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e-commerce installation, setup and design

The world-leading open-source e-commerce cart, "osCommerce", brings cutting-edge performance, maximum security and reliability for the minimum outlay. The osCommerce cart software itself is freely available for download at www.oscommerce.com and a fresh installation of osCommerce requires less than one hour's work to set up as a working e-commerce application.

The cost of the project depends upon the time estimated to carry out the work you specifically request, work such as:

  • Initially populating the cart with product descriptions, product options and images
  • Graphic design and customization of the cart layout and colour scheme to effectively present and enhance your company's image through its online presence
  • Extended functionality - custom coding. This is where the osCommerce e-commerce solution comes into its own. Since the underlying code is open-source, it's not only completely accessible for manual coding of owner-specified functionality but, for most features that might be requested, there exists a bank of ready-made contributed code that can be efficiently integrated. Complex shipping rates, for instance, involving quantity breakpoints together with zone-based tariffs, can be set up to be automatically calculated at the checkout stage. Zone, breakpoint and tariff changes can be easily made by the store owner through the standard osCommerce back-end (administration area).

A Masonhost installation of osCommerce comes with some of these coding "contributions" included, as standard:

  • Search-Engine-Optimised URLs are vital to allow the full site to be spidered by the main Search Engines. This feature ensures that individual product pages are indexed by Google.
  • Dynamic Meta Tags, another invaluable SEO feature, will automatically create search-engine-readable meta tags for each product that you add to your catalogue.
  • As an alternative to adding/editing your products online, item by item, EasyPopulate provides, also, the option to download your inventory to an excel spreadsheet, edit the spreadsheet, and then upload the entire updated inventory in a single operation.
  • You may opt to offer Paypal as one of your payment gateways. The Paypal IPN script adds Paypal's automated Instant Payment Notification feature to the checkout process.
  • The DHTML menu presents subcategories in a "fly-out" area for easy navigation of a complex site.
  • The Ultra-Pics script collection facilitates:
    • adding small, medium and large images for each product with the additional option of a further six thumbnail/large image combinations;
    • a wysiwyg editor for product descriptions and for editing the main catalogue (front) page;
    • Image Uploader;
    • HTML Newsletters;
    • HTML Email

some standard osCommerce features

The following is no more than a taste of the standard features that ship with this, arguably, the most flexible and extensible ecommerce cart available. When the client asks, "can it be made to do...?" the answer is almost invariably, "yes it can."

Backend (Administration Area)

  • Add, edit and remove unlimited products and categories
  • Out-of-stock products can be temporarily switched off either manually or automatically.
  • The database stores all transactions (credit card details are not stored).
  • Email and newsletter facilities for contacting customers
  • Database backup and restoration facility
  • Print invoices and packaging lists from the order screen
  • Statistics for analysis of products sold/viewed and for customers
  • Multilingual and multi-currency support (one-click updatable exchange rates)
  • Product options (e.g. colour, size, version etc,) can be set up and, if appropriate, set to automatically add to (or subtract from) the basic product price. These will display on the product page as a selectable drop-down option list.
  • Payment Gateways
    • Enable/disable online payment gateways such as Paypal (Merchant account credit card processing is generally implemented by installation of the appropriate "contribution")
    • Enable/disable offline payments such as cheque, money orders, offline credit card processing.
    • Individual payment gateways can be enabled/disabled on a per-zone basis
    • Set tax rates for different countries and, if required, for different products
  • Shipping
    • Product weight, price, and zone-based shipping options.
    • A free-shipping option can be set based on price breakpoint and shipping address.
    • Enable/disable shipping zones

This, following, is the first screen of the standard osCommerce admin area.

osCommerce admin index page screenshot

The catalogue "Contents" area, shown here, is where new categories (i.e. front-end menu items), subcategories and products can be added and edited.

osCommerce admin catalogue page screenshot

Customer / Frontend Functionality

  • Customers can log in to view their order status and history
  • They can update their accounts and addressbook (for multiple shipping and billing addresses)
  • The customer's browsing and shopping experience is intuitive and user-friendly, belying the sophisticated underlying technology. To achieve a seamless transition from 'visitor' to 'customer', the cart actually employs two-stage technique:
    • Visitor's Cart: every visitor to the online shop is given a 'Visitor's Cart'. This allows the visitor to browse and store their products in a 'temporary' cart. Should the visitor leave the online shop without making a purchase, the contents of their (session-based) shopping cart will not be stored.
    • Customer's Cart: during checkout, the customer is invited to provide their details and shipping address etc. As a logged-in customer, their cart has now become a 'Customer's Cart'. Full details of the customer's selections have now been added to the database. Customers can, for example, continue to add products to their shopping cart, leave the online shop, and return on a subsequent occasion to complete their purchase. All products (and details such as selected product and shipping options) remain in their personal shopping cart until the customer has either completed the checkout process, or opted to remove the products themselves.
  • Simple and advanced search facilities
  • Product reviews to encourage customer interactivity
  • Full transaction details displayed for verification prior to checkout
  • Secure encrypted (SSL) transactions facility
  • Bestsellers display
  • "Specials" display (admin-editable discounted products)
  • Cross-selling: "Customers who purchased this item also bought..."
  • Easy, intuitive site navigation
  • Customers can opt to receive product-related newsletters

designing for e-commerce

The layout and appearance of the standard osCommerce cart can be radically altered and, if desired, it can be customized to match a pre-existing web site design scheme.

