In response to an earlier request (part one), Esther has generously written an article about shopping carts, comparing the advantages of Yahoo’s store (fee based) and Zen Cart (free). Still needed is a volunteer to write about the travails of setting up a cart from the get-go to include such topics as merchant services, site hosting, security and the like. In addition to Esther’s article which follows, I’d recommend reading Tom Antion who’s written a free ebook (pdf) on selecting a shopping cart. He’s also written a series (pt.1 pt.2 pt.3) describing “22 questions to ask when buying a shopping cart system”. Another resource listing (and some ratings) of shopping carts can be found on Scripty Goddess.
On to today’s entry. Esther Melander has worked as a designer of children’s clothing (sold in big box retail and specialty boutique stores), a technical designer, and a pattern maker for the last ten years. Her latest venture is the online retail boutique, TinyPackages.com which features baby gifts, clothing, and accessories. Esther continues to work as a contract pattern maker, part-time librarian and squeezes in regular updates to her blog Design Loft.
Yahoo to Zen-Cart
It is easy to get overwhelmed when trying to find a suitable e-commerce shopping cart. On top of the dozens of possible choices, you must determine site security, web hosting, design, ease of navigation, and ease of maintenance. In some cases, it makes the most sense to hire an independent web designer to set-up and maintain your site. In my case hiring a web designer was not an option. I had to do it myself.
It is also tempting to get a basic e-commerce site up as quickly as possible. But as Suzanne from The Good Mama says, “Don’t take any shortcuts.” Shopping cart systems fall into two basic categories – cookie-cutter designs built with wizards or complete customization requiring special programming. In this article I will share my experience with using Yahoo Webhosting with merchant services and my transition to an open-source shopping cart, Zen-cart. Nearly all shopping carts and related services do essentially the same thing. The difference lies in how reliable and cost effective they are.
Yahoo offers a quick, easy to set-up shopping cart system. It is entirely possible to have a shopping cart live within a few hours of signing up. They offer a design wizard and a few templates to get you started. Store operations are easy to set-up too. You can set-up shipping table rates, checkout/order processes, and payment options with a few clicks. Merchant services automatically includes a security certificate. Yahoo maintains site upgrades with almost no interruption of your site. The administration area show site statistics including conversions, sales, inventory, etc. It is a pretty quick, and relatively easy, system to use.
To make a shopping cart truly your own, you must have all of your graphics and colors ready to go. They must be configured to work with Yahoo’s design wizard and chosen template. Yahoo offers SiteBuilder, a free html editor that will allow you to customize even further. More experienced designers can use FrontPage or Dreamweaver to customize.
I chose Yahoo, initially, because of a referral from a friend who is doing really well with it. It seemed easy to set-up and run. It was a little pricier than other options, but it was a complete package. There are thousands of stores that are succeeding with Yahoo, and the overhead costs are a fraction of traditional brick and mortar stores. Unfortunately, I struggled with Yahoo right from the beginning.
The first difficulty I experienced with Yahoo was customization of my site. I chose to build it with SiteBuilder rather than a cookie-cutter template. I didn’t learn until much later that SiteBuilder does not create Web 2.0 compliant pages. They are entirely table based, a very old way of building a web page. This causes web pages to be loaded down with lots of extra coding and causes browser compatibility issues. I would have had fewer coding issues if I had used their StoreBuilder templates. Still, their design wizard and templates are not really Web 2.0 compliant either. The sites are built using proprietary wizards and coding. As the Internet moves toward cascading style sheets (CSS) and database driven sites, Yahoo’s system is becoming antiquated. Yahoo doesn’t give you ready access to a CSS page to change styles of simple elements. Instead, you must work through their StoreBuilder program to find the correct option – a process of looking through 12 different pages instead of one. Again, if you are willing to learn (or hire someone to do) the Yahoo way of doing things, this won’t be a big deal to you.
