Open Source e-commerce software

If you were seduced by the idea of some of those full featured webstores we discussed but turned off by the price, there’s actually some alternatives with a price tag you’ll love. There are a variety of open source webstores that easily install onto any web host that are completely free. They all come with similar features, such as a robust shopping cart, professional looking ready made templates, and inventory management.

I used to be very intimidated by Open Source and now I’m a big believer so if you’re tentative about giving it a try, let me explain a little more about it. Open Source software is developed and supported in a community atmosphere. It’s offered for free but the trade off is that there’s little formal support. That said, the Open Source community is tremendously giving and I’ve never had an issue I couldn’t find a solution to either in a support forum or on one of the many informative blogs from fellow users. In short, if you’re willing to do the work to set it up and maintain it yourself, you stand to get a Do It Yourself version of a webstore package for $0 down. Just understand going in that the trade off for money upfront is extra work on the other end.

Some of the best known open source webstore packages are Zen Cart, Prestashop, osCommerce, and site plugins like WP-Commerce. All have a host of free or paid plugins that extend their services. Prestashop, for instance, has a free add on that supports import from eBay and the community has already offered a variety of tutorials on how to import items from Etsy as well. If you’re hearing me say free and picturing something very basic, you’ll be amazed at the advanced options and beautiful themes these webstores have to offer.

That’s one of the things I love best about open source: there are literally no limits to the software. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way to do it, you just need to figure out how. If someone else has already tried to do whatever it is you’re after, there’s likely already a plugin or tutorial to walk you through the process. If you’re willing to work for it, either by doing the coding yourself or by digging around for the answer, you can have your store do exactly what you want.

store photo

But, as with anything, there are pluses and minuses to open source e-commerce software.

Advantages open source e-commerce software

  • Free! There’s no way around it, there’s literally no other way to get an entire webstore loaded with features for free. You’ll still have costs such as payment processing, web hosting and marketing but at least your store itself is taken care of.
  • (Probably) works with your existing hosting and domain. If you’ve already got some website and a dotcom, you can add the store onto your existing web presence without having to make an external shop and then figure out how to integrate the two. That said, some hosts don’t play nice with certain software so you’ll want to double check ahead of time.
  • Infinitely customizable with no restrictions on how or what you sell. As I mentioned above, there is a way to make the software do just about anything you may want it to with a little tweaking. There are none of the selling or policy limitations of a marketplace either. You have 100% control over your store and your buyer’s experience. Of course, some customizations won’t necessarily be easy but luckily…
  • A wealth of documentation, support and plugins are available online for free. Helpful support communities, free plugins, add-ons and tons of advice and how-tos are some of the hallmarks of these open source options. It may take some digging but you can almost always find someone to help you figure out how to do whatever you’re trying to do.
  • Extremely powerful software at no cost. Not only can you customize open source e-commerce platform however you want, they all come with some pretty powerful features at first install. Things like sales managers, coupons, inventory tools and more all come standard with the free download at no additional cost.
  • A variety of pre-made themes and templates to choose from. While the webstores will come installed with a theme or two, there’s also a wide variety of additional designs available elsewhere in the web many free and some for a one time additional fee. These pre-made storefronts are all as slick and professional looking as their expensive counterparts in a full featured webstore package and offer infinite customization to showcase your brand.
  • Sell direct to your customers. No need to rely on a third party or go through a middle man. As long as your website is up and running, so is your store and the only fees are the ones that come with your payment processing.

Disadvantages open source e-commerce software

  • Steep learning curve. Requires more knowledge upfront than any other option. If you are unfamiliar with editing code or web design, you’ll need to do a lot of self-teaching to get the software up and running how you want it. Speaking as someone with above average internet know-how and coding skills, it can often be overwhelming and frustrating to try to make what seems like a simple change. Depending on how tech savvy you are, this can be a dealbreaker. I don’t feel comfortable recommending an open source webstore to anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable popping the hood and mucking with code from time to time.
  • Too many features, overly complex store. These options give you a pretty powerful store, designed for a wide variety of products. If all you’re selling is a couple of recurring items, say five of your paintings, this is a little like paddling around the local pond in a cruise ship. As tempting as it is to go for the service with the most features, you may find these webstores to be much more than you need. Might you be better off with a simpler solution?
  • You may need to hire someone to set up your store or customize your theme. If you aren’t comfortable enough with code to do your install, store customizations or theme design, you may need to hire someone to do it for you. While this may be an unwanted upfront cost, it may be worth the initial investment as that will be a one-time fee that you’ll quickly make up in savings since you aren’t paying fees or a subscription fee. The only thing is…
  • You’re on your own. What do you do if something goes wrong? If something breaks spectacularly in the middle of your busiest season, there’s no customer support or big company backing you up. While there’s ample support info available for all of these options, it’s still up to you to make the necessary changes and corrections and that can be time consuming. If you hired someone to do the initial set-up or customization, will you need to hire someone else to fix any new issues that crop up? It’s not an impossible situation to deal with but it’s still something to consider.
  • May not be compatible with your hosting. You’ll need to research which option works best with your hosting and database options. Nearly all of these open source options don’t work with free hosting such as Blogger or Tumblr.
  • Just as with any standalone webstore, the entire burden of getting buyers to your store and to find your items falls on you and your marketing. But, on the plus side, instead of having to drive traffic both to your website and your store, these would both be hosted in the same place.

There’s a lot to love about open source e-commerce software on paper but, in practice, you may find the tech elements to be too much of a hassle or the software too complex for your needs. Personally, I was intimidated by anything open source for years because I thought it would be impossibly hard and, while it did take me a while to learn and I still make mistakes and butt up against frustrations, it’s been well worth the extra work. I love the freedom to be able to have my site do anything I can imagine and I don’t mind doing some extra work for that freedom.

This is an excerpt from Beyond Amazon, eBay, and Etsy: free and low cost alternative marketplaces, shopping cart solutions and e-commerce storefronts.