August 29, 2005

Sunshop Shopping Cart Review

We’ve just finished another client’s website utilizing TurnkeyWebTools’ Sunshop Shopping Cart. As many of us need a good, reasonably easy-to-use and user-friendly shopping cart that is as search engine friendly and configurable as possible, I thought I’d do a review.

This was a review of Sunshop 3.x — please go to my Sunshop 4 Review -Diane

Installation and Visuals

The latest version of Sunshop includes a php page to upload and access via browser, after which it ran through a test and output results that tell you which version of an encrypter needs to be installed. Note: because Sunshop is (according to their site) "98% open source", a programmer friend suggested that the encryption is likely utilized for the two percent that is not open source. Fair enough; I just wanted a good shopping cart, and there’s plenty of code there to read if you so desire.

Configuring Sunshop

I’ve not installed OSCommerce (that, or something like it, are next), but the initial appearance of Sunshop is very similar: right and left columns filled with all kinds of boxes of stuff; middle column for products. My experience with such software (including blogs) is that it can take five or so minutes to install the software, and then next 20-30 hours to redesign and configure it.

For instance, after selecting an item from an index page of thumbnail images, many shopping carts take you to the product page which displays, in all its miniscule glory … the same thumbnail. In my view, an individual product page isn’t the time to redisplay an already-seen thumbnail, nor the time to assume people have enabled JavaScript so that they can view the larger product image in a popup. In my experience, many people (I’d say most) don’t know what a browser is, let alone JavaScript, and won’t know why popup windows don’t pop up; they’ll just assume the site is either broken or too hard to understand (worse, from a sales point of view, as the customer has now been made to feel stupid). In my view (and in my preference), a product page is a clear indication that the time for cute HTML tricks has passed. It’s time to
entice and to sell. Thus, product page = large image. And all the work that that implies to make it so. <grin> Anyway …

Sunshop uses a gigantic template that contains seemingly every feature used anywhere in the cart. For those willing to face down dragons with a toothpick, you can download the template via the Control Panel, edit it, and re-upload. For everyone else, you can edit pieces of the main template (header, footer, various pages, etc.) via the Control Panel. And you’ll likely be happy that, during install, Sunshop has detected and set itself to various server configurations, like the presence, configuration and location of cURL (making it, so far as I could tell, unnecessary to have one header with http links and another for secure https links).

In my case, liking the software as I do, I rewrote some of the CSS so that I could use my "templates" in Sunshop and just drop "my" Sunshop CSS into any site’s external CSS file.

Sunshop also has other features, like being able to assign groups, set up affiliates and discount coupons, but I haven’t used these. It also creates packing slips. Best of all was a new feature re shipping. Last time I set up a shopping cart, I had to sign up the client at a major shipping venue (UPS?) and input his client account number into the shopping cart. (Can you feel your web designer time burning up here? <grin>) This time, initiating the UPS shipping option from within the Sunshop control panel walked me through the whole signup process to completion.

As well, my client contacted USPS (United States Postal Service) re getting an account so that we could use usps.com’s live shipping fee module, and sent me a mind-boggling (I’d say mind-blowing, and that it was!) huge PDF file with instructions for setting up and testing the USPS API. A quick call to TurnkeyWebTools, where I was advised that they’d already done all that and tested to USPS’ — and their own — standards. Happily tossing out the PDF, I simply enabled the module within the control panel and was good to go.

Search Engine Friendly Shopping Cart URLs

Out of the box, Sunshop uses JavaScript for some pretty neat features — and session IDs. I scraped out much of the JavaScript in areas that didn’t really need it, and then — after redesigning the look, setting up taxes and shipping and everything else — used the built-in conversion of product pages to HTML with URLs based on the product titles. On a site with a small number of products, this process was very brief. The end result is some pretty fast-loading pages. Add to this your knowledge of on-page SEO and, again, you’re good to go.

Pricing & Tech Support

Sunshop costs about $189 USD. Given that something like OSCommerce is free, why would I buy a shopping cart? Familiarity, for one thing, but there’s another: support. They have it. That’s: included support.