Masonhost web design: Classic-Trainers - customized oscommerce cart with dark livery

Existing company livery and logo can be reproduced precisely, to reinforce branding and corporate identity.

Masonhost web design: site of MacGregor and MacDuff - customized oscommerce cart in existing company livery

The e-commerce cart "Front Page" is admin-editable and can be quickly updated for current promotions etc.

Masonhost web design: site of Prodound DJ - customized oscommerce cart displaying front page promotion

Occasionally, a template system is appropriate. In this case, only the header of the template has been modified. (The plain-text central area was by request).

web site of London Sports Pix: customized oscommerce cart displaying modified template

estimating the costs of an ecommerce web site

In most cases, a fixed project cost for your specification will be agreed, otherwise, Masonhost rates for all coding and design work are £35 per hour. The following considerations may help in anticipating the overall costs:

Graphic Design
If you already have professionally-designed artwork, your company livery, logo and house style can simply be reproduced on the web site. Provided the quality of the supplied artwork is good, this will minimise your web site graphic design costs. Image origination and design in general is the wooliest area in terms of time. On the other hand, we need to communicate more during development of the web site design than at any other time. Design-time is, therefore, extended only by agreement. Where no artwork is supplied, a minimum of four to six hours should be allowed for web site graphic design, including, for example, origination of a graphical masthead, setting up the site colour scheme and layout.

Population of the cart
Populating the cart with a large product range may, if the inventory is not properly prepared, take a considerable time. There are two preferred options:

  • the first is to have a few products uploaded to the site as an example, the remainder of the inventory being uploaded by yourself or your staff.
  • Alternatively, you can download a spreadsheet, here, that details the most cost-effective way to populate the cart. At first sight, it may seem a bit involved but if you can supply your inventory data in an organized, web-ready format, population of the cart, regardless of the size of the inventory, can be implemented in minutes rather than hours.

Image Editing
Image editing time is not determined purely by the number of products. Each product will generally require at least two images: a thumbnail (for the products listing page), and a large image providing a detailed view should the customer click on the 'enlarge' button. Considerable savings can be made if images are supplied in a web-ready format. Once again, the Excel file, mentioned above, is well worth studying. In many cases, an automatic thumbnailer is an appropriate option, allowing the site owner to upload only one large image. An "additional images" feature can also be easily integrated providing a variety of views of each product, if required.

If images are supplied in a non-web-ready format, they will be, as far as possible, batch-processed to create a set of appropriately-sized and properly-optimised images for each product. If any individual image editing is required, a price for the work involved will be agreed in advance.

Extended Functionality
The osCommerce cart has been developed over many years to do, in all probability, precisely the job that you require of it. There is, moreover, a bank of ready-made code ('contributions') from which, in most cases, additional functionality can be integrated. It may be, however, that you request a feature that is an unique requirement of your own business. You may, for example, have a local customer base to whom you wish to offer payment on account rather than requiring them to pay online. In this case, a special payment-by-invoice option might be presented only to those customers whose postcode falls within a particular range. As always, the cost is a straightforward matter of time.

Total e-commerce design costs
Assuming you prefer to ignore the excellent cost-cutting advice provided in the downloadable Excel sheet, a professionally designed e-commerce web site can be expected to cost somewhere between £800 and £1500, the higher end reflecting the cost of a complete e-commerce package including a number of static-html, top-level pages with SEO.

Additional Costs

  • Hosting and Domain Name
    Hosting can be provided either by Masonhost (£60 per annum) or by your current hosting provider. Note: if you opt to have your e-commerce site hosted with your current provider you may, in some cases, have to upgrade your account. The basic requirements for the osCommerce cart are: PHP(4.0 and later) code support and a MySql database. Masonhost rates for domain names are (per annum): £5 for a .co.uk and £9 for a .com domain.
  • Search Engine Optimisation
    It makes good sense to budget for between £300 and £500 for Search Engine Optimisation. Assuming your product range is suitable for marketing on the web, professional SEO is probably the most cost-effective investment you can make.

Can it all be done for less?
Yes, it can be done for much less.

The cost of a Masonhost-designed e-commerce web site is £35 per hour of design/coding time. The osCommerce software, however, is freely available for virtually automatic installation to all Masonhost hosting customers. It may sound ridiculous but, for £65 per year, (£60 annual web-site-hosting fees plus £5 for a .co.uk domain name), you could have a fully-functional (DIY) e-commerce web site. I don't actually recommend it but it has been done!