Ecommerce Essentials – Part 2: Understanding Open-source Ecommerce

An explanation and overview of open-source, free and self-hosted platforms. Open-source and free doesn’t always mean quick and easy, but…

Greetings again from the Alena Solutions team, entrepreneurs and ecommerce fanatics!

We hope you’ve been reading up on loads of content to either educate yourself on launching the perfect ecommerce shop for your business, or using the right platform to best execute a transformation of your shop.

In our last post, we went over the key differences between hosted or self-hosted ecommerce platforms, as that’s the summit of the pyramid.

This time, we’re going to move to the next layer of the pyramid. So, let’s say you’ve decided that going with a free (and almost exclusively for online vendors, that also means open-source) platform seems to be the ideal model for your business purposes…

…which means you like what an open-source and self-hosted has to offer. Yet, have you thought about and reviewed the drawbacks inherent to self-hosting your shop?

Before we compare and contrast our favorite and most popular platforms, let’s quickly review what they are lacking in, as nothing is perfect – except for an eggplant parm pie from Vinnie’s in Bloomfield, NJ.

Some major drawbacks and challenges:

  • You need a web developer or sufficient technical savvy on your own to set up, develop and maintain the website
  • Security credentials and staying up to date are entirely your responsibility
  • Depending on the platform you choose, they can include added costs to further develop the platform, i.e. templates, plugins, etc
  • As your site grows in web traffic, you’ll need to increase your hosting capacity

Unless you’re working with an experienced ecommerce service company (like us) or working with a managed hosting service (like SiteGround for example,) we highly do not recommend going the open-source route for DIY-spirited beginners.

If you fit the above, we recommend going the hosted route.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Why don’t we move onto the good stuff that we love about self-hosted platforms? After all, truth be told, Alena Solutions are a gang of techy nerds, so working with these type of platforms (and we do have an ultimate favorite amongst them) is exciting for us, as you have greater flexibility in how you want your shop to look and feel, and we have greater flexibility in how to make that happen.

(Aside: creating PWAs for these platforms is easy for developers. Feel free to ask about it.)

Let’s go through some of the more common of the free, open-source, and self-hosted platforms, tell you why they’re great, and who they’re best for, starting with…


Why is it great?

PrestaShop balances flexibility with ease of use. Inventory management is a piece of cake, as the interface provides an intuitive process to manage SKUs.

When it comes to flexibility, PrestaShop has at present 75 languages in which to display your content, and can manage multiple currencies, as well as multiple vendors if you have more than one shop under your wing.

About a quarter of a million online shops are using PrestaShop, so as if a developer comes up with a brilliant solution, you’ll be sure to hear about it in the online forum for the platform.

Who is it best for?

  • Companies selling in varying countries
  • Executives running more than one ecommerce destination
  • Companies with high quantities of various products

Zen Cart

Why is it great?

For starters, Zen Cart has been around for over fifteen years (after splitting off from osCommerce.) So, you can figure the platform knows a thing or two about what they’re doing, especially with regards to security. Being that going with a self-hosted platform often dictates that you’re in charge of keeping your shop secure, for you and your customers, this is well worth considering for self-hosted shopping around.

Zen Cart is highly customizable, with a seemingly endless number of add-ons and additions. Plus, when it comes to product management, its system is one of the most intuitive of platforms available, even though it’s not the most beautiful platform out of the box

Who is it best for?

  • Larger ecommerce initiatives that know they’ll need to scale
  • Companies that already have a developer or tech team on board
  • Those for whom security is of paramount concern, or don’t have a security professional on staff
  • Companies with smaller inventories


Why is it great?

Magento is one of the most customizable and widely used ecommerce platforms available, also being used by about 250,000 online vendors at present. It’s used all across the world, as it supports multiple languages and multiple stores as well.

What truly makes Magento stand out though, is the practically countless number of features it comes with to integrate, build, design and scale your shop. Out of the box, it’s easy to build a functioning shop, but most Magento stores will need a development team to truly take advantage of everything it has to offer.

While you can start using Magento for free, the added features (such as cloud hosting, so you don’t need to worry about getting your own server like most self-hosted platforms) do come with a price tag. However, the practicality and sheer gorgeousness of the platform, often offsets the added costs.

Who is it best for?

