10 e-commerce platforms make selling simpler

Whether you're a large company or a one-person operation, these tools can help you sell from your website.

When the Internet was first opened to the public, its promise seemed to lie in the exchange of knowledge and information. However, it very quickly also became a story about commerce, proving that whenever people gather, even if it's online, someone will always try to sell you something.

To get things sold on the Internet, of course, you need to have some sort of e-commerce tool in place on your website.

In the early days of the Web, these tools were hard-coded into a site. Now, e-commerce tools come in two varieties: stand-alone servers that run as full-fledged websites, or plug-ins created by content management tools such as Joomla or WordPress that can be integrated into an existing site.

These tools provide online merchants -- from individuals to large corporations -- with the capability to enter new products, track existing product inventory, and give customers safe and varied options for shipping and payment.

To find some of the best e-commerce tools that are available today, I took a good look at ten of the better-known e-commerce platforms currently available: Cart66, CubeCart, HikaShop, Magento, OpenCart,osCommerce, PrestaShop, VirtueMart, WooCommerce and Zen Cart. I examined each tool, trying out features and evaluating their ease of use.

I also considered what kind of user would be best suited for each tool. I've used two classifications: Internet storefronts and large-scale e-commerce sites. The former are businesses that are simply trying to extend their own brick-and-mortar stores or create a small-scale online presence from scratch. Something on that scale would not need the fully awesome (and expensive) power of a tool like Magento.

On the other hand, a large-scale e-commerce site -- a major operation like Etsy, ThinkGeek or Best Buy -- would not be well served by something as comparatively basic as OpenCart.

With that in mind, here is what I found.

Cart66

Reality66 LLC

Price: Lite: free; Professional: $89/year (single site); $179/year (up to five sites); $299/year (unlimited number of sites)

Platform: WordPress

Version reviewed: 1.4.9

Type of user: Internet storefront (Lite); large-scale e-commerce site (Professional)

WordPress users may already know about Cart66, which once upon a time was known as PHPurchase. This may be a trivial point of history, but it bears noting because (a) this WordPress plug-in has a long and venerable past and (b) Cart66 is a clear departure from that past.

Cart66

Cart66

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Today, Cart66 comes in two flavors: Lite (free) and Professional. Both flavors are licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), but to get the more feature-rich Pro version, you will need to pay for Reality66's subscription model. The prices for the Pro version are not out of this world, especially compared to some e-commerce tools that get a cut of your sales. The entry-level single-site option of $89 a year is reasonable, while the next tier's price of $179 feels like the kind of pricing model where you get a bigger bucket of popcorn for just a quarter more -- for the extra features, you might want to just go all in.

The free Lite version includes a lot of great tools, such as access to multiple payment gateways, mailing list integration and dead-simple product creation and website integration. The Pro version offers all of this, but with more choices, as well as additional features like Google Analytics, inventory tracking and PayPal Pro connectivity.

There are a few gaps in the tool, though. Shipping costs are set by the number of items only; shipping by weight seems to be impossible. You can't list products automatically in the WordPress sidebar, either, though you can place products anywhere on your site using WordPress shortcodes.

I very much liked the integration with Amazon's Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), which would enable you to set up a digital downloads store with all of the code up on S3. If you don't want to deal with PCI compliance on checkout, you can also tap into the Mijireh hosted checkout service.

CubeCart

Devellion Ltd.

Price: Lite: free; Pro: $180 (one-time fee)

Platform: Self-hosted

Version reviewed: 5.1

Type of user: Large-scale e-commerce site

One of the first things you notice about CubeCart is that this is not the typical slap-an-e-commerce-tool-onto-your-existing-website kind of tool. No, CubeCart is a stand-alone product designed to do one thing and do it well: Sell things.

CubeCart

CubeCart

Click to view larger image.

As such, you would expect CubeCart to be a fairly complete e-commerce offering. And you would be right. With broad international support -- both in terms of currencies and language -- this is a very strong commerce platform.

I was impressed by the sheer abundance of payment gateways, social media plug-ins and affiliate trackers (which let others directly access your catalog and sell goods on your behalf for a small cut of the revenue), not to mention the sales statistics dashboard that's on the administrative home page. The store has decent shipping support (and yes, you can specify shipping by weight), and you can also sell digital products.

In fact, CubeCart is able to handle pretty much anything you throw at it with flexibility and speed. Since you only need a commodity Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP (LAMP) stack (or an equivalent Windows or WAMP stack) to deploy CubeCart, it is a snap to set up and run.

On the downside, integration with any existing website is going to be a do-it-yourself affair. Integration with WordPress, Drupal and Joomla is possible, but you will need to work with expert coders to get this done. There is a whole little ecosystem of CubeCart consultants out there who are more than willing to handle this for you -- something to take into account when that $180 price tag is tempting you.

And you will very likely want to plunk down that fee; with just 100 allowed users and not much product catalog scalability, the Lite version is little more than crippleware.

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