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There are a number of free E-Commerce solutions available for those wanting a cost effective online store. In this post I will discuss three, all of which reqire PHP and MySQL to be installed by your host. Most hosting offers these features so it should not be a problem.

To be able modify the software yourself you will need to understand:

  • PHP
  • (X)HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript (an advantage rather than a requirement)

All come with installation scripts to help you deploy the application. Prior to installing you should read the accompanying documentation, particularly any information regarding security.

osCommerce (Open Source Commerce)

osCommerce is my favorite E-Commerce application, though it really shouldnt be! I say that because the default installation of osCommerce is ugly and contains a lot of really poor clip art that takes time to remove. Also, changing the design / layout in osCommerce can be difficult. There are a lot of features included within osCommerce, some of which you will probably want to disable, again this is a time consuming process.

The reason I still favor osCommerce in spite of its weaknesses is the large amount of contributions available. Contributions are programs (or modifications to existing code) submitted by users of the system, such as:

  • STS (a templating system to allow the design to be changed mor easily)
  • Froogle data feeder (submits all your products to Froogle, Googles price comparison tool)
  • PDF catalog generators (automatically generates a PDF document containing all your products which your customers can download)
  • Information Pages Unlimited (allows you to add information pages very easily)
  • Lightbox (adds lightbox.js to your product image views)
  • Auto Thumbnailers (create small thumbnails of your larger product images to save bandwidth / speed page load)

I have not added links to any of the above as they would become out of date very quickly. Instead search the osCommerce contributions section for the latest additions!


Zen Cart is a popular solution as it works more easily out of the box than osCommerce does. The default design used in the installation looks a lot better than that of osCommerce (in my opinion) and it is considered more secure than osCommerce. There are contributions available for Zen Cart, but nowhere near as many as there are for osCommerce. If you want a store thats quick to set up and reliable then you should definately consider it.

Virtue Mart

Ok, earlier on I said osCommerce was my favorite E-Commerce application, but that it shouldnt be. I said that because, in all honesty Virtue Mart should be the hands down winner. The reason I dont favor Virtue Mart is because of the lack of contributions, however, if you compare the ‘live shops’ built with osCommerce, Zen Cart and Virtue Mart there is no contest. Sites built with Virtue Mart are in a different class.

This is because Virtue Mart is not just a ‘shopping cart’. When I first heard this phrase I was confused as to what it meant. The answer is that neither osCommerce or Zen Cart allow you to build a website, they only allow you to deploy an online store.

Virtue Mart allows you to build a professional looking website with an integrated store, if you check out the live stores for Virtue Mart (choose sites with three or more stars) you will see what I am talking about.
These sites look more like websites as opposed to looking like standard E-Commerce sites. This is because VIrtueMart contains a content management system, originally designed for creating websites (as opposed to online stores).

I believe Virtue Mart was originally an integration of Mambo CMS and PHP Shop. Virtue Mart still works with Mambo CMS, but the integrated installer uses Joomla! (if you want to use Mambo it will be a little more work).

The later releases of VirtuMart solve some of the integration problems (integrating CMS with PHP Shop) and now installs far more cleanly.

Unfortunately Virtue Mart currently has very few contributions, but I am sure that will improve as the user community grows (which I am sure it will).

In summary:

  • osCommerce – more bells and whistles than you can handle!
  • Zen Cart – get up and running quickly and reliably
  • Virtue Mart – build something stunning!

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    [...] you are using VirtueMart then you are at an advantage as there is already a blogging feature built into it. Unfortunately it [...]

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    Comment by David Hopkins

    The thing is with these OS shopping cart sites is that they never seem to make any profit, which is mainly down to the fact that the companies banging out cheap eCommerce left, right and center don’t have the knowledge to create eCommerce sites themselves.

    The web is already saturated with eCommerce, its time for it to stop! It is also adversly affecting all of the bespoke web dev. companies I know because they always have people saying: ‘Why are you quoting me £10,000 when this other company has said they will do it for £1,000?’ The simple answer is qaulity.

    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by SiteLogic

    Hi David,

    Dont agree with any of that ;-)

    There are plenty of sites that make money with crap solutions like actinic…. a lot of Ebay sellers try to migrate away from Ebay to save on costs… so, wben a customer buys from them they pass on the URL of their own store…

    There are still niches out there that are under served in terms of E-Commerce… i.e. demand outstrips legitimate supply… usually down to the products themselves being difficult to source.

    OS apps have opened up E-Commerce to small business and I think that is a very healty thing… there are some interesting niche stores out there… some of them selling their own hand made items etc… proper quality niche stuff… OS gives those people a chance to sell online…

    The other think is that, if someone has a £1000 budget, there is no way they are ever going to pay you £10k regardless of competiton… I dont think it is the case that OS apps are killing your business… the people you are talking about would not even be thinking about e-commerce if it were not for the cheaper options.

    Put it this way… does the number of Skoda’s being produced worry the likes of Rolls Royce and Bentley.

    Are Skoda’s bad cars?

    Your only problem is that, in terms of e-commerce, inexperienced customers find it hard to tell the difference between the two… and that is why you get time wasters and other people get ripped off… miss-information… OS has nothing to do with it… IMO ;-)

    Comment by SiteLogic

    another consideration… that ebay seller with a crappy osComm install, may, in two or three years be pulling in serious money, at which point they become a customer of yours….

    Comment by David Hopkins

    I don’t want any more customers :razz:

    A life time of web development bondage doesn’t sit well with me. *looks for a ticket out*

    I can see what you mean with these little guys wanting a cheap of the shelf solution. The problem is if they think they are getting more than that. I guess these people would be bad to hook up with anyway, but you do get some people who think that there is no difference between a £1,000 site and a £10,000 site. This is a general client problem, that they have no conception of web dev. Most think that they can say ‘jump’ and their developer will ask ‘how high?’, but the actual response is ‘how much are you prepared to pay for me to re-code half your site because of this idea you have come up with after the sites complete?’.

    Your lucky to be working on internal stuff :mrgreen:

    Comment by SiteLogic

    Your lucky to be working on internal stuff

    Yeah I really like what I do, but it would be nice to live in your part of the world… not many jobs that allow you to do that…. web dev… digging up spuds… beating pheasants haha ;-)

    Interestingly I was conversing with someone a while back who works for Oxford University… I mentioned I worked in Oxford for a while (not at the Uni)… he replied that he does not work in Oxford, but from his apartment in Chicago… that’s what I love about the internet…

    I saw a life time of web dev bondage advertised recently… poor pay working for a spammy mobile phone shop running zen cart or something… it looked really grim…

    I would not have thought you would focus on e-commerce anyway… there are other apps that must be more profitable… gambling, dating, social sites…. I would have thought there is lots more scope for gaining competitive advantage and big pay cheques in those kind of areas…s


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