While TurnkeyWebTools does provide email support as well as forums (and a most polite, low-key moderator, for those of use who have "lived" in SEO forums), the fact that one can call during work hours and speak to a tech is a huge plus. Certainly beats plowing through dozens of forum posts, hoping an issue’s been covered. I figure the money spent is less than my time is worth. What’s more, nothing seems to rattle these guys; they’re calm, polite, even cheerful — and how often are you able to call a software company and speak to someone who knows the code well, wants to help, and is even willing to take a look under the hood for you — at no additional cost?

What’s more: they listen. I had a number of conversations with the Sunshop guys during an earlier install, particularly with respect to making Sunshop a more search engine friendly shopping cart. As it turns out, I think I was talking to the owner and head coder; at any rate, when I returned for the recent purchase, the sales person was happy to explain the new features, which included almost every last thing I ever had in mind.

Nice, eh? Not only that, but if you sign up as a reseller (they evaluate all reseller applications) and buy two or more copies, there’s a 20% discount, with larger discounts to follow … and that’s not for purchases made at any one time but for cumulative purchases. After purchase, you just log in to assign your purchased copies to clients.

TurnkeyWebTools also has another, smaller one-page shopping cart, as well as LiveHelper software. I haven’t tried these yet but, as you can tell, I’m a happy camper. And no, there are no affiliate IDs in my links above (it doesn’t work that way); I’m just talking because I’m happy with the product and the support and their search engine friendly shopping cart.

ADDED: Truthfully, I sincerely appreciate people who take the time to comment on this blog and I’ve never before had to moderate comments, except for spam. But, for some reason, the comment section below turned at times into heated exchanges. Since some of that seemed to be based on misunderstanding, and in celebration of my long overdue Sunshop 4 Review, I’ve cleaned up the comment section. Hopefully what’s left will still be of help.

28 Comments to "Sunshop Shopping Cart Review"

  1. Sophie Wegat says:

    Excellent review Diane – thanks. looks like I’ll be giving it a whirl too. :)

  2. DianeV says:

    Thanks, Sophie. I have to say that I wrote it, in part, for you. I may try some others but, on the other hand, I just may not bother.

  3. Glen says:

    Hi, thanks for your review. I am trying to figure out which way the company I work for will go in relation to online trading.

    I think Sunshop looks good. I’ve also had a quick look at LiteCommerce, which seems ok aswell.

    Your review has encouraged me to lean towards purchasing Sunshop – Thanks.

  4. DianeV says:

    Hi Glen. Sunshop is one of a few I’ll be trying (isn’t that always the way), but it’s good to know it’s there and that it’s workable.

  5. T C Ligon says:

    Thanks for the review.

    I have installed several OSCommerce sites and have even tried the CRELoaded version. After all is said and done I am looking at the SunShop because of the text fields allowed in product options. In fact with the product options included with SunShop I dont think any modification of the code will be needed for a client with very intense requirements.

    You review has helped.

  6. awd says:

    I would like to comment on this old discussion. While sunshop is not perfect, it has lots of great features. Apparently v4.0 is due out soon which will be a major rework (including CSS configured layout, rather than tables). I had some issues with v3.5, and thought there were some confusing things in the software, but ultimately, it’s very customizable, their support is very helpful and usually very prompt. If not for their support, I wouldn’t bother with them. It would be nice to say you don’t need support, but this stuff can be tricky and I don’t think there is a perfect program out there. It’s way cheaper than some of the other stuff I’ve seen, and includes more features than others.

    I’m waiting for the v4.0, but they’re definitely worth a shot.

    (btw – litecommerce code is terrible!!! I used them once…)

  7. DianeV says:

    Thank you, awd, for your comments. It’s always helpful for people to get multiple views of a product.

  8. ctrick says:

    this is a nice script yo make a e-commerce site. I’m developer and this is into my favorites

  9. Diane Vigil says:

    I agree. Version 4 should be out soon, and it’s pretty fantastic.

  10. StevenH says:

    Hello All…

    I wanted to address the issue of comparing OsC to SunShop. I’m a bit confused as to how this link was made and why it’s being so viralently defended. Sunshop is nothing like OsC from anything other than the initial look and feel to the client. What cart doesn’t look like any other cart at first?

