CRE Loaded

Open Letter to Sal Iozzia and Loaded Commerce

Loaded Commerce – previously CRELoaded

An overview of reasons why our company ceased to use CRE for client site builds.

We provide website development services to our clients, but we also provide business consulting – both for startups, and businesses in trouble. So this is written with a background of experience across a range of issues, not just as a web designer who is using the software.

In order to understand our perspective on eCommerce applications, you need to understand our client base. They are primarily sole-proprietorships, almost always single decision maker owner-operators. Their businesses are small, their time limited, and their budgets tight to the point of squeaking. They usually do not have teams for marketing – they hire a single individual (in this case, our company), to provide all website, graphic design, copy writing and editing, marketing, SEO, security, and coding services. They are not members of the “Internet Marketing” crowd, they primarily sell shipped product, a few sell instant services or ebooks.

Long term, their needs are for something that is low cost, easy to update, for which it is easy to find free or low cost templates, and which integrates with other low cost or free services. Most use PayPal Standard as a payment choice, a few use or YourPayConnect, with a few Canadians using InternetSecure.

This client base makes up a HUGE sector of Open Source cart users, perhaps the largest segment, and certainly the largest percentage of successful ecommerce users. For every big store out there, there are 2-3000 small ones struggling along, making it from year to year, but not rolling in it.

We gave our clients a choice between Joomla with VirtueMart, or CRE for a long time. Eventually the users of CRE simply faded out, and many of the choices were based on cost – there is no ongoing fee to use Joomla or VirtueMart.

CRE does do more things as far as the following tasks:

Sales and Discounts
Slightly better Shipping Modules

The reasons why we, as a site development team, eventually moved completely over to Joomla based solutions had to do with the following aspects:

Ease of templating. This is HUGE. It primarily has to do with three factors:

  • First, Joomla has a better separation of design and text code from core code. We can easily access the HTML and CSS for the basic template design, and don’t have to mess with 50 different templates in 300 different pieces. It is just so much faster to edit a template, and I can do it in the backend of the site instead of messing with the files. This alone saves me an average of 2-3 hours of time compared to CRE.
  • Second, I can get free templates for Joomla. There are only a couple for CRE. That hurts. My clients mostly can’t afford to pay more than $100 for a template. The templates you can buy are often buggy, there are only limited numbers available for the newer versions, and editing the commercial ones is even harder than editing the ones that come with CRE. Our clients are stuck with the choices of paying for limited choices in commercial templates, paying us to highly customize one of the two free ones, or settling for a site that looks just like everyone else’s site with different colors.
  • Third… Artisteer ( That program is amazing. Far more functional than it appears on first run. It has a layer of finer controls under the surface. This program saves me an average of 5 or more hours of time per design. If you could work with that company to change CRE so that they could get it to work with their engine, and persuade them to integrate CRE template production into their software, wow… You’d have CRE users springing out of the woodwork, because template issues are a MAJOR issue for CRE. They run an affiliate program also, so you could potentially use that to replace some lost revenue from template sales. Artisteer not only allows me to produce a template fast ( was produced in a matter of 15 minutes working inside Artisteer, plus a little bit of graphics time outside), it gives me a predictable code base, so every template I create shares the same code organization. AWESOME for saving time making hand edits (which I only do on maybe 1/3 of all templates that I create with it). Artisteer taking you on would also quickly amass a large body of free templates, because once designers get their hands on Artisteer, they start cranking out templates for whatever it makes. They can’t help themselves. If you haven’t got your hands on that, I really suggest you download the trial and see what it does – and make sure to set a background gradient, and then open up the Options button for that, and play around with the contrast, length of gradient, and other settings in there, just so you see what I mean by that second layer of controls. Then imagine what people could do if Artisteer worked for CRE…

Ok, so beyond that, Joomla, and VirtueMart, also present a few other advantages for us:

Both are free. It does make a difference. I don’t know what their business models are, but they do work. There are two points here that matter:

  • First, people do like a free thing best, but they will pay for a thing ONCE, and not mind. They don’t like being stuck for it over and over. If you charge for upgrades, fine, but only charge for major upgrades, not patches or bug fixes. People get that – new features, pay again (half what they paid before, or less). Yearly, they don’t get, and they don’t like. Yearly is a subscription plan, regardless of your achievements. They hate that. And make support optional. Not everyone needs it. Those who do can pay for it. The most profitable business model has HIGH software sales and LOW support (profit margins on software sales are more controllable than profit margins on support).
  • The second issue you have to deal with on cost is that the trust people had in your product has been thoroughly screwed. It is enough that they get stuck for it once a year, or once every time you do a major upgrade, or whatever. That feeling that they never know what the price is going to be the next time, or worse, that they got a free thing that is now no longer free, is scary. Having ANY kind of validation code ruins the sense of trust. They feel it gives you the power to take away their business any time you like to extort money from them. It isn’t just a cart you are providing. It is a business. They invest in you, even if they never pay you a dime. They spend time and money to build that store. If you fail them, they have to rebuild, and they may not be able to recover what they lost. It is a huge thing – you hold their livelihood in your hands, and it is not a trust to be taken lightly. It is a precious thing, of great responsibility.

Joomla has a fully functional extension system with very stable separation of core function from extension function. An extension can be installed, and upgraded, and the core never touched or altered – and Joomla can be upgraded without affecting the extensions in 99% of cases. You NEVER have to hack Joomla code. They have done a masterful job of separating the parts you touch and alter, from the parts that never get touched. I usually have to hack CRE multiple times to get things working right, or to modify things that need to be modified on every install. I know you are working with ancient code base in there, but the time is long past to drop all pretense of compatibility with OSC. It is past time to get the dinosaur out of the basement.

The article handling is more powerful, so it is much easier to create and manage the peripheral info pages. Article handling also just feels simpler – some of it has to do with the layout organization in the Admin. CRE feels cramped, looks complicated even when it isn’t, and isn’t very friendly looking. Users respond to those cues.

CRE still stores some things in files (including the mainpage content), which makes for upgrade hassles, backup and restore mistakes, etc. It is just sloppy, those things should be in the database. This is also long overdue – should have been changed 5 years ago.

VirtueMart is easier to hack when we have to. The code base is smaller, because it is only the cart portion. It also has good separation of code and design.

VirtueMart has no controls on the payment processors. We can install any we want, or even code our own. There is nothing proprietary about it, nothing that forces anyone to do it a certain way.

Updating Joomla is FAR easier than updating CRE.
Twice we’ve had to migrate sites due to catastrophic upgrades, but that is rare. Typically we just drop in the files and walk away. We can even automate it because it is so predictable and simple. VirtueMart is not that simple – especially since we added some custom mods of our own to it. But it is still simpler than CRE, even WITH the mods, and can still be automated with conditional statements.

There was no upgrade path from one version to another. I could not simply drop in some files and run a database query to move from Standard to Pro to B2B. That is pretty critical if you want to capitalize on store growth. Nobody wants to have to pay twice – you for the software, and the designer to rebuild the store! All three versions NEED to use the same templates, and all three versions need to be compatible for upgrades AND downgrades (business owners want to know they have a safe way to go forward if their business takes a dive and they can’t afford to upgrade a paid version). GIVE them the control, and they will give you their loyalty – try to TAKE the control, and they will run. I guarantee that this change will result in more upgrades than downgrades.

