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eCommerce for Digital Downloads - Finding a Platform

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.

So far, I have not found the ideal system. All of them have something that is not quite right, often very not right.

Zen cart, OScommerce and the like could work pretty well, but they are designed for a complicated store with physical products, and this sort of system is not really ideal for digital downloads in my opinion. I felt that it would take a tremendous amount of work to learn the system well enough to get the template and buying process to work the way I want it to. I already know a fair bit about WordPress and Drupal, and want to build on that.

Drupal has two options, and a third on the way. Neither e-commerce, nor Quickfile really have a properly thought-through buying process that is ideal for the buyer. E-commerce really would be good with some streamlining, and probably I will roll up my sleeves and do just that eventually. Mean while, it has a very long list of unresolved bugs which makes me leery about investing time and energy into adopting and deploying it. Ubercart looks very promising. Handling digital downloads is on their to-do list, but it does not sound like a priority for the development team, unfortunately. I suspect it will be pretty good though, when it does become available.

The best (least worst) I have found so far is wp shopping cart for WordPress. It has some problems too, as I will explain, but it 1) works and 2) is possible to provide a pretty good buying process for visitors (with a fair bit of work). It did not work the last time I tried it, but they have fixed a few things since then.

My plan is to start with wp shopping cart for WordPress , then determine if my digital download store concept works, or more to the point, how it works and how to optimize everything from the product selection to marketing to make the on line store really successful. At some point, I will deploy a new platform, probably Drupal-based. At that point it will be worth putting in considerable effort to rework the software to provide an excellent buying experience to visitors.

Customizing WP Shopping Cart

WP Shopping Cart is functional, but fairly ugly out of the box. The trick is to do extensive work on the CSS for both the WordPress theme, and for the shopping cart system. For example, rather than just having links for various functions such as visiting the store or proceeding to the check-out, why not make them look more prominent and more like buttons? I gave various buttons a height, width, background colour and border to suit the prominence I wished to bestow upon them.

Some elements are very hard to specify with CSS, necessitating some code hacks to add classes to some elements. I was able to circumvent much of this by applying additional class tags within the language files.

In the end, I got a system that looks pretty good. (It’s not completely ready, so I am not linking to it from here, not yet anyhow). I have discovered some major technical stumbling blocks with WP Shopping Cart however.

The biggest problem is that the system does not fully automate the buying process. Even though it is a digital download, it will still require my intervention in some cases. When this becomes too time consuming and troublesome, I will certainly switch to another system, but it will be good enough to get started.

Another shortcoming is that if the user has any trouble with the download, there is no way to give them access to the download page.

I have discovered that by looking up the session id in the database, I can provide a link to the buyer’s download page in a very manual, back-end sort of way. If I get many questions about this, I will provide further details on how to go about this.

They system I am setting up is close to ready. More posts to come on this subject.


Comments

6 comments:

Thanks for linking to WP e-Commerce.

The two problems you’re experiencing are exactly the type of things we are looking at right now.

Can you tell me how much more automated you would like the buying process, do you think you could elaborate. We’re looking into paypal IPN and emailing people a link to their download. Once paypal IPN is working the purchase log will be more automated as well.

Please feel free to email me your own “download page” work around and we might be able to add it to the next release of the plugin itself.

Ciao,

Dan

Dan Milward / April 10th, 2007, 4:13 am / #

Hi Dan,

I am working on a new post to describe some of the features which I think would make a good digital download store platform. Actually, it takes quite a bit of work just to think about it and type it out, so although I started it and wrote quite a bit, I ran out of time … I’ll finish it and post it in the next couple of days.

PayPal IPN and emailing people a link to their download would be really great. I was thinking of hacking in the latter. Also useful would be to give the blog admin a function to send an email with the link, and to create a new link - which could just be a manual transaction. This would be useful for taking orders manually, for giving away free downloads or providing product upgrades to specific customers. I suspect this would be easy to do, and I think it would help avoid unhappy customers if something goes wrong with a download, or if a product needs to be revised and you want to reissue it to past customers.

