OS Commerce: The True Cost of Free Carts

How much does a free, open source shopping cart really cost? We outline all of the expenses associated with running an e-tail business using open source commerce.

This is one in a series of columns on the open-source commerce (OSC) industry.

A free, open source shopping cart may sound really attractive in these economic times, but how free is free? It's not a trick question. If you add in the cost of the technical degree required by some free, open source carts, or technical support to get others to work, as well as the value of your own labor and the supporting services needed, your free shopping cart may not really be free at all. Here we will examine the range of full costs of operating an Open Source, online store such as osCommerce, Zen Cart, CRE Loaded, or osC-MAX.

What are the True Costs of Running an Online Store?
If you already have a technical education and own the software programs to run it, meaning that you will be your own technical support guru, then you may be able to run a free online store for close to free, by hosting it yourself, customizing it and doing your own graphics, and so forth. But the majority of users will need to pay for or locate the following:

  • Software and Customization
  • Template or Custom Design
  • Domain Names
  • Web Hosting
  • Technical Support
  • Credit Card Processor
  • Security - SSL Secure Certificate
  • Supporting Computer Programs and Upgrades
  • Your own Education
  • Your own Labor

We'll take a look at the range of each of these items in turn so we can get a better picture of the whole costs.

Software and Customization ($0 to sky's the limit)
It is rare for an online store to contain exactly the features that a business requires. Once you have your business idea, you will do a lot of research to find the program that is best suited for your industry, and then have that program tweaked for you. One option is to go with a program that is loaded with many features, hoping that it will contain most or all of the features you need.

That store will need to be installed and set up by a Web programmer to meet your custom needs. You may already use a program such as Quickbooks, and need to have your sales downloaded into that program for your financial tracking. With most open source shopping carts, even though a "contribution" or plug-in code is available for free, programs such as Quickbooks integration requires special customization to make it work with your particular situation.

Template or Custom Design ($50 to sky's the limit)
If your online store looks exactly like every other online store, you will not get many sales. To make your store look unique and to give your programmer a map of what you want them to program for you, you will need a template or custom Web design to be made by a Web designer.

The Web designer will create a picture of what your store will look like, called a "mock-up" so you can easily change it before investing in any programming. It is rare for a Web programmer to also be a graphics designer, but these two often work together to give you a seamless project.

Asking how much a custom store design will cost is a bit like asking how much it costs to design a house. It depends on how much customization you want, or whether you are willing to work from existing stock plans. A custom design can run from several hundred dollars for a very simple design, to several thousand.

If you do not want to hire a graphics designer to do a custom design for you, there are pre-made templates available for many open source e-commerce stores. You can find the template most similar to what you had in mind, and simply have a few graphics made such as your own logo inserted into the header.

The quality of these templates varies widely. Templates are available for around $50 for a non-exclusive design that is licensed to a handful of other stores, generally fewer than a dozen; to around $1,200 for a template that has never been used on another store and which is never resold again. The customization charges are generally hourly.

Domain Names ($8 to $35 a year each)
This may be one of your smallest expenses, but it is important to the success of your store. If you can include "keywords" in your domain name that customers will use to search for you, such as the name of your product, then your search engine work later on will be cheaper, because most search engines list the site with the search term in the domain name higher than those that do not.

For example: if you choose the domain name for your store AcmeLightweightChainsaws.com, your later search engine work will likely be cheaper and easier because it will "organically" catch searches for saws, chainsaws, lightweight chainsaws, and Acme chainsaws. A tip: if you cannot fit the search words into your domain name, or if they are all taken, it is next-best to put them in your file names.

Don't skimp on domain names — you can have several domain names for your store all "pointing" to the same Web site, though you should choose one domain name to be your "main" domain name. Register your main domain name for more than one year at a time to tell search engines you mean business. And don't forget to renew it, or put it on auto-renew with a credit card that has an expiration date far in the future.

Web Hosting ($5.95 to $300 a month or more)
Web hosting is one of the most crucial aspects of your online store, and one that all but the most technically-elite must purchase. All other things being equal, if you have a good Web host, you will probably be a satisfied Web store owner. An unsupportive Web host, or one that performs poorly, will make running your store a living nightmare, as you will never know if your store is online, being backed up properly, your pages load slowly for customers and worst of all, if the security of your store is being compromised. This makes a cheap host very expensive when you consider the full costs.

In general, the cheaper the Web host, the less technical support they provide. The cheapest Web hosts include no support and make it very difficult to file a legitimate trouble ticket even if your Web site is down. A moderately-priced Web host will include some support, perhaps via chat so that they can support up to 8 customers at the same time. A Web host that includes full support for your online store is rare, but some can be obtained for approximately $35 a month. This is downright cheap even if you have only one question a month, which is of course what they are banking on. A Web host that provides telephone support, or even toll-free telephone support, is a wonderful thing and should be treasured.

I do recommend using a Web host that specializes in e-commerce hosting, and most preferably one that specializes in the e-commerce program that you use. This will be cheapest in the long run.

(Continue to Page 2 for Details on Tech Support, Credit Card Processing and More)

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