The Newsletter Manager in CRE has no throttling control.
You can’t set it to send slowly to accommodate server limits, so once a store gets more than 3-400 customers, it is useless, it will only send the first ones. There are other things that could make it better as well, but this one is the most critical, because it is a complete show stopper for anyone smart enough to know what the problem actually is, and for those who do not, it is hurting their business.

There were a few other reasons having to do with company attitude, and trust, but these are the major technical and performance issues which caused us to stop recommending it to our clients, and to prefer working in a different environment.

CRE Did It Again

CRE Loaded just released version 6.4. They are selling 6.4 as a “PCI Compliant Shopping Cart”. They are claiming that there is no extra charge to implement the change. Both of these claims are false at heart. I know, I just threw down the gauntlet, but my statements are factual.

They didn’t make CRE PCI Compliant at all! They just avoided the issue in the same way that many other small businesses have already been doing. Their solution lacks originality, and is nothing new in concept. The software is not any more compliant than the previous version. It is still buggy, the same potential vulnerabilities exist. It is no more secure than any other Open Source shopping cart.

All they did is create a third party gateway service, and a wrapper. They achieved PCI Compliance by moving it OUTSIDE the cart. So it isn’t the cart that is compliant at all! And to reach their claims, you have to use THEIR service.

You can do the same thing using PayPal Standard, SIM, YourPayConnect, Google Checkout, 2Checkout, or dozens of other services, and if you use them, your cart is already just as compliant as 6.4 can be. And this is true of Zen Cart, OSCommerce, CubeCart, X-Cart, Magento, PrestaShop, and every other Open Source Shopping cart!

They are touting this as a revolution, when it isn’t even an evolution that offers anything worth getting excited about. The wrapper technology is the only new aspect, and even that isn’t that much of an improvement over existing solutions which DO allow you to coordinate branding (CRE implies that they don’t in their marketing).

That is deception number one.

The second deception they are perpetrating is “free”. They claim the service is free. But when you read the fine print, there are (obscure) indicators that put the lie to that claim. Things like “free when you use one of our merchant account partners”, or “save $69 to $149 per year over the cost of PCI scanning services”. PCI scanning services cost between $350 and $800 per year. Hmmm…. Seems that there’s too big a gap between those numbers to qualify as “free”.

In the same breath, they say that you can use it with your existing merchant account (conveniently leaving out any mention of fees). But they do not say you can use it with your existing GATEWAY, because they are replacing it. And that is all that they have done. They have created a GATEWAY service. They claim they have put a vast amount of money into the system, but what they put the money into was the integration of the service into the cart, and the creation of the wrapper system.

The sales pages for the gateway (CRESecure) do not have a chart of fees, they do not have terms and conditions where you can review them, they have no options but to signup. This means many people are going to be in for a nasty shock when they get far enough into the signup process to read the fine print – or perhaps that CRE is hoping they WON’T read the fine print until they get the bill! The wording on the pages makes it obvious that someone went to a great deal of trouble to cloak the hidden costs and to make it appear to be something other than what it is.

There is no way to compare options – instead they wish to make it appear that there ARE no other options. If theirs really is best, why don’t they allow you to freely access the information you need so that you can make an informed choice? Do they really think that forcing people into a situation where they have to make a blind choice is the best way to maintain customer satisfaction?

The service is now so tightly integrated into the cart that the new version of the cart does not even offer you the option of NOT using it for a new install. This means that CRE has gone the route of attempting to FORCE people to contract a service from them in order to use their cart. Now, I’m sure they will tell you that you can still use the cart WITHOUT using their service. But they have gone to great lengths to make it appear that you cannot, or should not! And the install process is replete with dire warnings if you don’t!

Their current marketing of the cart consists of misleading statements with the goal of scaring you into using their solution. If you question them, they show you the PCI compliance documents (confusing and intimidating to the average site owner), and to make it appear that you have only TWO choices to achieve PCI compliance – use their service, or spend thousands of dollars to do it on your own.

The fact is, you can use one of the existing services (PayPal Standard, SIM, 2Checkout, YourPay Connect, Google Checkout) and achieve the same level of compliance – ANY established and reputable payment service which processes the credit cards on THEIR site instead of within your cart achieves the same degree of compliance as the CRESecure system.

They have promoted this in a dishonest fashion. Call it what they like, and twist it how they wish, it is still dishonest, and misleading, and it creates a dependency between the cart and the company’s services that is unacceptable for small business owners who need full ownership control of their websites.

Get honest, CRE! Growth doesn’t come from forcing people to do it your way. It comes from openly and freely offering CHOICES, and in being up front and honest about what those choices REALLY are.

It really does make one weary. Because it seems that each new version comes with the same longstanding issues, and new layers of what was a bad idea last time. You can explain, complain, and question, and they still doggedly stick to their unsustainable and unwise course. The problems don’t get fixed, because the philosophies never change.

Review of CRE Loaded 6.3 Pro and B2B

Late last fall, I was asked by a representative of CRE to do a review of CRE Loaded 6.3 B2B and Pro. It has taken some time to complete the reviews, due to the need to test out the functions in day to day usage situations. Even with multiple installs of the software running for various clients, we still have not tested everything, but we have tested enough to draw some conclusions and to see where the major changes have occurred.

I am pasting in the entire review here.

Published by
Laura Wheeler
Firelight Web Studio
(a division of Firelight Business Enterprises, Inc)
June 6, 2009

Copyright, 2009
Reprinting of this document is permissible ONLY if the entire document is published. Quotes may be extracted for online publication if a clearly labeled live link to the entire document is published directly below the quote.

CRELoaded Reviews

I have been very vocal about my opinion of the changes in CRELoaded 6.3 Standard, and I’m still a bit confused about why I was asked to review Pro and B2B. My opinion of them is not much gentler than my opinion of Standard, and in some ways, it is harsher, because of the pricing.

It has, in fact, taken MANY months to do this review. Because of a need to use it and actually test out functions in real-life situations. It is impossible to test a cart by looking at it, and most functions are not fully testable until you get them into real shopping demands. That takes time – hence the delay in releasing a useful review.

Even then, it is not comprehensive. There are features we were unable to fully test, because of a lack of demand for them.

I’ve already stated my opinions of the pricing structure, and the feature breakpoints, though I’m fairly certain that they were not read or listened to by anyone who could actually do anything about it.

I am striving in this review to be fair on both positives and negatives. Our clients use various versions of this software, and we depend upon it for some of our core service offerings.

Both Pro and B2B

I have long felt, based on experience with many carts, that CRE is the most flexible and sustainable option out there – not by a large margin, just on many carefully weighed points. Other options are either more complicated to deal with, or completely unsustainable for a number of reasons, or too immature to do what you need them to do. I still feel that way. But it does not mean that I think that CRE does not need work.

So here’s a quick rundown of the changes that I like, and those that I do not appreciate, along with things that should have changed but didn’t.

