I’ll be honest; I’ve been looking for the holy grail of e-commerce systems for a long while now.

I want a system that is:

  • Free. (Who needs yet another monthly bill?)
  • Hosted on my own domain, so that I can control the brand experience.
  • Has a clean, nice template to start with.
  • Sophisticated enough so that I can help folks find all of my products. (Related products, good top nav, good category management.)
  • Fully-featured… enough. (Mega-features can slow you down, both in product creation and overall setup.)
  • Won’t kill me to set it all up.
So far, I’ve tried:
  • Multiple paypal button plugins for both Joomla and WordPress.
  • OSecommerce.
  • Zencart.
  • Shopp for WordPress.
  • WP-ecommerce for WordPress.
  • Opencart
By “tried” I mean setting up my store and using it for at least 6 months. I’ve committed to each, at least until I got frustrated enough to move along.
I’m not going to dive in and give you a review of each of these; the web is full of comparison charts and reviews of “X vs Y system” out there. Use your Google if you want to know more about WHY one might be better than another.

About Paid Carts

I see most of many of friends utilizing a paid system like BigCartel, Shoppify, or Volusion. These systems have a lot of  draw; they’re clean, easy to setup, don’t require any coding skill, and you can get them going in a relatively short amount of time. The downside is that they charge you a monthly fee; and typically that fee goes up the more products and features that you want.
This is especially a problem if you want to have a number of products. (We’ve had as many as 300 products online at different times.)
Monthly fees to have 300 products*:
BigCartel – $29.99
Volusion – $39.00
Shoppify – $59.00 (For 101-1500 products)
These prices aren’t unreasonable, but for an indie producer like us, avoiding unnecessary monthly fees is pretty important.
*Yeah, 300 products is a lot, but we develop a lot of product. Heck, we’ve offered over 80 buttons alone. (It can quickly add up!)

WordPress Issues

I will tell you that the WordPress plugins were both good, but failed in a couple of big ways for me.
First, there’s the overhead.
WordPress (WP), along with a a variety of plugins installed, one often has a number of CSS files, Javascript calls, and other overhead that pulled when you do a webpage load.
Now, imagine all of that along with a rather complex and sophisticated e-commerce plugin(s) riding on top of all that… with it’s own css(s) and Javascript files. (And with some of the plugin functionality and resources like lightbox duplicated.) Your potential for plugin conflict is pretty good, and your page load is filled with a lot of extra crud – not ideal for speeding your customer onto a fast and easy transaction.
I found that the site(s) that I so lovingly built was pushing errors and loading really slow. (I think that the site was calling something like 11 CSS files at one point. EeGah!)
Second, I found that there was a very large risk that any WordPress core upgrade was going to really mess up the store plugin. I ran into this a couple of times where there was a vital and important security upgrade, and the dang thing broke the plugin. Sure, it eventually gets fixed, but who wants to wait days or weeks for that to happen.
Eventually, I just gave up on WordPress-is-everything approach all-together.

Recommended Approaches

There are 2 platforms that I do like: StorEnvy and OpenCart.
StorEnvy is a hosted solution, not terribly different than the Paid Cart approach – except that it’s free.
They offer you the platform, you reskin it will CSS and fill in all of your products. If this is the approach that works for your model, these guys will do it for $0 monthly fees and $0 cut of the profits. For an additional $5 per month, you can even use your own domain name. (And yeah, you can use your own domain name to point to any Paid Cart; Storenvy lets you keep it on your domain for that $5.)
All around, it’s a fine system. Folks can buy from you and other Storenvy folks, and you’ll be paid directly in Paypal for purchases made on that system. (And it’s up to you to ship it, too, of course.)
You can see my basic setup here.
OpenCart is a free, open-source shopping cart. It’s fast (the fastest one that I’ve been able to identify), with a modern code-base, a decent amount of features, and a modern code base. (Something that I can’t say about ZenCart and OSecommerce.)
I like it because it’s straight ahead, easy for the customer to use, and it doesn’t take any coding (aside from CSS) to customize. If you want to customize it a whole-lot, it can take more work, but I found the standard template a really nice foundation.
It does take a fair amount of setup to get it really rolling, but there’s now a good community of folks using the product that most of your issues have likely been solved, if you search for them.
You can see my Opencart store here.

Which should you use?

I’ll make this simple.
If you will only have a few products, use something simple like Storenvy or even Etsy for your store. There’s not need investing in a solution that you aren’t really going to use all that much of.
If you take your e-commerce very seriously and you anticipate offering a lot of products, I’d recommend OpenCart.
As always, your mileage may vary; I’m just sharing our opinion of the current e-commerce landscape for the indie creator.

Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a monsterpunk adventure comic. He has a love for Halloween that can’t be sated.