Ecommerce software

How to choose the right shopping cart software

With so many e-commerce software options to choose from, how do you make the right decision for your business? Which functionality do you need and if you haven’t had a cart before, how can you possibly anticipate everything you’re likely to need?

This article advocates a different approach to starting out in e-commerce. Rather than buy a ‘one size fits all system’ we suggest that the only way to ensure you get what you really need is to test a basic system first and then to identify which elements you need.

That way you can avoid buying a Rolls Royce when what you need is a BMW Estate.

We’ll address;

-    the database system you should use
-    the best platform or programming language
-    the server set up
-    how to get started.

1. The database system

The single most important element of any online store is its product list. You can add as many functions as you like - data feeds, international tax calculators, special offer modules and so on but at the end of the day, it’s your product database that drives the site. If you’ve got that in place, you can build a site around it, a site that has precisely what your business needs rather than what you might think it needs before you build it.

That being so, why do most businesses buy a ready made e-commerce site or defy the immutable Law of Sod only to discover that the one thing they really, really want the site to do is the one thing they didn’t think of when they invested in the ready made cart or wrote out their 137 page spec?

Why risk getting it wrong? Instead, why not apply a simple building block approach?

This is how Epicado advocates building your ideal shopping website.

No inventory = no shop

To ensure that you have a chance of creating your perfect shopping site of the future (ok, no site is ever perfect but you could get close) it’s critical that the product list is created in a flexible format and accessible without being subject to any 3rd party agreements. Preferably, it should have what’s known in tech circles as “cross platform server compatibility” (i.e. able to work on Windows and any brand of open source (OS), Linux being the most popular solution. This means that you’re not tied to a certain technology – it gives you flexibility.

So ensure access to your data is not subject to license, a fee or limited by server type.

Sun’s MySql (http://www.mysql.com) is the preferred database of the web industry. Its compatibility with other database systems such as MS Access and Oracle makes it one of the most versatile databases on the planet. Oracle has always been considered the industrial database of choice for corporations because of its ability to handle masses of data but now with the ability to cluster* MySql, it’s got the edge over Oracle.

(*Cluster – to run on multiple machines. As the DB gets bigger, you can add extra hardware to scale it up without losing performance). Microsoft has its own version SQL server (http://www.microsoft.com/sqlserver/2008/en/us/default.aspx) I only mention this because it’s directly compatible with MySql and so it can work across platforms. I don’t personally recommend it as it makes your database dependent on a Windows platform but more on that later.

Thinking ahead

So let’s assume that MySql ticks the boxes now. The question is, is it ‘future proof’? Predictions are dangerous but I really don’t see an end date for MySql. In fact it looks more like world domination. Developers may argue with this but I’d say that MySql will still be the single most popular database system 10 years from now and beyond. (NB.10 years in IT is a lifetime.) But the one thing you can be sure of is that if something better comes along, it will need to be MySql compatible in order to gain any significant market share, as MySql dominates the web.

There really is only one answer to the majority of web database needs and it’s MySql.

MySql is Open Source. This doesn’t mean it’s built by hippies, insecure and free*. It means that anyone can view the source code and make changes to it, so if you need MySql to do something unique for your business, you can change the source code, unlike software that limits access to its code. Sun Microsystems MySql’s are responsible for Java and their turnover would buy a lot of lentils Man. I’m not going to argue the open source security argument. If you hear someone mutter that open source is a security risk, you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand code.

*The community license is free and released under a GPL license. You may incur a fee if you use MySQL Enterprise which is installed on a web server. So although you’ll be charged for the use of the database publicly you will never be charged for the use of MySql to access the data for non web based applications. Note that this isn’t a large fee and most hosting companies already incorporate a number of databases in their hosting costs. More on MySql licenses here http://dev.mysql.com/downloads/).

If you’re now persuaded that MySql is your best database option, please read on. Otherwise you may want to find something creative to do with this article.

2. Which platform or programming language should you use to enable your database and your website to ‘talk’?

Platform determines which web languages you can use to allow your website to talk to your database. This is not HTML. The most common web database languages are PHP, ASP and ASPX.net.

ASP (now referred to as ASP Classic) is a dead language. Microsoft will be removing support for it from the next operating system release date. It’s true you can get support on ASP Classic on Windows Server 2008 until the end of February 2018. But it will limit you to the 2008 windows server and I understand MS will remove support for that some time around 2012, maybe sooner (in the case of millennium support, it was dropped almost upon release.) When Windows stops upgrading 2008 it becomes vulnerable to attack and so does asp.