    Take it from someone who has tried OsC (and gave it a fair shot I might add), and its cousin from hell ZenCart also. As a hosting admin and site developer I try to find programs that take a load off of me rather then piling more on. SunShop is easy to install and from what I can tell (so far) will be a far cry from the complexity THAT IS the OsC backend.

    Let’s take a look at it from a support issue. Has anyone had a problem with a particular area of OsC or Zen? Have you posted the problem in their “SUPPORT” forums just to wait for an answer? In most cases the response, if any, doesn’t address your issue let alone solve it! Last week I threw my hands up with the GNU based carts and opted for SunShop. I installed it in 15 minutes and spent a few hours looking at the lack of complexity with a big fat grin. I had one issue and was pleasantly supported by email within 30 minutes.

    Finally a program that isn’t built for a coder.

    Simplicity can be extraordinary in a world built by people who think all end users are programmers too.

    I am parking my 3.5 install until 4.0 comes out in the next few weeks. I look forward to it being the “FIX ALL” I expect. I went over my needs with one of the support guys and I think 4.0 should handle it all just fine. The new version will include the only out of the box weight based pricing feature (that I could find), which is what I have needed for nearly two years. Don’t these cart programmers know that a ton of merchants sell weight based product? Coffee, Tea, Gold, Silver…etc When the commodity price changes enough you have to go into ever product and change its price up or down with the market. That is so nonfriendly to us. I’m looking forward to 4.0 just for that change alone.
    ________________________________________

    I know this is old and it has been a year since the original post but I’d like to throw my 3 cents in. Flint, you are obviously more upset with the company rather than the program. I think that the response from a misinformed, shoot from the hip attack was quite reasonable. I’m not sure how you (Jean-Paul) saw it as being rude. Not once was there anything more than an inteligent addressing of each issue with a well thought out counter.
    ________________________________________

    OSc setup is easy?

    If you think listing a product after setting classes, attributes and a phenomenally hard template customization is easier, than more power to you.

    The preceding is my opinion. I do not, nor have I ever worked for Turn Key, I am just a client. If in the near fiture my opinion changes I’ll be happy to digress but for the moment this is my position.

    Thanks for letting me hurt your eyes… :)

    Steven
    IC Online Services

  11. Diane Vigil says:

    Thanks for your input, Steven.

    I am mightily looking forward to Sunshop 4, too. :)

  12. Diane Vigil says:

    Simplicity can be extraordinary in a world built by people who think all end users are programmers too.

    That has to be my favorite quote of the month, if not longer.

  13. Com One Communications says:

    After being in the web design and hosting business for 12 years,and specializing in e-commerce solutions for 7 years ( we have over 400 active shopping cart customers as monthly web hosting clients) I am amused with this thread….. we have tried over a dozen shopping cart scripts, from Comersus and SalesCart (ASP carts) several perl scrips and numerous PHP applications, including OSCommerce, CRE Loaded, X-cart…..and big boys like Miva and Actinic…weve used them all ( and still have many installs using all of the above) … we decided 3 years ago to become an ASP provider for Sunshop and havent regretted it for one minute.

    Are any of the posters here ( besides Diane V, who I know and respect) really knowledgeable about real world shopping cart design, modifying and integration? If you are then you must be aware that, although no software is perfect, that overall Sunshop delivers more features, is easier to use ( beyond the initial couple of weeks to learn everything there is to know about modifying it) is constantly upgraded by the developers, and offers as good if not better email support that any cart I have ever used.

    It seems like the posters here have tried OScommerce or another cart, then given Sunshop a couple of hours evaluation and then written it off…. particularly with the awesome V4 version bouncing around in RC… there has never been a better time than to look at Sunshop….

    We are always looking at new carts that come out, but after 3 years with Sunshop, for now we are staying put

  14. Diane Vigil says:

    Thanks for that data, Dan. By catalog and product pages, are you referring to Sunshop’s ability to create static HTML pages?

