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Which Ecommerce Script Should I Use?

Maybe you can help me identify a scalable (and appropriate) eCommerce platform for a client of ours, looking to enhance their online sales. I've read the ecommerce guidelines here and am looking to further explore this, relative to my specific situation.

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A little background information:

The company's main focus has been selling to retailers, boutiques, etc., but is now looking to sell directly to the consumer--which is where I come in... to re-design their site (currently a quasi-eCommerce, quasi-informational page) into a full blown eCommerce site--quality wise (not necessarily feature wise) on par with Amazon. I'm doing my homework to isolate the best options for the entire team to evaluate.

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I'm a CSS ninja and blossoming web developer, but still fairly new to eCommerce, so I'd love to get the StackExchange community's feedback.

  • I'm curious to find out the pros and cons (with a particular interest in security, and scalability) of a hosted platform (eg. 3dcart), versus an open-source platform (eg. Prestashop). For example, is it worth paying $250/mo. for Magento's 'professional' edition? How do Opencart and Prestashop compare with 3dcart for a medium-sized company?

  • What are the headaches associate with the best options; maintenance, versatility, community/customer support, etc.

  • Uptime and server responsiveness. Do paid hosted solutions offer high grade servers, or is a dedicated server and do-it-yourself approach better?

This are just some of the questions that are coming to mind, but hopefully you can see the overarching theme of where I'm coming from, offer some advice, and suggest some platforms to explore.

Here are some features/notes:

  • Inventory is currently done manually (due to sales currently being so modest,) but I imagine data feed / accounting integration will be need to be available.

  • The site will need to be available in multiple languages

  • Payment processing is currently handled internally, because inventory is not automated, which suggests inventory management is another key factor to take into consideration (my client was quoted $20,000 to integrate inventory management... I think we can do much better than that;) as I currently understand, the issue is that not all sales are done online.

  • Promotion support, user-reviews, product ratings, and a fully customizable front-end are just about mandatory.

Keep in mind our target launch is Jan. 1st, and I've never worked with any of these platforms (other than 3dcart briefly)--but if some help from a specialist needs to be factored into the budget, that isn't completely out of the question. This also suggests to me that having a paid solution could be helpful, having a 'customer/technical support' team available.

We don't know how successful this endeavor will be, and currently my client receives 200 hits with a handful of sales daily; should our vision succeed, their daily traffic and sales should jump substantially... and we want to be prepared for this and not have pursued an eCommerce solution that cannot easily scale.

I earnestly appreciate your time, and look forward to anyone's input!

Julian

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marked as duplicate by John Conde Jun 24 '12 at 0:53

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2 Answers 2

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A lot of this comes down to the old question of whether to use an existing service/product, or develop it yourself.

Pros of using an existing product/service are:

  • quick to launch
  • community of users to provide support and feedback
  • cost effective
  • will probably do 95% of what you want out of the box

Cons of using an existing product/service are:

  • although the existing product/service will probably do 95% of what you want, the remaining 5% can be very, very difficult.
    • If it's a hosted 3rd party service, it may be impossible.
    • If it's a downloadable, installable open-source solution, it may be next to impossible to implement without learning how the product works, and it will almost certainly be very time-consuming
  • User interfaces (both front end and back end) are often designed to satisfy everyone, and end up satisfying no one.
    • For the front end, being innovative in user experience can be difficult
    • For the back end, having something that doesn't confuse the user with the variety of options is desirable.

Ideally, building your own system using a core or framework that you're familiar with is the best approach (given time, money, expertise).

Looking at your timeline, i'd say that for a Jan 1st launch, your only choice is a hosted 3rd party product -- i don't think you'll have time to get something built, or installed/customised in time. Also, it takes care of things such as PCI compliance, which can be expensive and time consuming to get right, especially if you are handling credit card data yourselves (i'm not sure if this is what you mean by 'handling payment processing internally'.

There's so much more to say about this, but i'll stop rambling now. Feel free to ask follow up questions.

Final word: given the short timeline, work hard to set expectations in your organisation, remove inessential features, and consider a phased approach.

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I was actually thinking of going with Prestashop hosted on SiteCloud or a Rackspace Cloud server. The available modules look to cover a lot of the little things missing, plus the multi-language/currency support is a winner. It claims to be PCI compliant, along with with a fairly active community... what are your thoughts on this anthonyg? I appreciate you taking the time to help! –  J.L. Makes Nov 23 '10 at 10:34
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Good run-down of the benefits. But it should be emphasized (as you alluded to) that building your own commercial grade e-commerce platform costs in the range of (at minimum) tens of thousands of dollars and would likely take a year or more to reach a stable release (and be PA-DSS certified) with a decent sized development team. So in most cases, it's simply not worth duplicating the efforts of other developers/companies. A good compromise would be to use an open source system based on a framework you're familiar with (e.g. Magento is built on ZF) so you can customize the other 5% easily. –  Lèse majesté Nov 23 '10 at 16:07
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I've never used Prestashop. I've used Magento and found it to be good. I still think that getting these up and running by Jan 1st is a short timeline, so i think that i'd use a prebuilt shop for phase 1, something like Big Commerce or similar. For the longer term, you should be familiar with the software platform you're going to use, and ideally, you should be using a hosting company you have experience of (wherever possible, try to reduce the number of unknowns). –  nthonygreen Nov 24 '10 at 0:57
    
