The Disciples of osCommerce, Zen and CRE Loaded

osCommerce is a powerful open-source e-commerce storefront system that's not without a few shortcomings.

osCommerce is a powerful and open source e-commerce storefront system, that's not without a few shortcomings. We pointed out a few of them in our review here a little while back. We also pointed out that one of its great strengths was its extensibility, which is manifested in many user-contributed modules as well as spin-offs. Two such spin-offs of osCommerce are Zen Cart and CRE Loaded — both of which are based on osCommerce and both of which enhance it in a number of ways.

One of the most disturbing items that I found when originally evaluating osCommerce was its lack of a proper security setup for an administrator. I'm pleased to report that both Zen Cart and CRE Loaded have addressed this issue and both have some form of a proper administrator login. Both of these applications are based on osCommerce and as such have a similar core base of functionality and operations. Where they differ is in the new modules/features added and how close or how far they stray from their progenitor.

Zen Cart

Zen Cart carries the moniker, "the art of e-commerce" as its tagline and as a virtual mission statement for how the software should work. Installation of Zen Cart, much like osCommerce, is simple and easy to follow. The step-by-step installation goes a step beyond the ordinary by alerting you if something is not properly configured, for example file permissions. Though this may sound trivial at first, it can be a serious troubleshooting issue later on, as file permissions are not always what they should or need to be right off the bat. By identifying any potential 'gotchas' at the installation phase Zen-Cart facilitates a pleasant installation experience.


Zen Cart coupons
This setup screen in Zen Cart allows users to create electronic coupons.

Though Zen Cart is based on osCommerce and has a similar menu setup, the default setup does not look like a typical osCommerce installation. The main Zen Cart Admin screen starts with a "dashboard" type approach that lays out the core statistics of your e-commerce activities (hits, sales, customers, products, orders). This is different than the default osCommerce (and CRE Loaded) main screen, which is a list of admin options. From a business point of view, starting with the core statistics is probably a good thing and gives you an immediate first glance at what's going on. From an admin point of view though, you need to navigate through the lengthy pull down menus to get to the various administrative options. For a novice the pull-down menus may seem a bit overwhelming at first.

The default configuration of Zen Cart does not, for some reason, have an inline WYSIWYG HTML editor enabled (that makes editing certain content easier) by default. For that you'll have to select the option under the configuration menu and enable it.

Added Features

Beyond some aesthetic changes, the major differences between osCommerce and Zen Cart come from Zen Cart's long list of added features. Among the modules included are a Gift Certificate/Voucher module which allows you to create, send and manage the digital coupons. The Downloads Manager enables you to effectively manage downloadable sales (pdf or other media files). Attribute configuration options in the Download module allow you to configure how many days the download is available for and how many downloads per purchaser.

Zen Cart also has an option that allows for integrating phpBB bulletin board support, though you'll need to install that software on your own separately.

I found the documentation for Zen Cart to be very un-zen in that it is disparate, text heavy and not always easy to follow or understand. There is a 59-page Administrator Manual that is available as a separate download, but unfortunately it is not up to date and currently matches Zen Cart v1.1.2. This large tome is detailed and indexed properly but is likely overwhelming for the average user. There is a much simpler "First Steps To Setting Up A Cart, Newbie Guide" that a user contributed in the support forums that, though less detailed, is probably sufficient enough to get going with the application and to properly set up a reasonable storefront.


Zen Cart index template
One of the Index page templates included in Zen Cart.

CRELoaded

CRELoaded looks and feels much like osCommerce (as opposed to Zen Cart which has its own Zen Cart "look" by default) such that it even carries the osCommerce logo (by default before customization). The purpose of CRELoaded is to supercharge osCommerce - a purpose which is stamped on the footnote of every page with the statement, Powered by osCommerce Supercharged by CRE Loaded Team.

Installation of CRE Loaded lacks the "gotchas" notification for file permissions that Zen Cart has. This can be a bit annoying once you get into the program and realize that you need to go back to your server to set the appropriate permission. The installation setup also does not allow you set up the original Admin user/password setup. Though, if you read the README.txt file (which I didn't) you'll discover what the default is admin@localhost/admin). The administrative capabilities of CRE Loaded are greater than those of Zen Cart, as it includes multi-admin capabilities, which allow more than one admin to be specified as well as permissions for different admins.


CRE Loaded control panel
The Store Management and Setup page in CRE Loaded allows users control over all functions of an e-commerce Web site.

Added Features

All told CRE Loaded currently boasts 39 additional modules over a default osCommerce installation. Some of these perform the same functionality as Zen Cart like the Download controller and Gift Voucher/Coupon features. Then there are others that are not, including a Newsdesk, FAQdesk, Wishlist, Banner Module that includes Google Adsense code examples and an Affiliate manager.

I've always thought that affiliate marketing is a powerful addition to an e-commerce business as it helps to expand your marketing reach by easily allowing those who want to help you sell and promote your product to do so. The Affiliate Program module allows you to specify the per sale payment percentage rate as well as allowing for a tiered structure that is based on sales performance.

Like most affiliate programs, the program is banner advertising based and relies on a user cookie to determine if the sale came from a buyer that originally clicked on an affiliate advertisement. The Affiliate Program module user configuration menu sets the lifetime for the cookie and also the payment threshold at which point the affiliate is paid, which can be via PayPal, check or bank. Affiliate sign-up is user driven and done through an online setup. Affiliate administration by the site owner is easily handled via the Affiliate menu screen which lets you know exactly what's going on (hits, clickthroughs, affiliates) with your affiliate program.

In looking for CRE Loaded documentation I kept getting a link to a "for sale" manual that Chain Reaction Web (the people behind CRE Loaded) is trying to sell. (There's nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs to make a living, right?) The osCommerce manuals, as well as the osCommerce support forums, offer a wealth of expertise if you want to save the small expense. Then, of course, there is always the trial and error method of figuring things out yourself.


Zen Cart coupons
The categories/products setup page in CRE Loaded allows users to define product categories to be included in an online storefront.

Zen Cart vs. CRE Loaded

Where Zen Cart and CRE Loaded differ most is not necessarily in their included list of added features but rather in how they treat them. For example, both applications include admin menus for Layout boxes and catalog entries. They have the same essential functionality. They just look different and lay out the features in a different way (CRE Loaded image vs. Zen Cart images.)

I don't know that one approach is necessarily better than the other. They're just different.

At present, the affiliate module, as well as the robust admin management features, are real kickers for me — which is why, if forced to choose between the two disciples of osCommerce, I'd lean towards CRE Loaded. That said, they are both excellent e-commerce storefronts that dramatically improve the osCommerce experience to the point that I would recommend (for casual, non-hard core users that fancy themselves as development types) to stay away from the default stable osCommerce and instead choose from its spawn.

Whether supercharged by CRE Loaded or spiritualized by Zen Cart, you'll be hard pressed to find an osCommerce - or for that matter any Free Open Source e-commerce storefront application - that is as good as either of these robust applications.

Requirements for CRE Loaded and Zen Cart
PHP 4.1+, MySQL 3.2.3+

Sean Michael Kerner is a contributor to eCommerce-Guide.com.


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