Adding eCommerce for your business, part 2

In a previous post I expounded on the virtues of Zencart and how it made perfect sense for a small business on a limited budget needing a comprehensive and robust eCommerce platform that was easy to setup, configure, customize and operate.

On the positive side, Zencart is free software, has a lot of third party modules that are available, most for free, to extend its capabilities, and is PCI compliant (which is a must in today’s world). On the negative side its templates look rather old-fashioned to some extent, the templating system is somewhat clunky and the available third-party templates all tend to look the same. Even the developers have admitted the stock template is rather old fashioned and they’ve been promising for a couple of years now a totally revamped software with new templates.

However, there is a second alternative I didn’t mention. Mostly because at the time I wrote the post I didn’t have experience with it and I’d looked at this other shopping cart software a few years ago as a possible alternative to Zencart but at the time it just didn’t compare.

We’ve installed and customized literally hundreds of Zencart installations over the years.  In fact, I frequently investigate alternative eCommerce software for their potential to replace our recommendation of Zencart and never seem to find one that fits the bill.

However, I have a client that has been using Zencart and we’ve been managing it for them for about 5 years now. They do 6 figures online yearly and quite frankly have simply outgrown the capabilities of Zencart. What I mean by that is they need to be able to improve the overall “look and feel” of their website. It needs to look much more professional than Zencart offers. Maybe another way to put it is it needs to look like they’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars on their shopping cart platform. Zencart will never really give them that look and feel I’m afraid to say.

Plus, there are other things which have become important to them which Zencart simply doesn’t do, makes difficult to do, or works kind of sloppily when it does it. Such as guest checkout, one page checkout, better and easier to handle shipping configurations, slicker customer review system, better email customization and tracking just to name a few of what has become a rather sizable list.

Because of this I went back to the drawing board and after extensive research and installing and playing around with pretty much every software out there I came back to one that had been written off a few years ago but now had evolved to first class status. The software I am speaking of is Prestashop.

Now that we’ve installed and customized this for our client and have it running their business successfully I’ve grown to fall in love with Prestashop. In some respects it offers some of the best features of Zencart namely, it is free and is open source software so you can hack into the code as needed. The out of the box template is worlds apart from Zencart meaning it is much more professional looking and classy. Customization is reasonably easier to a great extent. Some of the more complex things we needed and might need are not so simple but still doable.

And it has all of the features we wanted in Zencart but could never attain as mentioned above such as guest checkout, one page checkout, slick review system, easy to configure complex shipping and more. There are a ton of third party modules available to make it even better and we fund some of them  we couldn’t live without.

For example, our main client has very complex needs in their store for product attributes as they sell custom products and everything is sold/decided by attributes. The Zencart system in this regard was quite a bit clunky. We made it work and made it work well and it sustained the business for many years. Even though I personally hated it and found many things wanting in that system. The out of the box Prestashop attribute system I think was slightly better but only slightly. But for $150 I found a third party module (http://www.presto-changeo.com/en/attribute-modules/34-attribute-wizard-pro.html) that now I’ve been using it I don’t know how anyone using Prestashop that uses a lot of attributes in their products can live without it. Absolutely fantastic to use and puts everything else I’ve ever used to shame.

Even better the customers checkout for this client is now not only highly polished and professional looking but really easy as well. It’s too early for numbers yet but I suspect in the long run this new system is going to really make a difference in overall conversions.

A couple of things to bear in mind however. Even though on the Prestashop website they talk about world class support and in the forum it isn’t really true compared to Zencart. With Zencart whenever I had a coding or development question, sometimes a complicated one, which was often, it was answered within the first day or two probably 98% of the time, by someone very knowledgeable in the coding of the software with actionable information. I never had to wait long and I cannot remember a time when something I needed to know or fix or change was not responded to. I am not finding this to be true with Prestashop. In some cases it seems as if you are on your own. So I do not believe their support forum to be very good at least that has been my experience.

And in that regard, hacking the software is not as straightforward as Zencart. In fact, I’ve run into situations where it is extremely difficult if not impossible to figure out how to change some things I’d like to change. The good news is that it is doing everything it needs to do and doing that well.

The other takeaway is that with Prestashop expect to invest money in third party modules. Everything is a third party module and 95% of them cost money. There are some very good ones but expect to pay for them. In our experience you need to figure on a budget of at least $500 to $1500 for all of the third party modules you’ll really need to do it well. Of course, as a small business you can probably get away without investing in and third party modules and still have a decent shop but all the same there are probably still a few extra modules you will need to have.

At the least, download and install a Prestashop and play around with it and decide for yourself if it is worth your time.