installed osc and it really was quite impressive - of course i have all the fun and games of templates to and modules yet to play with, but i do like the look of it so far...

There appears to be a maximum of 2 variables in the urls, it seems like it might not be worth rewriting them if it's that small, and no session ids... What do the OSC users think?

zencart

Forgive me for not reading this thread in it's entirety, but we used oscloaded at the last place I worked. The functionality was okay, but I never had to mess with the coding nightmares...we were recommended zencart by another company, so I thought it was worth a mention.

Variables

I've seen a fair few sites, clients and others just spotted, do fine with querystrings with 3 variables in the main SEs so wouldnt worry too much. Main reason I would rewrite is for user friendliness rather than SEs. (cave-eat IANAS (i am not a real seo but I do dress like one on weekends))

 

There appears to be a maximum of 2 variables in the urls, it seems like it might not be worth rewriting them if it's that small, and no session ids... What do the OSC users think?

There are rarely more than 2 variables in the query string, but I still rewrite anyway. Every little helps.
Oh, and it does use session ids unless you force cookie usage: osCid for the store, and osCAdminid or something for the admin backend. FWIW.

Ok...

2 questions then if i may wibble :)

1. are you rolling your own rewrites, or is their a particular mod you favor?

2. how do i force it to use cookies?

and thanks btw for all the osc specific info!

 

I've been using Silencer's SEF Links contribution, with a few modifications taken here and there from the other 'seo' contributions -- mainly product names into URLs etc (which I'm not at all happy with, querying the DB for this ought to be a no-no).

Forcing cookie usage is done through the admin 'configuration' menu, as I recall (the osc site has no working demo, and my mysql server at home won't respond), probably under sessions or something.

Wonderful

Thanks wibble, very much obliged :)

LiteCommerce

I had a programmer for a solution similar to graywolf's (css/xhtml/php) drop out at the last minute and was semi-forced into a simple implementation of x-cart.

Now being used to the functionality, I would probably try LiteCommerce from the same company the next time.

NB. X-Cart uses Smarty, which you might like, Nick, but the output (as I suspect it is with vanilla OSCommerce) is tag soup - it took me days and many grey hairs to work it into some kind of CSS-P.

Smarty

Im very familiar with Smarty, in fact, you could say im a BIG fan :)

How does X-Cart compare to OSC?

X-Cart

Never used OSC, so I can't answer that one. As someone unfamiliar with X-cart looking for a quick shopping cart solution, I found the interface pretty intuitive and the scope of modules offered as base to exceed what I needed for a relatively simple project.

As I said, the html output is pretty shoddy (but that seems to be par for the course with off-the-shelf solutions) and, if you are happy sticking with tables, you'll probably be able to whack it in without much modification.

They offer a trial if you want to make a comparison. The user forums (available once you've purchased) are useful for reference - not so responsive for questions. Support and staff response to any queries was pretty good.

Customer Comments

I do like customer comments ala Amazon or Barnes and Noble - especially if I am trying to decide between two different brands for the same item.

But other than that, yeah KISS is best - get me to what I want and then to the checkout quickly please.

More on X-cart

Used X-cart on one site about three years ago, recently gritted teeth and completely re-did it with newest 'non-lite' version.

The install is very sweet, but the new version is very different from the one I first used. As I suspect is the case with many of these things, you'll spend lots of time stripping things out and turning off features on the road to NFFC's Holy Grail of simplicity (complete agreement here).

It is enormously customisable and, as Steve says, the plumbing is pretty convoluted and there is an incredible complexity of options. Again, as he says, learn to love tables. Upside is that everything can be re-labelled, tweaked, modded and added to. There is a cute 'module option' that will show you exactly which templates, styles and 'stuff' are in use on the page you're looking at - click on the name and edit away. Sounds naff, but, given the number of sections that make up an average page, it can be life-saving.

Vouchers, yes; reviews, yes; multiple sections, multiple options, yes. I'll not do a silly list, but it really does have an incredible amount of bells 'n whistles. It can output to flat html, but not tried that. The URL's aren't too hideous, but I just bolted on spiderable stuff around the cart rather than agonise about getting it crawled.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with it, but no pain no gain, eh? It doesn't do the best job in the world of keeping code and content apart, but it tries, and the Smarty stuff does work very well. I had to mod it a lot with javascript 'n stuff, but I'm using it for ticket sales, so calendars and date-control were needed. Never sold any 'real' goods, but I'd use it happily if that day came.

Again, I'm not an ecommerce pro, far from it, but I'd happily recommend X-Cart and still be able to look you in the eye at Stansted.

Oh - lots of third party stuff too - affiliate, malls, fancy options, all pretty cheap.

 

If you're pressed for time, or have the money, or are unfamiliar with an open source solution (eg osC), I'd always err on the side of paying for a shopping cart. If it breaks, you'll really want it fixed, and posting on forums or troubleshooting your own code isn't exactly quick. Buying your way into a support channel is a good move, in my opinion.

(note:I use oscommerce because I know it pretty well now. Had I not been forced into using it the first time, I doubt I'd choose to tackle it when the budget allowed for something 'better')

plus, y'know, smarty.

X-Cart Features

Bloody hell! Check out the features! that's a lot of functionality for lest than $200...

Im going to test it with the 30day trial side by side with osc, but i think you're points are well made wibble, and im really very keen on Smarty, it's a beautifully simple and powerful templating engine.

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