I don’t have a download page workaround per se. What I can do is get the session ID from the database, add it to the end of an appropriate URL, then email that to the client.

More Bugs! I am having trouble with the product pages. Fields appear and disappear, which can be a problem. For example, I added a product and forgot to add the download file it is associated with. Now when I go to edit the product, there is no field for the download file. I thought I might hack the database to fix this, but that would be a problem given the id hash field. I know it seems nice to hide unused fields, but this is proving to be a problem rather than a benefit!

Oh - I’ve figured out how to add a digital file after the fact. Well, I thought I did. I had a short explanation here, but it turns out to be wrong. I think I now know how this works. Once I am sure, I will add database hacking instructions in a separate post.

DAN: it should not be necessary to hack the database! There needs to be a way of adding a file after a product has been created, and a way of linking to the file if the original file is uploaded using ftp. I’ll post my ideas when I write the database hacking article (which I hope will become obsolete in short order - please make it obsolete!)

Are we clear on everything so far?

Doug / April 10th, 2007, 10:49 pm / #

I’m hearing you buddy!

Dan Milward / April 15th, 2007, 5:43 pm / #

[…] The good news is that Dan at Instinct Software is monitoring comments about the software that he and his company have created, and are willing to do something about it (see comment on related article about ecommerce). […]

Discover Doug » Archives » eCommerce Digital Download Wish list / April 15th, 2007, 7:25 pm / #

[…] I recently set up an ecommerce website using WordPress and Instinct Software’s ecommerce plugin. I have already written briefly about customizing WP Shopping Cart for WordPress. I explained how I had to hack the system to get the look that I wanted. […]

Discover Doug » Archives » Improvement Ideas for the WordPress Shopping Cart / April 15th, 2007, 7:51 pm / #

I’ve used oscommerce for a couple of years on a mildly successful ecommerce but found that it was growingly difficult to update. I decided to try wordpress at an ecommerce solution because of the fantastic framework, adaptability and growing number of plugin. As you experienced, I didn’t find a lot of good shopping cart plugins for Wordpress when I built my site, http://kitchenandlaundry.com a few months ago. The best available was the WP Shopping Cart (3.4.6 beta). Out of the box, it provides a lot of good functionality, a nice interface for adding products, paypal integration, and it’s easy to modify the layout using CSS.

All that being said, I’ve had the following difficulties with the plugin: (Note
1.SEO and indexing - I thought that this would be a big benefit for using wordpress but none of my product pages have been ranked by google and it appears that they overall structure is difficult for indexing. As a result, most of the traffic to my website has been through Google adwords and not organic search.
2.Compatibility with other plug-ins - There are some fantastic plugins available for Wordpress but they may not necessarily work with the wp shopping cart. The reason is that instead of using “posts” to represent products the plugin creates a new set of database tables and functions. As a result, Wordpress plugins designed to function on posts may not work.
3.Tracking products - From the shopping cart control panel, its tough to see how many times a given item has been viewed, added to the cart, etc. You can do this through google analytics if you setup a funnel.
4.RSS product feed - I’m sure this has been added, but at the time I installed it wasn’t available.
5.Documentation - If you want to modify the functionality of the plug-in, you are basically on your own. This is understandable as the company wants you to buy their upgrades in order to add functionality.
6.User community - Still very small compared to oscommerce & zend cart.
7.Users accounts - Oscommerce does this very well as customers can login and check their order status, address book, etc. It may not be a big deal if you aren’t interested in repeat customers.

I’m sure a lot has changed since 3.4.6 beta and I’m interested to hear what other people’s experiences have been with wp shopping cart. Any suggestions?

Thanks,
Bailey

Bailey Cross / June 18th, 2007, 1:48 pm / #

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