    If so, I love that feature. The only time I don’t use that is when I need some of the dynamic features (the mini-shopping basket that shows what you’ve added to your cart, or the dynamic currency conversion of prices).

  15. Sean Harrington says:

    Diane,

    I would like to thank you for managing such and extensive, informative, and helpful forum of Sunshop related information. I just finished reading all 50 posts (as of 9/06/07) and feel that I have made the right decision in recommending Sunshop to my client, whom I am building and e-commerce site for. I recently finished a Graphic Design program at a University that focusses more on print based design rather that web design or programming. In a four year bachelor’s program, there are only 3 web design classes that are offered (in contrast to the 15 print technology, typography, and studio design classes that are available). Having taken all 3 web classes, (only one of which was required) I am confident in my ability to build sites in CSS and Flash. However, the majority of my programming abilities I have learned by experimenting, troubleshooting, and reading. So I am perfectly willing to put in the time required to learn a new programming tool or language.

    In the initial planning stages for the e-commerce site that I am building, my client and I looked at several shopping cart programs before deciding on Sunshop. Although I did not come across your blog prior to purchasing Sunshop, I did find a few positive customer reviews that led to the eventual purchase. Now coming from my background that has more of an emphasis on design rather than programming, it did take me quite awhile to get Sunshop installed.

    When I first ran the version tracker, I received “Failed” messages across the board. I contacted the folks at Turnkey Webtools and they were very helpful in determining that my client’s server configuration would need some modifications before Sunshop can be properly installed. Lucky for my client, he has one of the most professional and efficient hosting companies imaginable. (For any of you in the Portland, Oregon area, the guys are Spirit One truly amazing!) They were able to determine that the site was set up on a DSL only package, and needed to be upgraded to a DSL/Web Hosting package.

    After this was set up, the Zend Optimizer version of Sunshop failed, but the Ioncube version passed. So after downloading the Ioncube version of Sunshop 4, I read in the installation instructions that I needed to set up a data base with the specific read, write, and execute permissions. Well, having never dealt with this before, the hosting company was extremely helpful in assisting me with this set up so we could get the Ioncube version of Sunshop running. The only problem, was that when I attempted to load the Ioncube version, I kept getting a message that said “Install2.php is corrupted.” It took some time on hold to get through to TWT Support on this particular day, but when I did I was extremely impressed with the service. When I explained the situation I was asked the obvious questions as to whether the database was set up and the “Config.php” file was properly modified to correspond with the database. “To the best of my knowledge,” was my answer and as it turned out, I had set up everything properly. Yet for some reason, the install would not run, and the TWT support tech kindly offered to attempt the installation process for me, free of charge. After several hours of work and troubleshooting, it was determined by TWT that the Ioncube version was not going to run on my client’s server and that the solution would be to have the hosting company install Zend Optimizer. Since this program is a free download, the folks at the hosting company had no problem helping me out with this request. As soon as Zend Optimizer was loaded onto the server, I was able to finally complete the installation processes. During the installation, I did have to make a few calls to both Sunshop and the hosting company to get the permissions and the “Config.php” file set up correctly, but these were minor issues that were resolved quickly.

    So now, here I am with Sunshop installed, and no real idea of how to get started on modifying the look, or even linking it to my website. Since there are no instructions outside of the installation that are included with Sunshop, I am hoping that there may be some tutorials online or somewhere in the TWT forums. Do you, or any of your readers know of a source for basic, how to get started information on Sunshop? I have explored the admin area briefly, but would like to have a better feel for what I am doing. If there are currently no written or video tutorials in existence, are there any tips that you or your readers can offer? Are there points that you wish you had learned earlier in your work with Sunshop? Thank you again for your reviews and blog. It is through which that I look forward to eventually becoming a Sunshop Ninja. Sean.

  16. Diane Vigil says:

    First of all, you’re very welcome. We all started from the beginning, and help each other, you know?

    Secondly, thanks for your take on the guys at TurnkeyWebTools. In my few years of experience with them, I’d agree with your experience.

    Third, re customizing the design, I’d say you’re way ahead of many people because you understand CSS (and, I assume, HTML). Bear in mind that SS4 is written in XHTML, which is slightly different than HTML, but mostly the same.