  • Infoboxes are more flexible to manage. You can position them up and down more easily without getting stuck in a section.

  • Design is harder to manage. Parts were put into the Admin, but since some bits are there, and some bits are still in the templates, it is very difficult to figure out where the change is that you want to make. And they are handled in more than one area in the Admin, further complicating the issue. It is very tedious to have to change the color of each infobox individually, especially when it is a slow and awkward process in the first place. We feel this was a step backward, not forward.

  • We are still having to fix bugs and adjust common elements to get the system to behave in commonly expected ways.

  • The installer still has the merchant account signup presented as a required part of registration. The link to skip it is small and not easily noticed.

  • The template sales in the site backend does not say who the credit card billing is originating from. This is a serious issue, making it seem shady.

  • I also dislike that many longstanding annoyances, inconveniences, and time wasters have not even been addressed. Most improvements were aimed at bells and whistles rather than core function.

  • This version has many things half-finished, or hidden goodies that are unpublished – they are not referred to in the documentation, and no instructions exist for using them. You may stumble on them, but have no idea what they actually are, or if they will work as you assume they logically should. I do not know if this happened because they were abandoned in the middle of them, or if the team did not have time to document them, or if they simply did not feel they were mature enough to want to have to support them.

  • We dislike the RSS feeds in the admin area. CRE’s server is perpetually overloaded, and those feeds can slow down the admin area of a site to the point of outright frustration, especially when combined with the clunky and redundant editing screens.

  • We also dislike the serial number validation methods. While we have no problem with CRE wanting to charge for the software, or wanting to require a serial number, validating it against CREs overloaded servers each time the site is logged into, is problematic for the end user, on a number of fronts.


Most of the B2B features work at some level, though figuring out how to use them is difficult. The manual is only partially helpful, since it only skims the surface. Many new features have been added which are not documented – some have cursory documentation stating the feature exists, others have no mention anywhere that they are even available, you may stumble on them, and then have to figure out what they do and how they work, or IF they work (many do not).

To me, the real value in B2B, and the only value worth upgrading for, has been the ability to create customer pricing groups – this is a functional feature which increases monetary potentials in measurable ways – most of the other features do not have that kind of return potential. This feature allows wholesale ordering capabilities to run alongside retail ordering. For many small merchants, this is a function that is difficult to find in a shopping cart. It still has some bugs and annoyances. Some are slated to be fixed in the next release, but there is no knowing whether that will actually be done, or WHEN it will be done, or how many new bugs will come with that.

Many of the annoyances have to do with how it is used – if you want to use all the features, you are in for some frustration. Many of the settings are straightforward, and logical. Others are buried in out of the way places, and require either extensive digging to find them, or someone has to tell you how to do it. Those that do work, often do so in a way that is crippled, offering only partial functionality.

The Affiliate program, which is only fully functional in the B2B version, is still too immature to be flexible enough to meet the needs of people who need a robust system. It works, but in a limited way. 6.3 does add some new functionality to it, and some if it very desirable (though undocumented), but it is still fairly simplistic as far as affiliate managers are concerned. It also has some longstanding issues of things simply not working, or being so inconvenient to access that actually using it is very irritating. The frontend links for this have always been broken, not going where they say they do, and the signup process is extremely unintuitive.

B2B ships with only a single template enabled. This is a serious limitation, in my opinion. CRE is fairly difficult to template, and while the templates for 6.2 were no great shakes, between the included templates, you could usually modify one to come up with something to work for most businesses. It is clear that the intent is that you purchase one instead.

Ok… but then that causes another problem, because at this time, templates that are compatible with 6.3 B2B are still very difficult to locate, and they are fairly costly when you do find them. Templates for content management systems are easy to find in the $35 to $50 range (and often free), but for CRE, they start at $135, and no other free ones are available. Hardly worth it when you’ll have to do as much coding on a purchased template as you would to modify the stock template. We have also found that many purchased templates introduce language file errors, and SQL errors when activating infoboxes, or activating other commonly needed functions.

The template that it ships with does have a couple of nice changes from the 6.2 templates. We like the horizontal menu, and the options on it, though the fact that it is hard coded into the mainpage file is unimpressive, to say the least. We’re not so crazy about the tiny links for contact page and policies page at the top and bottom of the page, and have removed them from many sites. We’ve pushed this single template into many shapes, and have done quite a bit with it, but it is more difficult to work with.


I know designers who think I am nuts for my opinion of Pro, but I’ve never seen the value in this. Not enough to pay for it anyway. It does offer some add-ons that generally cost something to get, but it does not have a significant value breakpoint for small businesses (our expertise is specifically with small business). There are things that make using it more convenient, but little that actually makes more money for the merchant.

I feel that CRE should have given Pro the more functional affiliate features of B2B, while reserving Customer Groups for B2B. This gives a clear monetary and functional advantage for each version.

Templating issues are the same as with B2B – limited, and very hard to find. In fact, Pro templates are harder to find than B2B templates.

When we agreed to test these and review them, I stated that I’d only do so if I could test them on actual client sites. I have been unable to do that with Pro, because I cannot find a client who wants even a free version, when they know they’d be locked into a long term pricing that was not justifiable. They want the function of B2B, but they do not perceive Pro as having enough difference over Standard to pay for it.


Our clients who have attempted to access support have stated that it is “less than helpful”. Answers are often obscure, or the equivalent of the “beats me” shoulder shrug.

Since the documentation is lacking in anything other than descriptions of the obvious, the real problems are hard to find answers for. A search of the forums sometimes helps, but many questions remain unanswered there, and others are hard to find because the search function is so abysmal. It also appears that many of the older helpful answers have been removed – searches now fail to pull up useful information that was once available under the same search terms.

I believe strongly that good documentation is the solution to this – both for providing resources to the tech support personnel, and for providing resources to the customer base. Charge for it, but get it done, because the lack of usable instructions is a huge hindrance to the growth of CRE.

CRE in general

I am still unconvinced that the company will be reliable long term in how they treat their customers. I feel that there have been longstanding issues, which have existed from the beginning, which have never been addressed. Many would be simple things to correct, or which could be easily addressed by placing priorities in the right order. Most criticisms of CRE come back to the same things, over and over. Those problems have been serious impediments to the growth of the company.

Many techs have made a profession around CRE. They’ve been able to do so partly because there is very little in the way of real help or documentation. If you are gifted enough to figure it out, you can make money helping other people figure it out. But it means that techs who are just learning the business go and learn other systems first, and never bother with CRE. Once a tech adopts a system and begins to build services around it, they rarely change to others. CRE’s best chance of getting techs to adopt CRE and promote it, is to make instructions available which address the common issues, and make it easy to get helpful answers.

Setup and sustainability still remain awkward enough that do-it-yourselfers generally avoid it unless they are a techie at heart. Once a client is introduced to the backend of the site, they can usually manage it fairly simply, and can often figure out how to do basic tasks without specific instruction. Beyond that, the learning curve escalates.

Longstanding Problems Still Unresolved

  • The setup screens are awkward, and time wasting. Three clicks to do what you should be able to do in one click.

