June 2, 2005

OSCommerce in action

Author: Rob Sutherland

What's the best way to use the Web to sell products? A good open source option is OSCommerce, a shopping cart package that uses Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (LAMP) software. Because it's open source, companies that use it can customize it themselves to better meet their needs.

I spoke to a variety of companies that use OSCommerce. They sell everything from girls' socks to embedded software, and their business models run from mom-and-pop through full-blown manufacturing/distribution operations. In general, they had good things to say about the software. They noted that OSCommerce has been around since 2000 and has a large user community and a huge collection of contributions -- packaged sets of code modifications or documentation -- which is both a blessing and a curse. Many of them have made changes and additions to the code, which they then contributed back to the project. Some other positives that they pointed out:

  • OSCommerce has the ability to create optional product attributes, such as color and size.
  • The Web-based administration panel makes it possible for relatively inexperienced users to add and maintain product info.
  • Both sales taxes and value-added taxes (VAT) can be configured for a variety of scenarios.

On the other hand, these companies had some issues with the software as well:

  • The Web-based admin program can be cumbersome, especially the product entry and update pages, which have a large and confusing collection of options.
  • The handling of images is confusing.
  • Branding is complicated. It's hard to locate where things need to be changed and to ensure those changes can be carried over to new versions.
  • The large number of contributed packages and their varying quality can be a problem. Picking the ones that will work best for the business and maintaining them can be a real time sink. Ensuring that you don't install conflicting changes or overwrite existing code can be frustrating.

Some of the companies I spoke with offered more specifics. Everything Tights, an online-only retailer of girls' socks and tights, had no experience with PHP or MySQL when they first started using OSCommerce, but it had no problem setting up the software. Owner Mark Russell says his company would like enhancements, such as the ability to do global updates and similar mass operations through the Web backend.

Subrosasoft writes and sells backup and utility software for the Macintosh platform. Like Everything Tights, Subrosasoft's owner Marko Kostyrko had no problems with installation but had to modify the base package, in his case to handle users' downloads properly.

Batch Tech provides e-commerce solutions using OSCommerce and Zencart, another popular shopping cart program. Owner David Hardesty has been involved with OSCommerce since it began. He finds it one of the easiest e-commerce packages to install and set up. The only real drawback he sees is that the tax system is written from an international point of view, and can be confusing to U.S. users.

Element Computers retails an embedded Linux office server, and supports a network of resellers through the use of a content management system (CMS) called Mambo. It has integrated OSCommerce with Mambo so that they share common graphics and product data and appear to be one site. The company's main frustration is the lack of global functions to allow, for example, mass discounting of prices and export of groups of data in Quickbooks/CSV format.

Although OSCommerce is relatively easy to administer, customization and integrating changes can be extremely complex for new users and developers. The companies I talked to solved these problems in one of three different ways:

  1. They learned enough LAMP administration skills and PHP/MySQL and Linux concepts to install contributed packages and customize the base package. The key in this case is to make good use of the community as a training and support resource.
  2. They already had the necessary skills as IT professionals, and picked up expertise from the community and contributed back.
  3. They paid a professional to undertake the work for them. If you choose this approach, make sure that you can communicate well with whomever you choose, and look for a consultant who's honest and stable. Make sure that he's prepared to deal with things besides coding and technical support; you'll need good copy and graphics to make your site stand out, plus someone who can explain things in terms you'll understand.

The most common complaint I found from OSCommerce users was the same one I've heard about other e-commerce packages. People weren't aware of how much work would be involved in getting everything put together. They would get to a certain point, hit an unexpected bottleneck, and be unable to keep going. The majority of the work involved in getting any e-commerce package working is to organize your products, take attractive pictures, write solid descriptions, and learn to work with the package and make it part of your business operation. Every implementation will run into these problems, and everything takes longer and costs more than you plan for it, whether it's proprietary or open source. If you take a step-by-step approach, by putting only a portion of your inventory online at first or picking a small set of features to implement, you can avoid getting overwhelmed.

A key to success with OSCommerce are to first analyze your business and carefully look at operations. Make sure that you have or can obtain the skills you'll need to customize the software for your needs. Set a clear goal that will let you select only the correct enhancements for your situation. Keeping OSCommerce running and updated over time will require you to carefully track your changes and work out methods to keep it updated safely, such as installing a local version on a server in your office (or even a Windows workstation) and transferring the entire package to your ISP only after testing rather than updating things on the fly.

If you keep these points in mind, you'll find that OSCommerce can help move your product.

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