    (1) Back up everything, including the Sunshop files on the server and the database (your host will be able to help if you don’t know how). In fact, every time you’re going to do anything radical, backing up is the first thing to do. As I always say, a word to the wise: too many copies is better than none.

    (2) Theme modification: There are two ways to modify the look (or “theme”) of the site: first, you can edit the code in the admin panel. I intensely dislike clicking in admin panels for days on end (a) because I dislike it, and (b) because I have to take extra steps to copy every change onto my hard drive — so I lobbied heavily for separate HTML files that we could edit on our machines and upload to the server. Amazingly, TurnkeyWebTools provided that in SS4. So, if you’d prefer to edit the files on your machine (bearing in mind that they’re in separate pieces):

    In the Themes folder, copy one of the themes and name the folder something else (e.g., mytheme), upload it to the server, and select it in:
    Settings > Manage Settings > Shop Settings > Theme Directory
    Select mytheme and press Edit Settings

    Then just edit the files on your machine and FTP them to the server in the /themes folder.

    I say "just" edit the files; it can be quite a bit of work given the sheer number of files involved in a shopping cart, but if your client (or you) are not intent on changing everything in sight, maybe it won’t be. :)

    Lastly, thanks for giving your comments. Websites like this one gain a lot by visitors’ input, and I appreciate it wholly.

  17. Sean Harrington says:

    Diane,

    Thank you so much for providing such an extremely fast and helpful response to my previous posting! As I now have Sunshop installed and am using it for the first time, I found great value in your assistance. After adding some items to my client’s Sunshop store, I am finding that TurnkeyWebTools’ program allows for users to easily create databases for categories and manufactures, as well as quickly update items that have already been added. Overall, Sunshop is a user friendly shopping cart program that once installed and set up by a person with programming knowledge, can effortlessly be turned over to a client with no previous programming experience. For people who are looking into purchasing Sunshop, I would recommend it for the easy of use, and well defined settings.

    In regards to adding items to the shopping cart, I have a couple of questions that I am seeking your professional advice on. First off, what is your take on the META sections? I have read mixed reviews on the effectiveness of META tags, but in your experience, how important and/or effective is it to add the META: Title, Key, and Description.

    And last, do you have a recommendation for the image size settings of the THUMB, DETAIL, and LARGE categories. I was told that a picture that is sized at 72 dpi and saved at about 50 kb is a good range for the LARGE image. Like any user, we are trying to maximize image quality with fast loading and server space.

    Any thoughts or input that you or your readers might have in these areas is greatly appreciated. Thank you again. Sean.

  18. Diane Vigil says:

    You’re welcome, Sean.

    Re the meta tags, I use them. I’ve been optimizing websites since the ’90′s, and even though (it appears that) the meta keywords tag isn’t of much use right now, the meta description can be. They’re just not the end-all and be-all that they were in the 90′s.

    Re the image size settings, I think that depends on what you’ve got, what you want, and your target market. We’re working on a SS4 install right now for which the client wants larger images (they’ve got beautiful products), and ended up widening the whole site at the client’s request.

    Obviously, the basic idea is to have the page be as lightweight as possible, but selling and allowing visitors to view products is vital, so it’s a judgment call. That is, if I have killer images that don’t communicate well at smaller sizes, then bigger sizes are the way to go regardless of what “should” be done.

    Bear in mind that web images should be saved at 72dpi.

  19. story says:

    This is the best resource to find nuts and bolts answers without searching on end in forums. Huge thanks to everyone here.

    I wonder – does anyone have leads about where to find someone to modify Sun Shop? Someone who’s familiar with it already.

    Thanks

  20. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi, story, and thanks for the compliment. As I’ve found help on the Web in the past, especially in the early years, one of my purposes in starting developedtraffic.com was to share information that might be of help.

    What kinds of modifications do you need? If you could contact me, I’ll see if I can lend a hand.

  21. Diane Vigil says:

    If I can add something: when upgrading, you’l be uploading a large number of files (in a large number of folders).