  • Affiliate links on front of site are inaccurate, signup is awkward.

  • Checkout process loses sales at a HIGH rate due to inefficient workflow.

  • Newsletter manager is buggy, and has no throttling. A serious issue that makes it completely unusable for most businesses.

  • Options and attributes are slow to set up, unintuitive, and clunky. And buggy, they often do not work.

  • Quantity pricing tables are buggy – same bugs they’ve had for many versions.

  • Links system is a spam trap.

  • Mainpage is stored in a file instead of the database.

  • Contact Us STILL has to be hand-edited in the language file.

  • Affiliate Terms still have to be edited in the language file.

  • Articles functions are still awkward, and unintuitive.

  • Still requires a shipping weight to charge any kind of shipping, whether weight based or not.

  • Updating the software is still very difficult, due to the number of items hard coded into language and other files, and due to the number of bugs requiring patching on each install. This is a MAJOR problem for business affordability.

  • Many other functions do not work, are awkward, or require bug fixes on every install. This is true in spite of the “bug fix” updates.

New Goodies

This is not a comprehensive list – just some things we noticed that are helpful.

  • Sort order on products – you can sort the product order more easily.

  • Default customer groups – Saves some time on setup.

  • Product/Article Blurb – Useful for category display.

  • SubProducts – designate at bottom of product listing

  • Article product linking at bottom of article – needs this on pages too.

  • Edit button on Products and Categories – makes product editing slightly faster.

Broken Features and Half Finished Elements

Again, not a comprehensive list, just some of the most obvious

  • Contact Us – They’ve created a Contact Us item in the Pages, but it does nothing. Contact Us page still has to be edited by hand.

  • Affiliate Branding – Half functional and annoying – affiliate info will show up on the front of the site, but the Admin has to enter the information in. There is no interface for the affiliate to do so. The site header also changes for affiliate branding, BUT, there is NO WAY to turn it off! You have to edit the code and remove the branding code, OR, put your header image in for EVERY AFFILIATE, in order to get it to consistently display YOUR header or logo.

  • One Page Checkout is buggy. Still.


Do I think that the new features are good? Some of them yes. The ones that work, and the ones that actually enhanced the usability.

Do I think that either Pro or B2B are worth the current price? No.

My primary reason is that the price is high largely to cover the cost of support which many people do not need, or which they’d gladly do without to get a lower price. And the support isn’t stellar, by any means.

I believe that the slow adoption of 6.3 in general speaks volumes of the reluctance that people have in using software that is priced this high, and which has the issues that it does.

I have always felt that CRE would be better off charging a lower price for the software, and charging separately for support. This makes sense from a business perspective – maximize the profit from replicatable things, while minimizing the revenue streams that are low profit but which are labor intensive.

Reducing sales by charging a high price that has a built in labor intensive factor, is purely stupid. Increasing sales by reducing the price for the items EVERYONE wants (and which are cheap to reproduce because they require less labor), and eliminating the built in labor intensive aspect, would be the intelligent course.

Offer a low priced option with NO support. Let it sell like hotcakes. Offer a separate support package and make the support division of the company self-sustaining.

Long term, CRE needs to focus on fixing bugs, and working out the longstanding problems which affect sustainability for businesses. The competition is already figuring this out, and is making strides toward that goal. CRE is still mired in old problems that are not even on the schedule to be fixed, but which every person who uses it is annoyed by.

The treasure is definitely there – but it is by no means refined.


NOTE: Support was last tried about three or four months ago. All other comments reflect the status of updated 6.3 installs prior to 6.4.

Magento’s Turn

We researched a bunch more carts, and selected PrestaShop and Magento from the heap to learn to use. I’ve muddled my way through literally dozens of cart types and managed to make them work – some well, some not so well. Magento defeated me, and becomes yet another to be added to our “Never Again” list. Understand… I’m not stupid. I am pretty experienced now at templating, setup, and other common aspects of a range of dynamic software. I teach classes on this stuff, through a highly credible institution.

If you’ve wandered around in the cart world, Magento is getting rave reviews. At least, it sounds like it. But most people who choose not to use it just wander off, and never say a thing, because they somehow think maybe they were the cause, perhaps not smart enough.

It fails our tests on three critical points:

Design, Function, and Sustainability.

1. Templating is a nightmare. I kid you not. They not only scattered the template bits through about 200 files, they threw XML into the mix for no other reason than just because someone could, I guess. It feels very much like they happened to have someone who was all happy for XML, who just wanted something to do, so they let him work it into the templates. Unfortunately, for most designers learning how to template a cart, in a hurry, learning to apply yet another coding language, with proprietary usages, is not only inefficient, it vastly complicates things. Think I’m exaggerating? Look around. Algozone, Template Monster, and a number of other sites have Magento template areas with not ONE THING in them. All of the freely available templates for Magento are merely a variation on the default theme – many have just changed a graphic or two, no real significant changes are made. That says loudly that it is so difficult that even template gurus are avoiding it.

2. Bugs. Things just didn’t work. Simple things, like categories. And the fix for one was likely to cause something else to break. Some features didn’t quite work yet, because they are still on the drawing board. Some were supposed to work, and didn’t. Overall, it was surprisingly stable in some functions given the relatively young age, but it lacked stability in some rather basic areas.

3. Updates. Ok, so we NEED updates. And we expect them. In fact, one of the criteria for “good” Open Source software is that it have an active developer community. Magento feels a little more like being thrashed by Hammy. I downloaded and installed version 1.1.3, and tested it – the next morning there was a notice that 1.1.4 was available. I then downloaded and installed version 1.1.4 just a few days later. Within a week, there was a notice that version 1.1.5 was released, with a critical security update. Ok, I can see that. But then a week and a half later, version 1.1.6 was announced. Each update required a tedious install procedure (more tedious than the simple ones, but even simple ones would have been annoying every week!). Considering that each update had the risk and very real possibility of breaking something, it was simply too fatiguing to contemplate actually trying to manage a site in this for a client. How the heck could I afford to maintain it at my usual rates? And how in the world could the client afford to pay more just to keep up with an ill-planned update schedule? Many can barely afford even a small fee each month.

Given the complexity of templating, the lack of existing templates that would be easy to change, I’d have to charge considerably more to my clients for setting up the site. Given the bugs, they’d pay more, and get less than they expected. Given the update schedule, they’d be squeezed for even more to keep the thing running without unacceptable risk, and their site would be down once a week for updates and troubleshooting after doing the update.

I think that Magento has potential. But I think that it is immature, and that the templating is overly complicated without a benefit that even begins to justify the complexity. And the update schedule is simply insane.

This is one reason I have waffled back to the position of giving CRE one last chance. Because I keep getting told by other developers that there are plenty of other options. But there really aren’t. There are a LOT of potentials. Plenty of possibilities for tomorrow.

But today, we have only the choice between solutions such as PrestaShop (promising, functional, but lacking in at least one critical feature set), Magento (nuff said), Zen (clunky setup, awkward templating), CubeCart (I REFUSE to hand edit code just to get basic features, and then have to hand edit it again every time the cart needs a patch installed!), VirtueMart (functional, usable, but lacks key functions), Agora (PULLEEEZE… it has ONE shipping option… Anything else you have to custom code!), or any number of other almost but not quite usable cart systems out there that people use only because they don’t know that they shouldn’t have to spend all those extra hours setting up or maintaining a cart.

