Three e-commerce webshops tested

LemonStand

LemonStand [7] is the second PHP-based test candidate. The tool, produced in Canada, is available under a commercial license and costs just under $US 500 after a 30-day trial period, during which no real payment processes are possible. And, that's not the only lemon users are forced to suck. Some modules and themes for extending the functionality are available for free from the LemonStand Marketplace, whereas others cost up to several hundred dollars.

The testers looked at the current version 1. Anyone interested in future developments and the progress of LemonStand 2 and its cloud version should check out the developer blog [8].

The store software requires a LAMP system: Apache 2, PHP version 5.2.5 or later, and at least MySQL 4.1, with 5 recommended. Additionally, the cURL, OpenSSL, and PHP Mcrypt libraries are required; SOAP PHP is optional. ImageMagick should also be in place; the browser needs a flash plugin to draw charts in the admin panel and upload files. The documentation forgets to mention the php-xml package, but if it is missing and the admin imports the PHP version of the free Zest theme, the whole installation fails because of unmet template engine dependencies.

Before installing, you need to create a MySQL database. Next, unzip lemonstand_installer.zip in the web server directory of your choice. You need to set the Apache configuration option All AllowOveride for the folder and enable mod_rewrite. In the browser, call the install.php script, accept the license agreement, and enter your name, the associated license keys, and database information. You can choose your own identifier for the admin area of the store; this gives you a little more peace of mind when faced with automated attacks from botnets. You can change the directory name specified during the installation at any time in the config/config.php file.

LemonStand's installation routine generates an additional password for sensitive database content, which you will want to keep in a safe place. You will need it, among other things, to access the inventory data for a new installation or if you migrate the server. The documentation does not reveal encryption details. In addition to the administrator account, you need to create another privileged account that has access to the actual store and one account for configuring the database and encryption. The daily administrative tasks are performed with the admin account.

As a final step, you can import an optional theme and sample data for the shop. After that, you need to delete the install.php file and the installer_files directory from the server. The manufacturer recommends moving the config.dat file to a directory outside of the web server root and modifying the config/config.php file accordingly.

Just like OpenCart, LemonStand welcomes the admin to a dashboard with a store overview and statistics charts. The first step of setup is to press the menu button in the left margin, which takes you to System | Settings. At first glance, the surface looks tidier than that of its competitors, but the impression is quickly put into perspective. The individual configuration steps are not always intuitive. For example, if you want to exclude a country from your delivery zone, don't bother looking for a disable switch. Instead, you simply do not choose an option in the pop-up menu that appears after pressing the Enable or disable button. User friendly is different.

Returnable?

LemonStand meticulously distinguishes between customers and employees. The system manages customers in Store | Customers and employees in System | Users. Customers have no special rights, but the system does divide them into groups, such as wholesalers or retailers (Figure 5). The store operator can define different prices or taxes for different groups of customers. CSV-based importing and exporting is also included. The administrator can easily assign or revoke privileges to colleagues. The online shop software also supports roles for the store itself, a related blog, and its own content management system.

Figure 5: LemonStand is the only system in the test to assign customers to groups and thus offer special rates for wholesalers and resellers.

Admins will find the product selection and the user guidance through the store in the dashboard below Categories and Products. Our test team liked the logical LemonStand interface best of all candidates. Products have attributes, options, and extras that can be accessed directly from tabs in the configuration dialog, rather than through extra menu items.

You can even click to assign attributes that you define yourself to other products, thus reducing the need for annoying toggling and the tendency to make careless mistakes. The product administration section also includes functions for exporting and importing the product range and orders in CSV format. LemonStand also has a backup and restore module that can handle SQL dumps and even covers associated product images and other media.

The theme offerings [9] are manageable. About half of the nearly 20 skins are available free of charge. The most expensive look with responsive web design costs just less than US$ 90. The admin manages them in the dashboard area below CMS. Other functions let you choose a look for specific clients, allowing your store to fit on smaller and larger screens.

The LemonStand search function impressed in the test, because it lets the admin influence what is searchable, such as product descriptions and even metadata. The search box accepts quoted strings and wildcards. The filter options in the product overview are also well implemented, keeping the store well defined, even with a large range of stock. The makers also include a system for customer reviews.

Multiple payment options, including PayPal (Figure 6), credit cards, and Google Checkout are integrated directly. Operators can turn to the Marketplace for modules that implement other interfaces, including the instant transfer, now widely used in Europe. A look at the collection of extensions is worthwhile in any case, with add-ons for connecting LemonStand with the Infusionsoft and OneSaas CRM systems.

Figure 6: LemonStand natively implements some interfaces for payment options. For each billing mode, you can determine which customer groups are allowed to use it.

Final Sale

There is no clear winner in this month's review. Both OpenCart and LemonStand are useful systems, each of which only lack only a few small things to make a store operator perfectly happy. OpenCart, for example, lacks a function for managing themes and extensions directly from the dashboard. This is resolved better by LemonStand. However, the LemonStand Marketplace offers significantly fewer extensions. The OpenCart community seems more active in this area.

Satchmo is not a bad system, but it turns out to be too labor intensive and messy compared with LemonStand and OpenCart. Without Django knowledge, users will not feel as comfortable with Satchmo as with the other candidates, and product presentation leaves much to be desired in as-delivered condition. With no ready-made themes available, users definitely need to budget for a graphic designer or web designer.

If you already have a website or a blog with WordPress [10], you might be able to save the trouble of setting up your own shop environment and instead rely on an extension (see the "WordPress Plugins for Online Stores" box). The installation and setup take next to no time, and you only need to maintain one system. Although this approach might be convenient for administrators, you should always remember that this kind of software monoculture will tend to be vulnerable to attacks from the outside.

WordPress Plugins for Online Stores

Easy to use, offering variable design options, and available in many languages – WordPress [10] is one of the most popular content management systems. Every day, designers and developers publish new themes and plugins; thus, a number of extensions are now available to convert WordPress sites into small to medium-sized sales platforms.

One very popular system is WooCommerce [11] by the US company WooThemes. The plugin itself is free and is quite sufficient for a simple shop. However, a variety of premium extensions are available for retrofitting special functions, such as delivery notes, invoices, and additional payment interfaces.

wpShopGermany [12] is quite widespread in Germany. It helps users operate webshops in line with German legislation, integrates well with existing themes, is multilingual, offers gateways to the typical payment modes in Germany, and helps sellers issue invoices and create vouchers. Users can test the plugin for 14 days free of charge, after which they pay between EUR 25 and 150, depending on license.

Small solutions such Tinypass [13] and Sell Media [14] are aimed primarily at users who want to sell digital content such as articles, pictures, or the like on their own WordPress site. Tinypass is free of charge but is not published under a free license; registration on the provider's site is necessary. Sell Media is licensed under the GPLv2. The plugin itself is also free of charge. Commercial extensions let users upgrade to include features such as discounts, a watermark function, and so on.

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