A Look at OSCommerce

Do you want an e-commerce system but are reluctant to incur the expense of building a virtual storefront? Well, if you have been thinking about moving your business online, or about starting a new business that sells online, but have been put off by the enormous expense and long time lines associated with custom development, there is an alternative: osCommerce.

Traditionally, Open Source e-commerce solutions have been hard to find. There are only a few choices in the market at present: Mambo has a plugin called PHPShop, and you can find a few good open source shopping carts (for example, Zen Cart) but most of these systems are incomplete solutions: They either lack a full set of features or require additional systems to be developed prior to integrating the shop component.

osCommerce is different. This is a stand alone catalog and shopping cart system that comes ready straight out of the box with a wide range of features. It is head and shoulders above the crowd in terms of functionality and options. Indeed, as noted by the Open Source CMS team (www.opensourcecms.com): “osCommerce is hands down the best open source ecommerce solution available. Never mind open source, it is one of the best ecommerce solutions period.”

The osCommerce feature set includes: customer accounts supporting order histories and multiple addresses (for shipping), temporary and permanent shopping carts, product reviews by customers, “best sellers” lists, new additions announcements via a built in newsletter / mailing list, payment and shipping modules, tax zones, and much, much more.

Perhaps best of all for those of us outside the US and the UK, the osCommerce system is built for the international market with multi-lingual interface options. It comes bundled with English, German, and Spanish and supports many additional languages courtesy of contributions by the open source development community (no Thai yet, though they do have Japanese and Vietnamese!). Multiple currencies are handled via a real-time link to the currency conversions published on Oanda.com.

The system also provides multiple payment options, with support for all the most common online payment methods (including the ever growing PayPal) as well as support for traditional COD, checks, and money orders.

Shop administrators will love osCommerce as it integrates order and inventory tracking. You can set inventory levels and tie alerts to your inventory count. When a certain level is reached, the system can notify you of the need to re-order and when inventory is exhausted (or expires), it can pull the item offline automatically.

When an order is placed, the system will notify you and will automatically produce invoices and shipping lists. Using the reporting function, you can track order status, order histories, most popular items, and most valuable customers.

The osCommerce system is fairly mature. It originally debuted in March 2000 and is now on version 2.2. The osCommerce website claims that more than 1300 shops are running the system worldwide.

The widespread adoption has lead to a significant development community forming. Participation levels are high in the Support Forums and the documentation (via an osCommerce Wiki) is pretty good. There are available many user contributions that extend the functionality in a variety of ways.

osCommerce is based on PHP and uses mySQL for the database functions. It can run on Linux, Unix, or Windows. The setup is very straightforward and takes little time. There are no specialized or arcane hosting requirements (though of course you will want SSL support).

What are the downsides? Well, first of all, customizing the appearance of osCommerce is a challenge.  A review of the sites using the system finds many run it straight out of the box with minimal customization. It is fine that way, but if you want to heavily modify the look and feel to meet your requirements you will need someone skilled in PHP. (By way of reference, it is much more difficult to modify than Mambo.)

Second, it is not a Content Management System. If your site has a number of pure content pages, you will need to deal with them separately.  The osCommerce system is only intended to run your catalog and as such supports only basic content pages, like a Terms & Conditions page, a privacy Policy, or a Shipping Information section.

All-in-all it is a very solid system and definitely worth considering if you are looking to create an online channel for sales. Check it out at: http://www.oscommerce.org.