Three e-commerce webshops tested

Shopping Spree

Once the shelves are filled and the store is opened, the results are impressive. Shoppers will find a clear-cut online store, with intuitive navigation. The integrated search function is satisfactory for simple terms and finds products whose titles contain the string entered. Optionally, customers can search in subcategories and product descriptions. Operators who want to offer their potential buyers more search flexibility need to invest in a corresponding extension.

By default, OpenCart stores offer to rate products. To voice their opinions, users press Write a review in the article description, enter a name and text, choose between one and five stars, enter a captcha, and submit the whole enchilada. The shop manager releases the reviews under Catalog | Reviews. If you want to turn off the feature, you will find the function for doing so in the System | Settings | Option | Products tab.

If you want to combine OpenCart with a CRM system, you need to invest in an extension; there are two commercial interfaces to SugarCRM and Vtiger. OpenCart also implements relevant payment options [3], such as PayPal, credit card, Amazon Payment, and bank transfer in the basic installation or via modules and extensions, as well as Free Checkout (useful for free downloads) and Cash on Delivery.

Satchmo

The second test candidate is written in Python, is available under the BSD license, and uses the Django web framework [4]. Satchmo [5] requires Python 2.5 or later as well as a database that works with Django. Natively, the online store uses SQLite3, with MySQL or PostgreSQL as alternatives. The Satchmo version installed for the test (v0.9.2) requires Django 1.4. If a newer version of Django exists, you need to downgrade. Although the development instance includes its own server, the Satchmo makers recommend a web server with a Python adapter for production use (e.g., Apache and mod_wsgi [6]).

Before installing Satchmo, you need to prepare the system and install Pip, a package manager for Python modules, as well as Mercurial, the GNU Compiler Collection and the python-devel package. The project website offers detailed documentation for a quick install and a step-by-step guide. With the help of pip and the clonesatchmo.py script, this can all be done in a short time.

When prompted, the user enters the desired admin login data, then changes to the newly created store subdirectory and starts the test instance by typing:

python manage.py runserver

By default, the server listens on 127.0.0.1:8000. To accept connections from other hosts, admins define the IP address for the port, as in:

python manage.py runserver 0.0.0.0:8000

The admin panel does not exactly impress with its clarity. Because the entries are not sorted logically, but alphabetically, the most frequently accessed menu items in the daily sales grind are hidden at the bottom of the page. Administrators should plan enough time not only for the initial setup of an online store, but also for expanding and collapsing the numerous menus. If you already have experience with Django, you should proceed faster.

Unlike its competitors, Satchmo does not distinguish between employees and customers and manages all users and groups via the Auth menu item. When it comes to access rights, the software relies on optional flags, like Staff and Super User. Below this is a field in which the administrator can individually grant access to areas of the admin panel. The field also appears in the group management section, so it is possible to assign rights in a very granular way (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Satchmo is the only test candidate that does not distinguish between employees and customers and has a single point of control for access privileges and group memberships.

An import and export function for customer and employee information is again missing; however, Satchmo does have an Export Product Defs menu item on the right side of the dashboard below Admin Tools that lets you export all your product data, including images and categories, and store them in XML, JSON, and YAML formats. This backup also includes information on the numbers of individual articles available and sold. The store system imports existing backup files at the same location. Both functions are still marked as experimental in the current version.

I Got the Blues

Prefabricated themes to help vary the look are missing. If you want to decorate a Satchmo shop, you need to manipulate the HTML and CSS code directly. Calls for new looks on user forums have gone unheard thus far, and most of the stores linked to as references from the Satchmo home page are now offline and fail to provide inspiration.

As with OpenCart, a Python program sorts the products into categories and subcategories. Customers see them in a menu on the left on the store page. In the Products section, admins can also assign descriptions, options, and attributes to the articles. The Configurable Products item lets you generate variants and define different designs for certain articles (Figure 4). Just like the rest of the interface, the work involves much clicking and pointing before everything is in place.

Figure 4: The Variation Manager in Satchmo helps the administrator add different versions of the products to the online store.

The search function in this test candidate is very simple. Users type simple terms into the Search box, and the program returns the matching products and categories and evaluates the titles and descriptions. Satchmo automatically interprets two inputs as an AND operation and displays only results that match both criteria. The use of quotation marks does not change the results. Customer reviews are completely missing.

Satchmo includes several preinstalled modules for the payment interface, most of which serve the international market. Billing methods commonly used in Europe include PayPal and Google Checkout. The developers have also implemented modules for providers such as Sermepa, Cybersource.net, Trust Commerce, and others. Alternatively, Satchmo supports Cash on Delivery and coupons. Functions and add-ons for cooperation with CRM systems are missing.

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