I’m not just complaining and trashing systems left and right. We are involved at a more practical level – reviewing and publishing reviews is necessary, I think. But actually working on the projects that can meet the need is also important. And we’ll keep doing that too. Sharing our knowledge of how to do things in CRE and Joomla, sharing our custom modifications for VirtueMart, making our auto-install systems available for others to use.

The need is there. And as long as our clients need it, we’ll fight to get it, and help create solutions.

And Again with CRELoaded – B2B Released

Well, I’m not happy with the pricing on B2B. It is the subscription model revisited. Some very discouraging elements to the new pricing on it.

First, they raised the price – a LOT. I can guarantee they will lose business because of it. Many people who need it, and who would buy it if priced lower, won’t. It does include some tech support, but many of those who need to just get in the door with it don’t really care about that.

The entire package is now $595. An upgrade from 6.2 is $250. They are giving a short term concession to recent purchasers of 6.2, to reduce it to $200. If you just paid $350 for a piece of software, would you be happy about being stung for another $200 when you discover two weeks after you bought it, that an upgrade is impending? They are offering a free upgrade for people who bought it recently – but only to the people who KNEW 6.3 was coming. NOT to the people who didn’t know that – those who bought 6.2 B2B just a week or so before 6.3 standard was released. Those are the people who were caught totally off guard, and had no idea that it was coming.

The nasty part to it is that the price includes only three months worth of updates and patches. That includes bugfixes and security patches! They want another $195 for 12 months of the privilege of downloading fixes! This is not standard for the software industry. The standard is that patches and bug fixes are free, whereas there may be another charge for major feature update versions. This is just a variation on the subscription theme.

I think they should have kept the price lower. I will say this until I’m blue. $300 is one of those mental price breakpoints for many small businesses who need to get in the door with a wholesale-capable cart option. If they needed to cut something, they should logically cut support. Not everyone needs it, or wants it. And business-wise, that would actually increase their profits. Here is why:

If you offer software at a price of $300, with no support, the bulk of what you make is gravy. You maintain the website, the documentation, and the forums. All relatively low costs. Lowering the price increases sales on the items with the highest profit margin. Hmmm…. that’s a good thing!

If you bump the price to $600, you not only slashed your sales by MORE than 50%, you also MORE than doubled the amount of overhead if you justify that increase by bundling it with support. Personal support is expensive to provide. The profit margin on it is very low. You have to hire people to put in hours, to provide that support. You just slashed your sales, and you just slashed your profit margin, both at the same time!

On the other hand, if you charge SEPARATELY for the software, and the support, you come out ahead. At the lower price, sales go up on the things that have the lowest overhead and the highest profit margin. That’s smart! And there is no built in support cost for people who do not need it (many people are perfectly happy using the forums) – support becomes a separate thing which has to then be self-sustaining, as it should be. It becomes the LESSER part of the business, where software sales becomes the greater part. Again, as it should be.

Higher sales, higher profits, with each business owner paying only for what they really need. Everybody wins.

That said, it is also relevant to mention that I’ve been asked to review both the Pro package, and the B2B package. I’m currently selecting suitable projects to use them with, so that they will be truly tested under actual business need conditions. The reviews will happen in two stages – short term first impressions, and long term performance. I’ll be posting links to the reviews here when they are completed.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

Take Heart CRE Users… X-Cart is Infinitely Worse

Gosh, I feel like a snippy critic for this one. I’d worry about it except that everything I’m going to say is absolutely true, and something that people investigating cart options oughta know.

A client contacted me to do some work on X-Cart. She paid for the software – no Open Source freebies here. We had trouble accessing the support forums in the first place, due to ownership issues. Once we did, I have become increasingly frustrated with this cart. I’ll outline a few of the reasons why I hope to never have to work on it again – in fact, any other new clients who have it will be turned down flat.

1. Documentation is weak. For a paid cart, that isn’t acceptable. It covers only the most basic stuff, and does not outline many necessary bits of info.

2. You are required to put the version number in the signature line of your forum posts to get help. The version number is hard to find – their instructions do not pertain to new versions. Once you find it, you have to go back and edit your forum profile just to put that sig line in. I don’t like being hassled to get help.

3. You have to edit a LANGUAGE FILE just to change the home page contents! Please be shocked here! This is inconvenient, awkward, and completely unacceptable for cart functions within the last five years! There are hundreds of language files, and you can’t even find the right one without explicit instructions.

4. The template is a NIGHTMARE. In excess of 100 files each one containing one little bit of the page, one snippet of the boxes, etc. The only templating I’ve seen that is worse, is Magento. I don’t mind a header, footer, and main template file. But when every single cell is chopped up on the page, and when the contents of those cells are all in different files from the cell code, it becomes an impossible task to try to edit any part of the design without a reference guide to do it. This level of complexity is not only unnecessary, it is the equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to get light.

5. Nothing is simple or logical. It is all convoluted and cumbersome. Backend functions take more steps than necessary, and there are no intuitive tasks. Forget trying to learn this one without both reading the manual, and spending a lot of time on the forums looking up stuff that should be intuitive, but is not.

6. Updating is also inconvenient. This makes site sustainability more costly.

7. Support is paid only. That wouldn’t be a problem, except they have two classes of tickets – HotRush, and Normal. If you have a problem that is urgent, like your site being down, the only way you can get timely help is with a HotRush ticket. They cost twice as much! Currently their support turnaround time on normal tickets is TWO DAYS! This isn’t just unacceptable, it is grossly irresponsible.

8. It has no outstanding features, no advantage that would make any of this justifiable. It doesn’t do anything that other carts don’t do, it doesn’t have ONE THING that is more convenient to do, or more functional. It isn’t a matter of the disadvantages outweighing the advantages – there simply ARE no advantages that would make this cart even a consideration for anyone who needs a functional cart.

I’d expect better than this from Open Source. In a commercial product, it is completely ridiculous. I cannot for the life of me figure out why someone would PAY MONEY for lousy software accompanied by bad support. That is available free, anywhere. Good software with decent forum support is available all over the place.

This doesn’t just go onto my “I don’t like it” list, it goes onto my “Never again” list. Sad, because at one time they had some potential. They obviously have not kept up with the rest of the industry.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

Don’cha Wish I’d Shut Up About CRELoaded?

Some things have gone on behind the scenes. One small improvement has occurred, along with some other troubling things. We take heart from the improvement, worry at the indicators that things are still very much up in the air where the future of this much needed software is concerned.

Some shakeups in leadership. Unknown what the effects will be.

Some forum members reinstated. This is a good thing, and they’ve come back in and are posting without recriminations. A hearty cheer for greatpcs (Jason over at Hoosier Web Design), and discounttools (Jody – sorry don’t know your major business name). I’m sure some others I do not know well enough to know about.