You might be able to get Magento up and running on your own in a month's time, assuming you go with the right web host (e.g. a certified one). On DreamHost it took me a while to get going just because the default server configurations caused problems with the installation process, but after I went the CLI route, it went (relatively) smoothly. But definitely don't count on learning all the ins and outs of the platform in a single month. The documentation is pretty sparse, so you'd be better off outsourcing any kind of customizations. Naturally, hosted stores are the safest bet in a pinch. –  Lèse majesté Nov 24 '10 at 2:13
    
First off--thanks a lot for this input guys... it's definitely a unique position to be diving head first into a fairly high profile project, but being super green to ecommerce. I'm fairly new to PHP, but I've heard that Magento takes weeks (months?) to familiarize yourself with... I wonder what features Magento offers over Prestashop, because if it's truly a better choice, our client is probably okay with us taking a more practical-in-the-longrun approach. I'd hate to be 2 weeks deep into Magento, and not be able to add 2 fields to the order page to accommodate our client's vision. –  J.L. Makes Nov 24 '10 at 2:28

I'm posting this as an answer because it's too long to fit in the comments, but it's really a reply to JulianDroid's comment:

First off--thanks a lot for this input guys... it's definitely a unique position to be diving head first into a fairly high profile project, but being super green to ecommerce. I'm fairly new to PHP, but I've heard that Magento takes weeks (months?) to familiarize yourself with... I wonder what features Magento offers over Prestashop, because if it's truly a better choice, our client is probably okay with us taking a more practical-in-the-longrun approach. I'd hate to be 2 weeks deep into Magento, and not be able to add 2 fields to the order page to accommodate our client's vision

One of the reasons I switched from home-rolled (long, long ago) e-commerce stores to Magento is that it's a really robust solution. It's a bit bulky largely because it's designed to meet the needs of most store owners without needing any custom coding. So most customizations (e.g. custom fields, custom attributes, custom product types, web services, pricing rules, payment methods, etc.) can be done via the admin area. And most common features (tags, user reviews, Google Base integration, parcel tracking, etc.) are already built into the system. So for 99% of store owners out there, it's very user-friendly, and you'll find Magento will do everything you want with minimal difficulty. It's also designed with a very extensible architecture such that, if you're familiar with the system, you can customize it however you want simply by writing a custom module for it (of which there are a ton).

The down side to all of this is that it's got a fairly complex architecture, so it takes a while to learn the API, the file structure, the EAV model, the templating system, etc. Unlike managing the store, which has a very useful and thorough user guide, developing for Magento can be quite intimidating at first, and you've got very little documentation to guide you.

So that's the dichotomy. For 99% of customizations and business needs, it will take you no more than half a day to set up through the admin panel. But if your needs fall into that other 1% that requires a custom module, then it's going to be a lot more work initially than lighter e-commerce solutions. Luckily, there are modules for almost everything and it's only the initial learning curve that is hard.

So I can't speak for Prestashop, but I would take a look at the demo Magento store/admin area and see if it's got everything you need. If not, search Magento Connect for a module that you could use.

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I see, so when they say Magento is a pain in the ass--they really mean, developing/modifying the package... but it's customization is fairly friendly, given 99% of most client-needs. What would you say in regards to people complaining it's "super slow?" Btw, thanks for taking the time to contribute your advice! –  J.L. Makes Nov 24 '10 at 3:14
    
Here's a rather provocative quote I found in another question... "There seems to be growing anger with magento as the community is slowly and painfully discovering that varien, the company behind it isn't so much interested in championing a reliable open source product, than to create a community that would require extensive commercial support." –  J.L. Makes Nov 24 '10 at 3:18
    
@JulianDroid: Magento is a bit slow on shared hosting, and unfortunately full-page caching is only available in the enterprise version. But if you do enable the stock caching features, the response time is within reasonable limits. Otherwise, you might want to upgrade to VPS, which ought to handle Magento no problems. –  Lèse majesté Nov 24 '10 at 7:32
    
And I don't think Varien has really done anything wrong except for being slow to respond to the need for better documentation. They've delivered an exceptionally comprehensive open-source ecommerce solution and continue to improve the community version. I think at some point the community has to accept some responsibility for this conspicuously one-sided relationship. Varien can't force community members to help each other in the forums or to contribute to the wiki-based documentation. Magento's reliability has never been a problem for me. –  Lèse majesté Nov 24 '10 at 7:39
    
I installed a demo store, and was fairly pleased--but kept running into admin panel and store front 'memory allocation' errors. I had 1 sample product... running the entire thing on SiteCloud.com; I couldn't even find a confident solution on the forums. I also couldn't Magento Connect anything... just error messages with "invalid path" or something (and I already tried setting the stability to 'beta') –  J.L. Makes Nov 24 '10 at 22:36

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