Written by Jeff Lentz · July 13, 2011
It seems every time we get on a conference call with a new or potential client that has an existing e-commerce site, we discover the existence of yet another shopping cart package, or store template system, and it becomes more painfully clear that someone really needs to start an aggressive campaign of air dropping Xbox systems and 2 liter bottles of Mountain Dew Code Red over Nepal.
As a design and development studio for interactive media, our bread and butter is undeniably building, maintaining and sadly trouble shooting e-commerce sites. As professionals, we encourage clients to abandon the ideals of a quick and seamless shopping cart system that can be integrated into virtually any site "as seen on TV." We are often faced with the unfortunate task of completing a site evaluation and informing the client that the little shopping cart system they bought for $80 bucks out of the back of a van will not handle tax rates, shipping, or actually selling products online.
As is standard among professional design and development agencies we either build commerce sites with good old fashioned PHP and MySQL or a comprehensive open source package like Virtuemart, OS Commerce, Zen Cart or the new kid on the block - Magento. These open source architectures can be customized and expanded upon to build fully functioning commerce sites capable of handling any aspect of revenue generation and operations imaginable. They are also nice because they cut out a lot of tedious programming by providing a framework that can be adjusted to facilitate commerce sites of any level.
With that being said there are always consequences and repercussions. Virtuemart, a Joomla commerce extension that has dominated for a few years now should come with a large bottle of aspirin and the contact number for a therapist. Zen Cart and OS Commerce also come with there own flavor of limitations... and then there is Magento.
Magento is essentially an open source commerce architecture that utilizes much of the same PHP and MySQL back bone that is the core of other commerce frame works. It was created by the same team behind OS Commerce and was originally slotted as an update to OS-Commerce before Ebay jumped in and bought the architecture to keep a whole new generation of Ebay sites from infringing on their margins. While Magento is essentially a free architecture ( at least for now). Magento Enterprise System is far from free and requires an annual subscription starting around $13,000 USD
Still the little bit of Magento that trickles down on the open source community is a dream come true. It bypasses a lot of the limitations of other commerce-packs and provides a seamless interface that would enable even my tech-savvy grandmother that thinks computers are evil to set up and maintain a multi-million dollar site selling quilts.
The flexibility of Magento provides significant improvements in product presentation over it's closest rival Virtuemart. The rigid structure of Virtuemart's product categories, browse pages and flypages are extremely antiquated when it comes to product presentation. Modern commerce sites and their target demographics expect products to be presented not only with the upmost in usability but also with visual impact and dynamics that have been characteristic of consumer-based retail since the first caveman opened a banana stand. Magento allows the customization of product presentation that enables designers and developers to implement dynamic presentation with robust real-time interface.
Magento is currently unparalleled in its expansive capabilities. The development team behind Magento obviously place an incredible amount of focus on developing a seamless architecture that would accommodate growth on any scale and at any speed. The catalog structure of Magento is remarkable in it's ingenuity for product management and inventory tracking and user interface for online shoppers. The icing on the cake is the rich features that are available and that can be deployed to enhance conversions and revenue generation.
From a back-end perspective Magento is configured to provide tracking and sales reports that are extremely useful in comparison to other commerce frameworks. The catalog and tracking integration with Google SEO tools also makes dramatic increases in ROI and conversion rates much more accessible and easier to obtain.
In virtually every aspect of online commerce, even the open source version of Magento blows by rival frameworks and never looks back. Perhaps the only monkey wrench in the machine is that the Ebay execs are now calling the shots in Magento's future. I suspect that in some underwater hideaway or in the heart of a dormant volcano a group of Ebay execs are sitting across the table from the trembling Magento development team demanding the next release of Magento include sharks with frigg'n laser beams attached to their heads (insert pinky into corner of mouth).