    In such a case, it’s usually best to delete the files on the server before uploading the new files. I first ran into this with WordPress upgrades (if you don’t know, WordPress is blog software); the WordPress guys strongly recommend deleting the files on the server before uploading the new ones. I would never have believed that some files on the server may not get overwritten during the upload — but I’ve since lived to witness it.

    I don’t know if this is of any help, but it could be.

  22. Sam says:

    Indeed it is. So true too, Diane. If you are a programmer or a designer, you’ll know that this will happen OFTEN throughout your career. ;-) And you may wind up going in circles wondering why something isn’t working. While deleting the files does not ensure they will safely upload 100% of the time, at least it is easier to verify when a file is missing….rather than when one was not overwritten.

  23. Diane Vigil says:

    Thanks, Sam. I think some of these things fall under "tricks of the trade" … things that make things easier or make them work correctly.

    I would also say, for those of you who are undertaking to modify Sunshop, if you’re going to modify the core files (anything beyond the templates), it pays to:

    1. keep track of what you’re doing, and
    2. know that modifications to core files are going to cause problems when upgrade time comes around … because upgrading will wipe them out. See #1 above.

    I normally keep a Word doc noting what modifications I’ve made (and where), links to any pertinent information, etc. Believe me, it saves a lot of grief up the line and I don’t have to rely on memory months or years later.

    Lastly, I have to say this: if you’re going to do much more than swap out a logo — if you’re going to restyle the templates for *any* software, let alone modify core files of the program — you’ll really need to know some things. None of us were born knowing this stuff; we got where we are by studying, testing, and keeping at it until we got it.

    I understand that it can be frustrating and supremely confusing, but there isn’t any way around learning how to do it. That is, there isn’t any quick one-shot route to programmer or web designer knowledge. I’m talking years, not weeks.

    That said, I’ll be posting some tips about how to do certain things (like swapping out the Sunshop logo for your own). Just give me a bit.

  24. Chris Talavera says:

    Diane, we actually have something like that in place. Feel free to reference it:

    http://www.turnkeywebtools.com/forum/showthread.php?t=6582

  25. Diane Vigil says:

    Chris — excellent. Thanks for pointing it out.

  26. Theresa says:

    Thanks for this really informative page!

    I’m teetering on the verge of buying Sunshop as I really do like the look of it and all the features.

    BUT I’m quite a lot concerned about the discussion about the available templates. I have limited
    editing skills but quite liked the ‘modern blue’ / ‘red’ layouts anyway. Are you saying that these are in the demo but not in the software when you buy it?

    I’m dizzy with looking at options for my new store and thought I’d finally decided on Sunshop until I read this.

    Any updated comments on the template system for the new version would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks.

  27. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi Theresa. Actually, I wrote the above review of Sunshop 3.5x in 2005. Sunshop 4.x is the current version, and it comes with a handful of templates, so you get your choice, including Modern Blue and Classic Red.

    I keep promising to write a review of Sunshop 4, but am having to work around my schedule (I’m a web designer). Sunshop 4, in my opinion, has quite a number of enhancements from the earlier versions. If you can believe it, the guys at TurnkeyWebTools actually asked their customers what we wanted, and implemented just about everything from a ridiculously long list. I’m building two stores with Sunshop 4 right now, and it’s also much easier to work with than earlier versions, and (as you can see in the demo), it’s pretty snazzy.

    Any complex software can be a bit confusing at first, but if you look at it and play with it, you’ll get the hang of it. You can also ask questions in the TWT forums.

  28. Norm says:

    Hi Diana,
    Thanks for all the information you provide on your site, it’s very helpful.

    We’re currently using the latest version of Sunshop (4.1) and we’re wondering if you or one of your readers has ever built a bilingual site with this cart?

    So far, we have translated the language pack but we can only use one or the other by manual selection in the admin panel. We wanted to use a splash screen to let the client select his language and then have Sunshop call the appropriate language pack.

    Also, how do we get Sunshop to accurately update the database independently of the language being used so the products quantities are properly maintained globally?

    BTW, our PHP knowledge is very basic; we only started looking at PHP after the purchase of Sunshop.

    Thanks!

    Norm

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