That leaves us with PHP and ASPX both of which are .Net languages and capable of being run on a Windows server. Note though that ASPX is not capable of being run on a Linux server. Unless you’re planning some serious object orientated database functionality (remember, you’re after shopping cart software – you’re not trying to map Venus or teach a robot to walk on Mars), that makes PHP your choice of language because it allows you freedom to choose your server platforms.

3. So what servers should everything sit on?

Moving onto servers, Linux is cheaper than Windows. Enough said. In the cut price world of e-commerce any extra cost can make you uncompetitive. There are many, many good technical arguments for both options but they’re both good so it really does come down to cost.

So we’ve established our database of choice is MySQL, our language of choice is PHP and our hosting platform of choice is Linux.

A-la-carte or set menu?

Do you get a bespoke build or do you buy a pre-built cart? (If you’re thinking of subscribing to a cart system on a monthly basis, don’t! You’re vulnerable to the fortunes of the provider and if they go down, so does your business).

You could be forgiven for thinking that this decision would depend on budget but it should be based on your online selling experience.

If you’re new to selling on the web, your best bet is an online e-commerce package that you can have installed on your rented servers. You’ll find its limitations for sure - we’ve installed many types of cart software for various clients and despite vendor claims, there really isn’t a one shop fits all product out there. So yes you will find it won’t tick all your boxes. If it does, you’re either lucky or you haven’t thought of all the boxes yet!

That’s the point! You haven’t thought of all the boxes yet – how could you? Online selling is a new phenomenon with only a decade’s history, the last five of which have only being really active, so even the professionals don’t have serious experience. One thing is for certain - your web designer is very unlikely to be experienced in the way you run your business so you really need to be hands on when it comes to directing a bespoke build.

Build your shop before you paint it

One of the biggest mistakes a ‘newbie’ makes in ecommerce is blowing the budget on design. There a simple rule; you don’t paint a house before you build it and it’s true of websites. Functionality is more important than design. Yes, a level of design is important but if your site doesn’t work and your customers can’t place an order, it doesn’t matter if they like your logo, you’ve lost the sale and a potentially profitable long term customer.

http://twitter.com/ demonstrates this point – basic design or what? If you saw how eBay and Amazon started out, you’d be shocked.

A few months running an out of the box solution is a good idea. You can gain valuable experience and learn the lessons of distance selling without incurring the massive expense of a bespoke design and development budget.

4. How to get started - put your toe in the water before you jump in

The cart systems below are open source so you can take from them the components you like when you move onto a bespoke build. I don’t mean you copy and paste the code but your developer will have a good route map when you say ‘make it work like that’.

http://www.zen-cart.com/ (Free)

http://www.oscommerce.com/ (Free)

http://www.magentocommerce.com/ (Cost = email address)

These solutions have template designs which you can buy or download from their open source community sites. They will need a specific hosting configuration, so please check with your hosting company before committing to one of these.

If we are your hosting company, then yes we support the above packages, so feel free to install them on your hosting space or if you need help, contact one of our technical team. The cost for one install with us is £50. We only offer an install service for these carts - we don’t offer technical support for any of the above software.

Or use the Epicado cart

Of course, we offer our own system and it’s been tried and tested across many ecommerce websites.

The cost is £500 plus vat installed. For unlimited products, unlimited users, unlimited email accounts and 1gb hosting, one MySql database and a unique IP address there’s a monthly cost of £20 plus vat a month. Domain names are extra and please note that your payment gateway may require an SSL certificate, which is currently an additional £165 plus vat a year.

We allow you to customise the front end of the cart using a comprehensive set of display settings giving you complete control over the look and feel of your site. This is not a design solution that will win you any awards but it cuts your initial expenditure and allows you to experiment with design features, whilst still learning the ropes. We do have a bespoke design service and can customise the functionality of the cart to suit specific needs and requirements but these come with an extra price tag.

You can check it our here using the login below http://epicado.org/e-commerce_demo/admin.php.

username: demo
password: epicdemo

Some of the permissions have been disabled. For a full demonstration of the cart’s functionality please drop us a line on service@epicado.com or call us on 0845 303 3001.

5. CONCLUSION

If you combine a MySql database with a site built in PHP and host on a Linux server, I believe you’re giving your business the most flexible platform. By testing your market with the Epicado cart or one of the other carts listed above, you can have all of this and allow your business to evolve before you invest in a bespoke e-commerce website.

So what are you waiting for?

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