So, it is with great trepidation that I release a report, of sorts, which is a listing of recommendations. I’m releasing this publicly for two reasons:

1. I don’t have the ear of anyone at CRE anymore. This is a way to put this out there so it can be received in whatever spirit they choose to receive it in, or they can reject it outright.

2. I think there are great lessons to be learned about the Open Source world, and about treating your customers well, developing a project, targeting a market, support and service, and cost containment. In presenting my conclusions about what should be done, publicly, I am not just complaining and listing problems. I am giving the other half of the lesson – not just what should NOT be done, but how it might be done better, to overcome both the long term problems of the company, and the newer ones precipitated by a misguided attempt to overcome the earlier ones!

I don’t know all the inside scoop at CRE. But I know what is happening on the outside, and what those things mean must be happening on the inside. All recommendations are based on the problems I see. I’d assume there are other problems under the surface which I cannot address.

You may download the CRELoaded Recommendations PDF HERE.

I don’t expect them to like it. I don’t expect everyone in the CRE user base to applaud what I have to say either. But experience tells me my recommendations are sound, sustainable, and completely achievable, and that implementing them will turn the project around in the way it needs to be in order to not just survive, but to thrive.

I hereby throw it to the wolves.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post and in the attached report are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

CRELoaded’s Bad Business Example

NOT part of the Recession Survival Series – That will publish later today. Just an important interjection that should not wait.

I thought long and hard before writing this. I dislike categorizing someone else’s decisions as a bad example, but the mounting trail of actions on the part of the new CRE team comes together into some unmistakable patterns. I think an article about this, especially now, is both pertinent, and worth exploring to illustrate some points about business. I apologize for the negativity, but there just isn’t any way to be positive about this because it is SO CLEAR that what is happening is bad for everyone involved, ESPECIALLY the CRE developers. I’ve never seen someone so blatantly shoot themselves in the foot!

I think it is also relevant to point out that when CRE announced the update to 6.3, and its new pricing structure, my first impulse was to say, “Well, there goes that one, my clients will never go for yearly extortion.” (And it is that – no other software company disables part of the software if you do not renew. They withold updates or support, but they do not lock you out of the admin.) But one client said, “Oh, I can go for that.” (she is selling the store so she doesn’t need to worry much about sustainability), so we moved forward with it anyway. I thought I would be open minded about it and see whether the upgrade had value. I have now decided, irrevocably, that CRE will not be a sustainable option for our clients. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it again unless there are significant changes in both the company policy and behavior, and the software itself. I will explain those reasons in this post.

First, it is important to understand who the target market is. CRELoaded was Open Source software, and always had a free version available. Development was slow, the software was somewhat clunky, but fairly functional. There always remained a high number of bugs. Those who used it did not use it because they loved it, or because it was fabulous – for the most part, except for a few blindly rabid fans, they used it because it was the best of the worst. Cart software tends to be old, clunky, and built on aging frameworks (like CRE), or new, immature, and lacking in important features (it is incredibly complex, so development is very difficult). There is very little middle ground. CRE just happened to have a smidge more ease of use and sustainability than others. But the margin was SLIM.

CRE had a set of longstanding problems, leftover from its OSCommerce roots. OSCommerce is an aging dinosaur, which is even more clunky and awkward than CRE. But CRE retained enough of that to be time consuming and annoying to use in ways it should not have been. Less so than Zen, X-Cart, Cube Cart or some of the other options, but still frustrating to use much of the time.

In spite of that, a gathering of people, all with the thought that at least since it was Open Source, the community could contribute and make it better together, came together and did just that. Many of the major improvements in CRE were contributed by community members. The support base was almost exclusively community contributed. You got help from other users, not from the developers. There is a certain amount of idealism in the Open Source community, people are willing to band together for the common good.

So now, with a paid scheme in front of them, the community feels betrayed. The scheme was sprung on them with no notice, no warning. Purchasers of higher priced versions have no consideration if they have purchased very recently. Too bad, pay again if you want to upgrade. Long time users, who have invested a great deal in the CRE community are now told, pay if you want to keep your store going. If you don’t pay, your store either gets outdated, or if you already have upgraded to the new paid scheme, we’ll lock you out if you don’t KEEP paying. Contributors find that their contributions are now rolled into a package that THEY have to pay for if they want to use!

The developers are crying that they did it to make the software better. But that does not appear to be the case. The new package is mostly window dressing. They also claim they did it to provide better support. But they don’t. In fact, they’ve shut out the best helpers from the forum. They say they have “new documentation”, yet it is sparse, not even current for the new version, and only contains instructions for obvious tasks. The conclusions I draw from this are not very nice, but there is so much evidence, there really is no other conclusion.

You now get a little support when you pay for the software. Complaints on the forums allude to wasteful responses, and burning the support time in clarifications that should have been obvious, instead of getting actual help. Further, since they’ve shut down the people on the forum who can help you there for free, and have driven off many others, the conclusion is that the developers resent the free source of information, and want to confine people to the paid support.

If you think this conclusion is off, consider:

  • The major contributors to the forums have been suspended from the forums. These are the ONLY source of helpful information on trickier issues.
  • The ONLY voice for the company, who ever posts to the forums, has NEVER ONCE actually answered a question, even when the answer had to be fairly simple. NOT ONCE. The answers are always hedgy, they circumvent the actual question, and then lay blame for the criticism of the project on “unprofessional” behavior of the criticizers. If you express dissatisfaction, apparently, you are unprofessional!

At the same time they have done these things, they have embedded yet MORE advertising in their software. Not only do you have to pay a yearly fee with the promise of penalty if you do not, but they have placed advertising through the whole software interface. It shows up during the install (in a way that is not obvious that it is not a required informational field instead of a request for info from a service), template ads embedded in the design area, active ads at the top of the admin.

Again, we might accept these things if there were significant improvements. But I’m not seeing that either.

The longstanding problems are still there. A little bit of eye candy (and not even GOOD eye candy, the design improvements are pretty lame) in the backend, a few more modules bundled in, and one or two tweaks which did not make things easier, only changed how it is done. No real VALUE added to the package for the average user.

Consider… Leftover from OSCommerce, the software has had a major issue in wasting time. It does this in two ways:

1. Database queries are very wasteful, and SO SLOW, that you spend an average of 15 to 45 seconds just waiting for an admin page to load. 5-10 seconds is considered normal to long for page load times. Cumulatively, this adds up, and it drives people off from the frontend also, costing in customers.

2. The interface is clunky, requiring 2-3 actions to do things that should take 1. To configure the store, I am confronted with more than a dozen links. Each of these leads to a page of config options – each page has probably 20-30 options on it. In order to edit any of those, I must first select it… and wait for the page to load. Then I have to hit an Edit button… and wait for a page to load. I can then edit the item, and… wait for the page to load again. I am spending between 1 and 2 full minutes on EACH OPTION. That means it takes me 15 to 30 minutes to edit each set of options instead of the 2 minutes it should take. All in all, HOURS of wasted time for each install and setup. This should be done in a single screen. Load the list of options, and edit fields already visible, so all options can be edited at once. A single form for each set of options, instead of hundreds of fiddly separate forms. There is no reason why it should not have been done LONG AGO. I just don’t have that kind of time to waste. I’ve used Joomla. I know what config interfaces should be.