  • Companies that know they will scale greatly and have the budget for it
  • Teams that already have a developer or development team on board
  • Smaller companies with limited items, and larger companies with larger budgets


Why is it great?

Let’s start by saying this – WooCommerce (WordPress’s ecommerce plugin) is the single most popular ecommerce platform in the world. It has almost 40 million downloads, and powers about 3 million ecommerce destinations. That’s about 22% of the top 1 million ecommerce destinations online. Why?

If you ask us, it’s simply the easiest way to get a highly functional and attractive shop up and running, but that’s not the only reason. If you want to customize your shop and have no coding experience, there are literally thousands and thousands of themes available, many of which are free.

While almost every open-source ecommerce platform starts with a free version, most require you to pay for additions such as plugins, themes, integrations, hosting options, etc. WooCommerce is considered by many to be the “Goldilocks” of the affordability to scalability ratio.

Our last point here, and one well worth noting is that the sheer volume of users and developers of this platform means that whenever it’s updated and a problem crops up, developers will deliver a solution to the problem before you even are aware of the problem in the first place. In the same breath, this means that if you need to hire a developer for your ecommerce experience, WP developers are the most affordable compared to other platforms.

Plus, since WooCommerce pugs right into WordPress, you have a platform with great SEO right out of the box.

Who is it best for?

  • WordPress users with no coding experience
  • Companies looking to make a migration from a hosted platform to an open-source platform for scalability purposes
  • Online stores that want the most flexibility and customization of their shop’s look and feel for customers
  • Entrepreneurs without WordPress experience that can bring a WP developer on board


Why is it great?

Well, OpenCart is free. Really. No matter how you scale, it’s a truly free platform.

However, that’s not the only reason why it’s one of the most popular platforms, being used by over half a million shops across the world.

Arguably, OpenCart is the easiest platform to use from the get-go for creating a functional shop when looks matter. As it’s one of the older platforms as well, OpenCart boasts even more themes than WooCommerce, numbering almost 5,000 at present, and counting.

It’s also considered a lightweight when it comes to load on your server, relying primarily on plugins for added features. Also, since it’s a platform itself rather than a platform plugin like WooCommerce above, it isn’t beholden to a single CMS.

Further, this platform also boasts multilingual features and can handle almost two dozen payment gateways and various shipment methods, without any coding savvy.

Who is it best for?

  • Companies that need an online shop up and running in the shortest time frame possible
  • People that are scared of the word “tech” when it comes to business
  • Shops that need to cater to a global audience
  • Entrepreneurs on a less than modest budget


Why is it great?

On the other end of the easy solutions spectrum, here we’ll talk about VirtueMart. As WooCommerce is to WordPress, VirtueMart is to Joomla, a widely used CMS with over 1 million live websites built on Joomla. If that’s your CMS, VirtueMart is plugged in without a learning curve.

The key advantage that VirtueMart has over other offerings is that it is very SEO friendly. This means that once you have your shop up and running, in the long run you’ll likely not need to spend as much on your digital marketing efforts as you would with other platforms.

Being based in Europe, VirtueMart of course offers multiple language fluency as well as multiple currencies. A further upside is that you can have an unlimited number of products as well as categories without challenge.

Yet, as we said it’s on the other end of the spectrum, unless you’re a developer yourself, you will need to hire a development team. The caveat here is that the online community is robust for supporting this platform, so finding and hiring a team won’t be a headache.

Who is it best for?

  • Joomla users that want to open a shop
  • Companies with a development team on board
  • Companies that will offer a tremendous amount of products
  • Companies that will be catering to an international audience

So, where does that leave us?

If you’ve decided to go ahead with an open-source, self-hosted and free ecommerce shop, we’re glad that you’ve taken the open-source plunge (full disclosure: we’re fanatics for almost any and all things open-source.)

The options above are by no means an exhaustive list, as over several dozen platforms are up and being used by millions of online shops, but they highlight the varying types of platforms you have to choose from once you’ve decided that a fixed and hosted ecommerce option isn’t best for your company’s growth needs.

For a 3rd party opinion and guidance on which type of platform is best suited for your individual needs, give us (or whichever ecommerce experts you work with) a call or a message and we’ll be more than happy to get granular with you. We do have a hands-down favorite ecommerce platform, but that’s for a future article in this series.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *