eCommerce experiment: Zen Cart

I want to learn about ecommerce, and have decided to bring you on my journey.

To make the fist step as easy as possible, I will use PayPal only, and make some digital downloads available for sale. This simplifies the mechanics of my ecommerce system, so I can work on the ins and outs, before implementing a much more sophisticated e-commerce operation.

You might think the first step is to have something to sell. That is a good first step, but actually, I don’t - not yet anyhow. I have some ebooks I plan to write, but for me, I will be more motivated to write them if I know I have a way to sell them. For others, the motivation to work out how to sell something may only come with something to sell. In that case, I hope you find this series of articles useful.

Note that I will not be writing these articles on a schedule, but on an ad-hock basis, as I discover things that I think are worth sharing. Feel free to share too - feel free to add your comments (at the bottom of the article).

Digital Downloads

According to Wikipedia, a digital download applies to music (and software as well). The article needs more work - a digital download could be a whole lot more than that, including an audio book, an electronic book, a video, Flash, photographs, clip-art, you name it - if it can be turned into a digital file, it can become a digital download. If it has value, you can charge for it. If you market it well, and get enough visitors, you will surely sell some.


If you can collect money over the internet, then you can sell stuff on the internet, so this seems like a good place to start. Of course you could accept cheques through the mail, but this slow, awkward, and un-internet-like.

The easiest way to accept payments that I know of is PayPal. It is easy to apply for, easy to set up, well know (and therefore trusted), and allows shoppers to pay with a credit card.

Sign up for PayPal and start accepting credit card payments instantly.

Other payment systems exist, but I am talking about the easiest and quickest way to get started.

Taking Orders

You can use PayPal to take orders too. This makes it very easy to get started, but there is a catch - PayPal does not offer a mechanism for selling digital downloads. If you want to get started with physical products, items that you will mail to your customers, PayPal is a great way to get started, to test the market without building complicated systems. You can either use their system to set up a “shopping cart” (allowing your website visitors to select several times, then pay for them all at once), or individual “buy now” buttons that allow visitors to order a single item at the click of a button. Either way, PayPal will send you an email with the order details (what they ordered, their name, address etc.), which you can then use to mail them the items they purchased from your store.

You could use this for digital products, but internet shoppers expect to be download a digital product immediately upon paying. If they have to wait for you to receive the order email, then email them the file (or a link to the file), they will be disappointed.

Digital Download Mechanism

Digital downloads are a great way to get started with an on-line store. ebooks, music, or digital photographs are examples of great digital products. If someone wants to download your MP3 song, they will expect immediate results, so PayPal on its own isn’t going to cut it.

Since this blog (and others, including my travel information website) run on WordPress, the natural choice is to find a plug in for WordPress that can handle ecommerce.

WordPress Shopping Cart

The only one I was able to find, wp-shopping-cart, looks good, and operates in a fairly nice way. It suffers from a fatal flaw - it doesn’t work! Well, I shouldn’t be quite so categorical about it - it didn’t work on my test system, when I discovered an article by Chris Garrett saying that wp-shopping-card didn’t work for him either, I decided not to waste my time trying to fix it. Eventually, I want to get big. Really big. So while I want to start with the smallest and easiest steps just to get going quickly, I am not prepared to fiddle with a system that is neither easy to get started with nor a long-term solution.

If you envision your full ecommerce solution consisting of WordPress and an integrated shopping cart, you should look into wp-shopping-cart some more, it does look like it is worth the trouble to make it work if you want to stick to WordPress.

Drupal Shopping Cart

I investigated ecommerce with Drupal enough to discover at least two solutions for integrating ecommerce into this very capable content management system.

The full-featured system is E-Commerce. I have not played with it yet (when I do, I will write about it), but I do know that buyers must have an account on your Drupal system to shop. This may or may not work for you.

Another system, perfect for digital products, is Quickfile. Again, I have not yet tried this out, but it allows for purchase of digital products without needing an account on your Drupal installation.

Zen Cart

Zen Cart is a stand alone ecommerce system, with good reviews from a number of sources. I am just trying a test installation of it now. I will have more to say about it after I’ve tried it out for a bit.

Do you have recommendations or suggestions on how to implement ecommerce? Feel free to share, leave a comment!

Sign up for PayPal and start accepting credit card payments instantly.



I just wanted to let you know that we released a new version of WP e-commerce today available from our website.

Hopefully this version has rectified any problems you might have been having - without you being more specific though it is hard to address exactly what you would like to see improved :))

We are always open to feedback :))

Dan Milward

Dan Milward / January 28th, 2007, 6:32 pm / #

Hey Dan,

Thanks for the new release announcement. I’ll check it out.

Since writing the above, I have got Zen Cart installed, and am starting to experiment with it. There is a lot to learn before you can get anywhere with it, which is fair enough given all it can do, but I’d really much rather have the ecommerce plugin working in WordPress becuase it is perfect for what I want right now. I was able to very quickly get it set up, just that when it came to donwnloading a product, the file consisted of an error message rather than the file that was supposidly being bought.

So Dan, if the error comes up again after I install the new release, I’ll send you an email (hope you don’t mind), and once the problem is resolved, I’ll write a post about how to fix it.

The thing about Zen Cart is that there is a fair bit of work to setting it up, which doesn’t make sense for just a few products, especially as it will have to have its own sub-domain, and therefore start with a low page rank. Much easier to develop traffic to the blog, and then see who’s interested in the products, rather than having a whole separate, cumbersome website for just a few products.

Eventually, when I get into e-commerce full-on, I certainly will have a full website (with its own domain) - more about that later when I get furhter down the ecommerce road!

web / January 28th, 2007, 7:34 pm / #

I’m surprised to hear about your prob. with WP E-Commerce. I installed it and fooled around with it on a musicians website where I made mp3’s available as digital downloads with payment via PayPal. It worked first time out of the box.

That was my second attempt with Dan’s lite package. The first go-around was frustrating due to incompatibility with the theme I was using (Vistered Little). Turns out it worked great with a dozen other themes I tried it with so I really can’t fault Dan.

My third install went smooth as Valentines silk. While I’ve never actually went public with any of the sites I feel I owe it to Dan to pay the modest fee he charges for his Gold version.

FWIW Zen Cart is the slowest setup of any shop I’ve ever done but in the end I feel more confidence with it. OS Commerce is much quicker and easier to skin IMHO. What disturbs be about both of those are the regular security updates that ends up with me having to spend hours upon hours re-installing shops. Generally the upgrades don’t go smooth. Keep that in the back of your head if your going to roll out shops for more than a few customers.

Flash Buddy / January 29th, 2007, 12:47 pm / #

Yes, these problems are frustrating! I’ve tried the plugin on two installations, one using PHP5.x.x and WordPress 2.0, another using WordPress 2.1 and PHP4.x.x. The former uses a template that I modified, the latter the default template. In both cases I get the same problems - errors as soon as I enable the plugin, and more errors when I try to use the plugin.
I wonder why some installations go so smoothly, and others don’t go?
I must be missing something since I am getting the same errors on two installations that could not be more different!

Doug / January 29th, 2007, 1:03 pm / #

Well, you’re not alone, Doug.
wp e-commerce’t work for me either. I tried it on my local machine (WindowsXP, PHP 5.1.4, MySQL 5.0.18, Wordpress 2.1).
I followed all instructions and what do I get when I try to insert anything at all?

WordPress database error: [Field ‘image’ doesn’t have a default value]
INSERT INTO `wp_product_categories` ( `id` , `name` , `description`, `active`) VALUES (NULL , ‘Example category’, ‘Example details’, ‘1′);

WordPress database error: [Out of range value adjusted for column ‘id’ at row 1]
INSERT INTO `wp_purchase_statuses` ( `id` , `name` , `active` , `colour` ) VALUES (”, ‘Order Received’, ‘1′, ”), (”, ‘Accepted Payment’, ‘1′, ”), (”, ‘Job Dispatched’, ‘1′, ”), (”, ‘Closed Order’, ‘1′, ”);

…and so on.

I’m afraid I’m just don’t have the time (and time IS money) to go hack all the code and mysql fields to change whatever is needed to make things work. Wordpress runs great; wp e-comm doesn’t.
“Disable then Enable”? What that? “Reboot you computer” type of tech assistance? No good. Why would I even think about going Gold is the basic one doesn’t work at all?

I guess there’s no easy way going with e-comm. And Zen/OSComm/Joomla takes too much time (money again) to set the whole thing up (translations available for other langs suck too). Haven’t tried Drupal yet, though…

Nakano / January 29th, 2007, 11:44 pm / #

I’ve started looking at Drupal. I will certainly be writing more about that … maybe I should retitle this post … it started out as a zen-cart experiment, but now it has really become a Drupal experiment. I liked the idea of integrating e-commerce into WordPress, because I could then get into e-commerce on one of my existing blogs. I may have to relaunch one of my websites under Drupal, which would be a shame, or just use a separate sub-domain. What ever I do, you will be able to read about it here!

Doug / January 30th, 2007, 12:39 am / #

Nakano, your problem is because MySQL has got stricter about the values it accepts (it won’t take just anything any more). Ideally the queries need to be rewritten to cope, but it can be fixed by logging in to the MySQL shell and entering this:


Or edit my.ini:


Details here>

Andrew / January 30th, 2007, 10:36 am / #

[…] I started looking into ecommerce solutions a while back, and wrote about my initial research in an earlier article about ecommerce systems for digital downloads, in which I discussed a few systems I have run across. […]

Discover Doug » Archives » eCommerce for Digital Downloads - Finding a Platform / April 10th, 2007, 1:12 am / #

Post a comment