The new version has only 2 templates. The old standard, and a new one that is WORSE than the old standard as far as coding methods and editability. It has hard coded images all through it instead of putting them into the stylesheet where they can be more easily controlled. One can only assume that the lack of quality templates, and the lack of templates in general (they reduced from 4 to 2), was to provide an incentive for people to purchase templates instead.

It is abundantly clear that all the “work” they were doing on 6.3 and the delays to release were caused not by the developers slaving night and day to bring new features or improvements, but to embed all the new revenue generation bits and protections into the code. They developed for their greed, and not for the customer need. That is pretty short sighted, because if they’d just made it good, and done some real improvements, people would not be nearly so grumbly about having to pay for it. All that coding time they spent forcing customers to pay for more and more just serves to detract from the value, and tick off the customers. REALLY foolish.

Interestingly, they are running around doing a lot of “image control”, and spending a LOT of time trying to put bandaids on all the negative reviews and comments. This is borne out in their forums and by the fact that they dug out my blog (not by any means a ragingly popular blog), and took the time to comment. Now, not ONE issue has ever been addressed other than by placating and evasive words. Had they done what they knew to be right, and were they confident in what they are doing, they’d be concentrating on fixing problems and hurrying to address issues with actual helpful information. The fact that they don’t do this tells me that they KNOW they are on shaky ground, they know they are being unfair and inconsiderate, and they know that they are also on legally questionable ground (a whole ‘NOTHER story!). Even STARTING down that kind of road is foolish. It tells me they are more concerned with ILLUSION than with REALITY. Always a deadly course for a business. And suggests ulterior motives – questionable ownership, and the possible intent to bleed the company and walk away, or to use it for other less honorable purposes. For any serious business, problem resolution and prevention is ALWAYS more profitable than damage control after the fact.

It is important to realize that a store owner cannot just “move to another cart”, otherwise you cannot quite understand the position that a cart users is put in when a cart moves from free to paid, or worse, to a situation like CRE just did. Each cart has DAYS of work involved in the setup, and often hundreds or thousands of dollars spent to get it the way they needed it. Sometimes custom coding has been done, to get just the right features, and that custom code, design, and config work cannot just be ‘ported to another cart. Most of the time, it must be painstakingly redone. So what is the struggling shop owner to do? This change will cause many to either operate a store that is at risk for security exploit, or to be forced out of business. Yes, it is that serious, especially in the current economic climate.

Now, there is a complete conclusion here. It is a lengthy one, for which I appologize, but it must be explained fully to get the whole import.

First, they deprived people of their agency. They took away the independent options, and are muscling people into a position of HAVING to buy what they did not choose to purchase in the first place.

Second, they have demonstrated over and over that they do not appreciate the help of the community, in fact, they resent it, and want it to go away. There is no other conclusion for the events on the forum.

Third, they will shut out any resources which provide any alternative to purchasing services or enhancements from them. They fear any competition, they have no willingness to develop a spirit of helpfulness.

Fourth, their actions are completely contrary to the community spirit of Open Source. They are driving away the very community that build them, and turning on them in a fairly nasty way.

Fifth, the leadership is talking a lot, but saying absolutely nothing of value. The comments on one of my previous CRE posts are clear evidence of that. Lots of placating words, an effort to manipulate me into accepting blame as the unreasonable bad guy, but no actual addressing of actual issues. There never has been, and one can only assume there is no effort to do so.

Sixth, the software has only ever been good enough to compete as a free offering. If I want bad software, I can get it free anywhere. If I want GOOD software, that is also available free. If I want to actually PAY for poor support, I can get that from ANY company out there! If I want to pay for obsolete OSCommerce underpinnings, I can get LiteCommerce. If I want nightmarish templating, I can get that from X-Cart. If I want unsustainability, I can get that from CubeCart. If I want any of those options for free, the choices are plentiful. Any one of those packages costs less over time than CRE, and is no worse. I refused to pay for them because they had serious problems – and I feel that paid software ought to NOT have the most obvious sustainability problems.

Seventh, they are spending a lot of time on image control, and on policing negative publicity. Time that could be better spent actually addressing the issues. They KNOW they are in trouble, and they know the course they are on is indefensible – otherwise they’d answer effectively, and work on fixing what is wrong.

Eighth, they did this at the beginning of a recession! People are looking at CUTTING BACK, not adding on expenses. BAD TIMING!

Ninth, the combination of poor decisions and inconsiderate actions on their part, not to mention just bad business management in their choices to just go around telling people to stop complaining and gee everything will be ok cause we are really nice people after all instead of actually addressing issues in an open and helpful manner, combined with an unsustainable payment model, means that they cannot stay in business long under the current structure and policy. I am a startup expert. I know what it takes to succeed. They have consistently done everything that would get in the way of long term momentum, and they are currently driving off their most loyal customers – those that were responsible for bringing them the most business. The only customers left are those who feel they have no choice. That is a poor base, they’ll eventually find other options.

I think the company cannot survive more than another year, perhaps two at the outset if they continue as they are. That is a well-considered opinion there, and one that I feel strongly. This is, perhaps, the primary reason I will no longer recommend it as a viable and sustainable option for my clients. The company is not stable enough to ensure that the software will go forward in growth with my clients. It is too likely to fold and simply disappear. I won’t advise that my clients invest in something so shaky.

I’ve advised that my clients get behind new projects a lot. We’ve invested our time and support behind MANY young projects, and many Open Source projects. This one, we can’t. It lacks the two most important elements in Open Source, and brings with it baggage and a developing track record that virtually guarantees their failure.

For the record, the two most important factors in Open Source, to ensure sustainability, security, and growth, are:

1. An active and responsive developer community. Theirs is obviously not responsive, and their activity is concentrated more on developing more forced revenue streams than on delivering value to the users.

2. An active user community. It is drying up so fast that only a few die hard hopefuls are left, and some ignorant newbies who did not know what they were coming into.

So the whole point here is, in those points above, CRELoaded has given us an admirable roadmap of what NOT to do if you want to stay in business. If their actions were carefully calculated to drive off their customers and go down in an unspectacular poof of electrons, they have chosen exactly the course to ensure that it happens.

Take a lesson from them:

1. Understand your target market, and put their needs first.

2. Base your revenue generation on the choices and goodwill of your customer base.

3. Give good value at every point possible.

4. Cultivate a spirit of helpfulness.

All four are things they have failed to do, and which can make or break a business. DO those four things, and you can succeed and compete even against big business. Fail to do those things and you’ll crash, no matter WHAT your business size.

So long CRE… been nice knowing you, but I don’t think I’ll be there for the funeral.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

More About CRELoaded

I don’t like the direction that many things are going with CRE. It is more than going to a subscription model, it is a dramatic shift into something less… in many ways.

They state that they’ll be doing more for support. But they’ve banned some of their most active members from their forums, stating that they did so due to rude and disruptive statements by those members. Yet that was not the case in at least one instance. Those active members have been, over the years, the REAL support and function behind CRE. Without them, no one would be able to use the software.

