Most websites exist to promote products and/or services. If your site falls in this category visitors will need the option to browse and purchase products directly and thus is one great way to increase sales of your goods and services.
Enter the E-commerce world and a major tool you will need is a shopping cart framework. Shopping carts are pieces of software that you can upload and configure on your website that add features such as; they can help you maintain and display a catalog of products, allow users to browse and select various products for their shopping cart, and ultimately check out, make payments and shipping arrangements.
Here is an introduction to several popular open source shopping cart frameworks.These frameworks are free to use and modify, but will require a hosting plan and domain, as well as some web development expertise to set them up. Open Source platforms can save you some money, and are often more flexible than hosted options if you have custom requirements for your store.
OS Commerce is the granddaddy of this group being founded in 2000. OS Commerce has a large base of stores, many community members and an active forum. OS Commerce is fairly easy to set up following the documentation and guided install process; you will need to set up a MySQL database on your server.
Unfortunately, out of the box your OS Commerce store looks rather dated and ugly; to make matters worse theming the site or installing a new template is not exactly straight forward. However, there is an add-on called Theme Switcher that you can install. Once you get the hang of it there are many great free and premium templates available to try on your store, you can also create your own templates with the jQuery UI ThemeRoller.
Like other platforms, OS Commerce boasts a large library of extensions to extend your stores functionality. That said, creating your own extensions and tweaking your store’s code is nightmare. The system lacks APIs, a universal URL handler or hooks, so changes are often made to core system files which can create widespread and devastating effects on your store if you’re not careful.
Day-to-day store management is fairly simple; orders, reports, banners, the product catalog and more are easy to access and edit via the admin panel. That being said OS Commerce lacks many essential features that are included in other frameworks, such as, related product modules, multiple-related stores and multiple user permission levels. There are community plugins that can add some of these features to your site.
OS commerce offers a fairly decent user experience, browsing and purchasing products is easy, so is rating and reviewing products. OS Commerce falls short on the user experience by not offering any product comparison features out of the box. Overall OS Commerce is a good option if all you need a simple store that’s easy to administer.
Magento is both a relative new comer and a powerhouse in the Ecommerce space. Development started in 2007, initially as a fork of OS Commerce although it was ultimately re-written completely. Magento claims over 150,000 shopping cart sites, The Company was purchased by eBay in 2010-11. Magento comes in hosted versions for small to mid-sized businesses and enterprise operations and an open source, self-hosted version called Magento Community Edition
Installing Magento is straight forward using the install guide provided when you download the software. I encountered a few issues trying to set up a store on a local development server, but the community forum had pointed in the right direction pretty quickly. Magento wins style points, it has a robust theming engine, and many free and premium themes/templates that you can mix and match. Customizing the look of your store can be quick and easy, or complex and time-consuming, depending on how much customization you need.
Like other Ecommerce and CMS platforms, Magento is highly extensible. There are a plethora of high quality themes and extensions available in the Magento Connect Marketplace to extend the functionality and modify the appearance of your web store. Magento has a built in CMS for handling non-store content as well.
Managing a Magento store can be difficult at first due to the wide range of options and features available, but once you get the hang of it this can be one of the most efficient platforms you could use. Magento can be a developers dream or a coding nightmare, the software is extremely powerful and the API and documentation are excellent but the sheer volume of code can be daunting.
Overall Magento is a great ecommerce platform, the learning curve is a little steeper but the advanced features are well worth it. The consumer experience on Magento is comparable to other platforms, product search and category filters help customers find what they are looking for. One thing that sets Magento apart from other open source ecommerce platforms is the ability to create and manage native mobile applications directly from the admin panel.
Opencart was released in 2010 and powers over 100,000 ecommerce stores. Opencart software is free to download, use and modify, and it’s known for being feature rich and user and developer friendly. Opencart has a very professional feel and is easy to uses, but it is not as robust as Magento.
Opencart is the easiest of these three platforms to install, although the process is similar for all; create database, upload files, follow the instructions. Opencart uses PHP templates and a themes folder, so managing and switching themes is a breeze, if you know a little PHP then customization is easy also.
Opencart offers their own extensions library with lots of quality themes and extensions, however Magento’s marketplace is larger and yet I find it easier to naviagate. Developing extensions for Opencart is straight forward and excellent documentation is provided, but due to its poor file structure developing for this platform can be less efficient than it is on Magento, but it is still a much more pleasurable experience than working with OS Commerce.
Opencart is probably the easiest of the three platforms to manage; the tradeoff is that it cannot handle complex configurations as well as Magento. Opencart ranks about the same as the others on support with a very active and helpful forum. On awesome feature of Opencart is the ability of consumers to compare features for different products in your catalog.
As you can see, not all Ecommerce platforms are created equal, each system has its strengths and weaknesses. For simple applications, where time is of the essence OS Commerce can get you up and running quickly. If you need a professional, consumer focused store then Opencart might be right for you. If you plan to revolutionize Ecommerce with advanced functionality and a unique user experience check out Magento.