Another difficulty with Yahoo was the expense. Yahoo charges a high monthly webhost fee to merchants. The more business (traffic and sales) you do, the higher your monthly fee. On top of the monthly webhost fee, Yahoo charges a finance charge for EVERY sale you process. If you do a lot of business, this can add up very quickly. If you sign-up for the Yahoo recommended merchant account, the merchant account provider charges are billed separately. Here is a breakdown of possibly monthly costs:
- Webhost fees
- Yahoo finance charges
- Merchant account monthly charge
- Merchant account credit card finance charges
- Merchant account minimum monthly processing charges
I signed-up for the recommended merchant account provider and was surprised to discover a lot of hidden charges. I had difficulty trying to interpret the monthly billing charges and I suspect it is intentional. Who has the time to translate pages of information that make no sense? In the end, my monthly merchant account fees (not including finance charges) were twice the advertised rates.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the customer service support. Most questions can be answered through online help pages. Actual customer service support is available by email or phone. Expect to wait at least 24 hours for an answer to an email. Usually the answers are quotes from the online help pages unless you pester them with lots of follow-up questions. Follow-up emails are assigned to a new person automatically so you may have as many as 5 people trying to help you. One particular problem took 2 weeks of back and forth emails until they finally told me it could not be solved. A phone call would be the best route for emergencies.
My choice to move to Zen-cart was made out of necessity. Yahoo became too expensive and too difficult to work with. Zen-cart is an improved, open-source descendant of osCommerce. Customization occurs through CSS and template overrides. By switching to Zen-cart, I now have a lot more control over the style and costs of running an online store. As a trade off, I have to maintain store/site security and maintain the software by installing updates myself. Alternatively, you could hire someone to do this for you.
Zen-cart is available for free, so immediately my costs were cut in half. Keep in mind that while the software is free, you will make it up with your time. Here is a breakdown of costs:
- Webhosting (I chose a certified webhost vendor at less than half the cost of Yahoo’s services)
- Security certificate
- PayPal finance charges (if you choose this over a traditional merchant account)
- Domain registration
Additional charges might include:
- Web designer/programmer
- Merchant account monthly fees and finance charges
There are a lot of things I like about Zen-cart. I like the robust administration. It is easy to set-up and maintain products and manage customers. There is a newsletter feature that makes it easy to notify customers. Processing orders is rather simple too. It isn’t too hard to learn, given enough time. One Zen-cart supporter even wrote a book that will take you step-by-step. I like that my store is portable and can be moved to a new webhost very easily (unlike ecommerce solutions like Yahoo which cannot be ported easily).
I customized my store template and pages myself. Learning the system and coding the CSS pages took many hours of mind-numbing work. I would make one minor modification and then had to verify it in three different browsers. I did this over and over until I arrived at a product I am fairly satisfied with. My site is best viewed in FireFox, but looks fine in Internet Explorer 6 & 7. I further had to test the shopping experience and checkout process. My store functions fairly well and is reasonably secure.
Because Zen-cart is open-source, users are constantly adding improvements and customized modules. There are a few dozen, freely available templates that are ready to plug in. Each template can be customized by editing style sheets. A lot of help can be found from on-line help pages, FAQ’s, user forums, and Wiki’s. I was able to teach myself how to install, set-up, and customize my store by lapping those sources. I eventually purchased a user-created manual that helped further clarify things. Alternatively, you can hire web designers to work out the design for you. Zen-cart was created and is currently maintained by only four developers, supported by thousands of users worldwide. The development roadmap indicates further compliance with Web 2.0 standards and feature improvements.
Open-source shopping carts should be used with a bit of caution. Site security becomes even more important because hackers have just as easy access to the source code as you do. Zen-cart does have recommended security settings that will prevent most problems. Still, it becomes very important to watch the forums for any software updates and reports of hacks. Proprietary systems, like Yahoo, are just as vulnerable to hackers. I discovered some intrusions to my Yahoo store as I was transitioning to Zen-Cart. The difference is that Zen-cart gives you the tools to strengthen security and Yahoo does not.
Zen-cart works well, but there is one feature yet to be added to the software that may affect apparel stores. Zen-cart currently does not have a stock-by-attributes option. This means that you cannot have one product, a t-shirt for example, with lots of options and concurrently track the inventory. If you sell t-shirts in three colors and three sizes, you will have to set-up each colorway, and possibly each size, as a separate product. This is not too big of a deal, but it will create a bit more work for inventory and stock management. The development road map shows this feature will be available in a future release. There is an add-on module to use now, but I could not get it to work properly.
Someday I will hire a graphic designer/web designer to snazz up my store. Still, I am pleased with the overall function, usability, and back end administration of Zen-cart. I am confident that my store will grow with my business. I am happy to answer any questions about Zen-Cart or Yahoo Webhosting that I can. You can view many (good and not-so good) examples of other Zen-cart based stores in their Showcase.