It is the opinion of many that the members were banned due to disagreement. That they disagreed with the developers. Posts that disagree are promptly removed.

This is no longer about community. It is about dictatorship. Understand that Open Source REQUIRES a community to succeed. CRE succeeded because members contributed. Now they have no reason to do so. Why should they for the profit of someone else? And especially when that someone else is no longer listening to the community.

It is disheartening. There are those who still want to contribute – myself included. But we will be very reluctant to do so if the project moves more in the direction that it is going now.

It is no longer about one thing. It isn’t about whether it is a paid or free model. It is about community. And it seems that the developers no longer appreciate their users. They SAY they do. But their actions are indicating a profound disrespect for them.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

The Great Cart Review Continues

We found two carts that we like so far, which look like they’ll be sustainable. One has a fussy (but flexible) templating system, the other is more standard, though less flexible. The backends are the same – both are surprisingly navigable, though the terminology isn’t exactly intuitive, and both are highly functional cart systems, one with more choices than the other. For the first time, we’ll have two stable database cart options, one in the $500 starting price range – a first. We have that now for our CMS systems, but not for our cart systems, so this will be a benefit to our clients long term.

Carts have some functions that you expect. One is that there will be a functional installer. Sure, you still have to create the database, but the installer runs and creates the config file.

One of the systems did not have that. No documentation on their site about it either, they put it into the install folder instead. In the current technological arena, nobody OPENS an install folder to LOOK inside it, they point their browser to it instead! Not this one… You had to import the database file yourself, and set up the config.

Sure, I know how to do those things, they’d take me an extra 5 minutes or so to do. My point is, why should I have to? Every other cart does that for me. If that is left off, what else is left off? How much can I trust the rest of the software, or the development team to see to the needs of the user?

I did not even install it. I deemed it unworthy of my time, based on the fact that the first function I expected from it was missing.

Fair? Maybe not. But that is the reality of business, software, and the web. If you lose someone on step 1, they’ll never get to see how great step 2 is.

So after a long day of sorting through cart systems, I have two that are worth offering. Neither one was even available as a viable option a year ago when we last made this search. This time though, I’m more experienced in seeking out information about carts, and how to assess them. I searched for several weeks last time, and was able to do most of it in a day this time.

So, we’re now offering a deep discount on the first client site builds in these two systems – one a functional but lightweight system, one a full featured system. First come, first served.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

Our Philosophy Behind Using CRELoaded, Joomla, and CMSMadeSimple

We use free Open Source systems. We don’t do so to be cheap, but merely as a way of producing affordable solutions.

I know that my clients will not be able to afford or justify a yearly subscription fee, and most cannot afford software fees at all unless they are just for a few necessary add-ons. They already have to pay ongoing fees for maintenance, to keep the site software updated. One more fee on top of that is a deal breaker for them, and I know that it will be for others also.

By becoming “just another commercial cart”, I believe that CRELoaded will lose a huge portion of their user base. That, in turn, will reduce the viral nature of a good Open Source project. Joomla, and CMSMadeSimple, which are the other two major software systems that we build site solutions around, do not have any indication of going commercial, though they do have some commercial enhancements.

There are other projects, still free, which have been nipping at the heels of CRE for a long time, and which have made significant progress in the last six months. Our company will be testing those, and adopting the most flexible solution. We have no choice with the market we serve. I’ll report on what we find when we make a choice, and I’ll start testing the two most promising ones today, in between working on a Joomla template.

Our clients give back a great deal over the long term. But they use freely available Open Source software as a means of getting a foot in the door, until they have the means to give back. In the mean time, they are donating time and service, volunteering to move good projects forward, and giving in other ways while they do not have money to give. They are people worth helping, and we keep our own service prices low by building site solutions using Open Source software.

Our company gives back also – we support and assist with several Open Source projects, offering documentation assistance, usability help, and promoting them. We aren’t parasites who are just complaining about the loss of a free tool. We’ve invested in every system we’ve used, and provide training, tips, and encourage their use with both clients, and colleagues. Each system we use has a section in our Trade Association pages, where we are assembling resources and tools for them.

We are not the only company out there that promotes Open Source software, nor which contributes to it. When an Open Source project moves from a freely usable business model, to a commercial business model, they lose a large portion of their user base, and an equally large portion of their contributor base. Active members drop from the help forums, abandon the Wiki, and contributing developers wander away to more promising projects. After all, why should they contribute freely to a project for which someone else makes money but they do not? And why should they develop paid contributions when the likelihood of sales are much lower?

I faced the same issue with Front Porch Folks. I could develop it around a free membership model, a paid membership model, or a combination with free and Premium memberships. Before I made the final decision, I took a poll of the membership. Even though the free model meant ads in places that reduced the value of their membership, most members voted for an ad based revenue model. We had to think creatively to make that work within the structure of that site. But it was worth it, because the support of the members is very strong. They know now that we listen to them, and that we’ll be responsive to their requests. Most of the new members that come in are doing so from promotions that the members are initiating. They know we have to make money from it to keep it going, and they don’t mind that. They just want the most open community possible for networking, and that happens best by keeping it free. The same holds true of Open Source – indeed, that is the power in it.

It is also not wise to load every kind of revenue generation into a project. If you are going to charge for the service, then don’t plague the users with ads at every turn. They already paid for it, and built-in ads that are not a genuine service to the user should be left off.

There is no perfect solution to it all, it is going to be hard any way you do it. But I believe that in this current economy of high competition, and plentiful freebies, that some businesses and products will simply be stronger, and healthier, and be able to earn more, if they remain with a free option.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.


CRELoaded Just Flushed Itself

Version 6.3 was released. No upgrade path is offered for recently purchased versions of the B2B version, and they do not yet have a B2B version.

More importantly, they are now charging on a yearly subscription instead of a lifetime fee. And they are charging $99 for the version that used to be free. A huge percentage of their most ardent defenders will be dropping off the CRE map.

The bug reports are starting to flood in as well. Obvious things. This makes one wonder how well they tested it before greed got the better of them and they decided to release it in the paid version.

We’ve noticed other changes lately also, which speak ill of the company.

1. They put a merchant account signup into the install process. They made it look like part of the install process, with just a very tiny “skip this” link at the bottom. I don’t have a problem with them monetizing things, but this is deceptive. If you fill it out, it doesn’t help you anyway, it just results in a sales call a month or so later.

2. They now sell templates from the inside of the design area in the system. The company that sells them is obscured, it uses an affiliate link and a generic URL, with private registration. It also offers an “exclusive license” with no reports on who else has purchased the template first – so the word “exclusive” is misleading and dishonest.

Add that to lackadasical development, and you come up with a picture of a company that I want to do business with less and less.

Up to this point, we have used and recommended CRE because of the available Open Source carts, it is the simplest to configure, and the most sustainable. It isn’t by any means close to what is really needed, but at least it can be maintained without costing the businses owner a fortune in custom file alterations each time an upgrade has to be done (can you say “Cube Cart”), and without something as clunky as Zen cart’s unintuitive setup and template overrides (which still have to be hand edited if an update includes any of those files).

Sad to see something with some potential go this way.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

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