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 Authorize.net 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 (artisteer.com). 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 (http://www.divinepotential.com 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.

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