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My experiences with the Zen Cart open source (free) e-commerce shopping cart system

My father runs a small business and has been looking to expand his customer base to the web. He’s had a company website for a couple of years, but it was fairly simplistic and was mainly there to create a presence on the web (as well as to hopefully bring in future business). Recently, after hearing about my Adwords experiences, we thought it might be worth it to try running an Adwords campaign. Of course, in it’s current state, the site probably wasn’t going to generate much of a ROI without some changes. The options we came up with were to either make minor updates to the site and rely on sales through the phone, or to run shopping cart software, and offer the ability to purchase products over the web. After some consideration, he chose the latter.

Looking through some shopping cart software, I found that pricing ranged from free (open source) to thousands of dollars. If the features he needed could be found through open source software, I saw no need to go for a more expensive commercial package. A few of the open source carts I looked into included Zen Cart, CubeCart, and OSCommerce. All 3 had Fantastico installations, which generally means they’re at least somewhat popular and probably well supported to some degree. I read what I could, and searched for merchant sites running those carts, and found that Zen Cart appeared to be the best fit for his type of business. In particular, support for international stores seemed to be best, as well as the layout and options it seemed to provide.

Since Fantastico is often dead-easy and a heck of a time saver, that was my first thought. However, a newer version of Zen Cart was out, so I decided to go with a manual install.

 

Installation

The install wasn’t terribly hard. After downloading Zen Cart and extracting the files, I had to create a MySQL database, copy all the files to to website, rename a couple files, set permissions on quite a few directories, and run an installation script. Not bad, but it took longer than I thought.

Set up

The administrator interface is quite honestly a bit of a mess. Nothing seems really intuitive. There were 10 separate menus with a total of 79 sections. I found myself hitting up the forums multiple times when I was trying to change a particular setting but couldn’t figure out where to find it. Zen Cart is feature packed, but the price you pay is a zoo of options which take a while to get used to.

The other “mess” is in the files themselves. To change some aspects of the layout, I had to edit the php files directly. This in itself isn’t a big deal, except that again, the locations aren’t intuitive. Fortunately, the administrator interface offers a search that will search the contents of all the files, so if there’s something in particular you’re looking to remove, it makes it a little easier. Sometimes I just browsed through countless files until I found what I was looking for. Other times I used the search. And finally there were times when I went straight to the forums where I inevitably found that someone else had been having the same trouble finding the file they needed to edit, and got an answer there.

The Bad

  • Doing anything for the first time in Zen Cart is painful. Since it’s not very intuitive, there is a lot of guessing, trial & error, and many visits to the forums to find a solution to a simple task you want to accomplish.

 

The Good

  • Once you do figure out how to do something, you’re home free.
  • Zen Cart is very powerful and feature-filled.
  • Zen Cart is free.
  • There is massive support available in the forums when you do have a question, problem, or can’t figure something out.
  • There are quite a few add-ons & mod’s available. If there’s something in particular you need a cart to do, search the Zen Cart forums… someone’s probably made a mod for it.

 

Conclusion

The store itself isn’t completely set up yet, but the majority of it is complete. The layout is done, and all that really needs to be done is enter all the products, do a little tweaking, and a few test runs. Zen Cart can do everything we need it to do, and the only real problem has been that setting it up has taken much longer than expected. Of course, once it’s all set up, it will be free sailing from there on.

I would recommend Zen Cart for those lookin for a free e-commerce solution, and/or those looking for a powerful, feature-filled cart with many available add-ons. It takes a good deal of knowledge and time, but is well worth it for what you get in the end.

I would not recommend Zen Cart for the ‘beginner’. If you’re used to editing templates, php, etc, at the very least, you can probably muddle your way through it. If your only experience installing web software is through Fantastico, you should probably look elsewhere.

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