December 1, 2003

Open source ecommerce lights candlemaker's fire

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Before he bought Los Tomases Candle Makers, Bill Peer helped build expensive ecommerce sites for big companies like J. Crew, using proprietary software from start to finish. Now, in his own business, he uses open source osCommerce -- after trying a proprietary package that didn't give him the flexibility he needed.We often forget that it's not big businesses that need open source most, but small businesses like Bill's. He bought Los Tomases after years of high-hustle corporate work. "I wanted something calming," he says. The previous owner, master candlemaker Lamar Sloan, is still there, concentrating on the candles themselves while Bill takes care of sales and marketing.

The company's other two full-time employees are Valerie Peer and Mary Sloan -- Bill's and Lamar's wives, and as many as four part-timers may be called in to help during busy times like the current Christmas shopping season. (Los Tomases makes between 35% and 40% of its annual sales during the holiday lead-up period.)

From catalog to Web site

In the past, Los Tomases sold wholesale to candle distributors and retailers, and direct to the public through a mail-order catalog. In recent years little attention had been paid to catalog sales, and that part of the business was trending down. Bill's plan was to build the direct sales side rapidly by moving onto the Internet, where Los Tomases had never been. In fact, when Bill bought the company in February, 2003, it was not using computers at all.

Bill says, "The company did everything by hand. All the [candle] formulas were on index cards."

Even before internal operations started moving from hand-written to digital, Bill was working on an ecommerce Web site. His first attempt used the popular, proprietary Miva package. It took him several months to get the site completed and up. Then he sent mail to old catalog customers telling them to check out the new Web site. They did, he says -- and they didn't like it.

Worse, since Miva is proprietary and closed source, Bill couldn't change the code to make things better. "Miva was too restrictive," he says. "Little fields, little menu bars... and customers were having navigation problems."

Exploring alternatives

Bill started shopping for better software. His former employer's product was oriented toward the needs of businesses like AT&T, and was far too expensive for consideration. He looked at a J2EE-based solution and "many shopping cart programs," both open source and proprietary, before settling on free, open source osCommerce.

The fact that osCommerce is PHP-based was part of what made it Bill's end choice. He was familiar with PHP and knew he could make osCommerce do what he wanted without any great stress.

(Remember, he went into the candle business to reduce stress, not have more of it.)

Seven days to a new site

Once he settled on osCommerce, Bill says, he had his new site up "in seven days total, but they were 'heads-down, working hard' days."

This happened in September, before the holiday shopping season started, and the new site -- the one you see now at -- started bringing in business almost immediately.

Heavy promotion is part of this success. Bill has purchased "40 or 50" search terms from Overture in addition to telling existing customers about the new site.

"We're doing well," he says. "We're shipping out orders every day."

Open source and small business: a two-way street

While getting set up with osCommerce, Bill noticed a potential method of using it as a spam tool through the built-in response form. To prevent that from happening (and to cut down his own spam load), he added a simple graphical security code verification process to the osCommerce "contact us" page (that you can see in action here), and promptly submitted the modification to the osCommerce developers.

Since Bill is a small business owner, he didn't need to have this giveback approved by marketing or legal people. He simply sent it in, hoping it would be useful for other osCommerce users.

(Not all small business owners are programmers, of course, but those who aren't can file bug reports and feature requests, help with documentation, and work with new users to help them get started, all of which are valuable contributions to the overall community effort.)

According the most recent statistics available at this writing, osCommerce has nearly 1400 registered users, not to mention a lively and helpful community behind it.

On the other side of the coin, osCommerce offers small business owners a level of online sophistication many of them could never afford with proprietary software.

"You can do this so much cheaper than the big guys..." Bill says. "You can put up a quality site with tools you get for free."

But cost is only part of the equation. Don't forget: Bill originally started exploring open source ecommerce solutions because he wanted flexibility, not to save a few bucks.

Too often, we forget that the "freedom to modify" side of "free software" can be at least as important as the "freedom from licensing fees" side, especially in a business context where a product that costs $1500 and generates $10,000 in sales is more valuable than one that costs nothing but only brings in $3000.

Naturally, the ideal is to have freedom to modify and freedom from licensing fees, and osCommerce happily gives both of these freedoms to Los Tomases Candle Makers -- and any other small business that decides to light up its Internet presence with this fine, but comparatively unheralded, open source package.


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