09/04/2008

Sunshop Shopping Cart Review

A truly search engine friendly shopping cart

I've been promising a Sunshop shopping cart review, particularly since Turnkey Web Tools' php-based Sunshop 4 is a huge enhancement over the earlier excellent versions, and lots of additional little tweaks have been added since the initial release (we've up to version 4.1.5). Let me put it this way — I've just completed two (of three) ecommerce sites utilizing Sunshop 4, and am about to launch into a fourth. While I'm great at kvetching, you'll hear no complaints from me.

Sunshop Installation

If you're familiar with installing web/database applications, Sunshop is a breeze — edit the config file, upload the files and run the web-based install. (My How to install Sunshop post was written for people who are less familiar with installing web apps.)

So far so good, but if I'm going to set up a shopping cart, it ought to look and feel professional and logical. I don't want to work with (or present a possibly not so Web-savvy client with) a vague or strangely organized admin panel. But no fear of what you'll see when you log in to Sunshop, because the admin panel is gorgeous and organized:

Sunshop 4 dashboard

On the admin panel home page, among other things, are Flash-based graphs showing current and yearly sales. There are also links (see the blue Transactions panel below) to various reports, including pie charts. Lots of stuff to download. On the Transaction Reports and Transaction Stats pages, we have more Flash-based graphs, calendars, compilations of which products are doing best — tastefully colorful pie charts, even. Very impressive, as these features boost your knowledge of how your site is doing. And what an impressive marketing tool to hand over to a client!

Sunshop Stats and Graphs

Designing Sunshop Themes

Sunshop TemplatesSunshop 4 comes with at least six really excellent themes (designs). You can use them as is, or choose one as the basis of your custom theme. As well, you can design within the admin panel (a very slick Ajax-y interface) or — my personal preference — you can edit the individual template files on your computer and upload them.

To be honest, I really pushed/begged/pleaded for the ability to edit templates on my machine and upload them, as I find that so much easier than editing in a browser — and the Turnkey guys came through spectacularly. On the right is a small image of the Sunshop templates in Dreamweaver. Just open, edit, save, select and press button — uploaded! I can't tell you how much easier this makes designing a theme.

But, enough of my preferred methods of working. On to …

The Sunshop Store

Sunshop 4 has so many features that I won't be able to cover them all here. But here's the store front of Julien's Auctions — I customized the theme to fit the Julien's website design:

Image of a Sunshop store

Next, we have a screenshot of a product page from the Corium 21 store. As you can see, the product pages have little "tabs" for product descriptions, Related Products, Reviews and the Tell-A-Friend feature. This image and the one below it show that I've moved the product description out of the tabs:

Sunshop Tabs

Mini-Cart — what's in your cart? Next is a product page from Julien's Auctions; in this one, I've highlighted the little "mini-cart" that displays what a customer has added to his/her cart. There is also a currency feature; just install the included plugin (did I mention there are quite a few plugins, including many for Google checkout), press a button to update the currency rates, and there you go. Customers can visit the store and elect to have prices converted to their own currency. Very cool.

Sunshop mini-cart

View Cart/Checkout

Here's a screenshot of the View Cart page. Notice that I've elected to use a couple of the plugins included with Sunshop:

  1. the cart displays items that other customers have purchased along with the one in the Cart.
  2. The Shipping Estimate Calculator, which enables customers to see what their shipping costs will likely be before the checkout sequence.
  3. By the way, there are more plugins; these are just the ones I've used.

I should also note that Sunshop 4's entire checkout sequence is secure — which starts when you click the Checkout button on the View Cart page.

Sunshop

XHTML/CSS

Okay, let's get down to it: Sunshop 4 uses mostly divs and CSS and is XHTML compliant (assuming you don't err if you're customizing it). This, of course, makes it much easier to work with than fully tables-based designs.

Search Engine Friendly Shopping Cart

That out of the way, it's also very search engine friendly. To be honest, I've given a decent amount of input regarding what it might take to make Sunshop search engine friendly — and more so than other "search engine friendly shopping carts" (which may not have been so SEF). The guys at Turnkey Web Tools did all that and more.

Heck, you can even convert the category and product pages to static HTML with word-based URLs based on your product titles. I haven't because I'm in love with the little mini-cart, but I also haven't found any problems with getting pages indexed in search engines — or ranking well.

I noticed a couple of Sunshop customers in the TurnkeyWebTools forums discussing how their Sunshop stores are performing in the search engines. Read jett69 and Pooch (comments #25 and #26).

 

So, there you have it. Years ago, I'd looked into a dozen or so shopping carts, and installed a couple, and then stopped at Sunshop — I wanted a reasonably easy to work with, client-pleasing, search engine friendly shopping cart that was easy for both customers and site owners to use. Lacking those elements, it doesn't matter to me what features a shopping cart has because it's not workable for me.

I'll say that I've also spent a certain amount of time talking to the kind gents at TWT about features I wanted. When it came time to design Sunshop 4 (which they redid more or less from the bottom up), they threw the doors open, posting an open call for requests and feedback in their forums (the comments thread alone is 15 pages long). They've come through admirably. Kudos to them, and to their software.

TurnkeyWebTools: I've had exceptional help from these guys over a number of years. Although Sunshop is not a free shopping cart, in my opinion, it gives me far more, and far more to work with, than anything else I've seen. I'm pleased to know that, since TWT is a business, they stand behind their products; I'm not just waiting out there for someone to answer a query in a forum.

I highly appreciate the support, both by phone, by email and in the TWT forums, on those increasingly rare occasions when I had a question. Heck, check their forums — they'll even step in and have a look at your server if you can't sort things out yourself.

So, in closing, I hope this review is helpful. TurnkeyWebTools' Sunshop 4 shopping cart is one of the tools in my competitive toolbox. If you're interested, go check out the online demo. :)

Kudos, and thanks, guys.

36 Comments to "Sunshop Shopping Cart Review"

  1. Dansko says:

    Looks good, but never understand why Search Engines loves static htm extensions than php or asp extensions.

  2. Diane Vigil says:

    I don't think it's so much a matter of .html versus .php or .asp — it's really about dynamic URLs. Back in the '90's, the major search engines (of which Google was not one) had problems with URLs containing question marks, which is a pretty normal scenario for dynamic URLs. Last I read of Google on the issue (which was a while ago), they liked three or less data pairs.

    I haven't had any problems with Sunshop's dynamic URLs — either getting the pages into search engines, or getting them to rank well.

    Does that help?

  3. Dansko says:

    Thanks Diane. I always overwrite dynamic URLs with ? in it with static / or .htm using htaccess, as I had some problems with rankings dynamic URLs a few years back.

  4. Joey says:

    Looks good – how does it compare to Cubecart reliability/feature-wise?

    I've always tried to use mod_rewrite where possible with database driven sites – think Google mainly prefers it as it likes seeing the keyword within the url rather than just a product ID.

  5. Diane Vigil says:

    I haven't tried Cubecart, Joey. They do have Sunshop demos (see the orange navbar).

    I'm a fan of mod_rewrite, too, although I haven't worked it out for Sunshop. Mainly, we haven't had problems getting Sunshop pages ranked in Google or other search engines.

  6. Brian says:

    Did TWT mention if they plan to add a one page checkout option anytime soon? We\'ve seen this option on a lot of other carts. Not a deal killer for us because we love the software anyway.

  7. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi, Brian. I don't know, although I'd like to see a one-page checkout as well. I'm assuming that you mean registering, inputting credit card info and choosing shipping options all on one page. That would be terrific.

  8. Diane Vigil says:

    By the way, love your site. I just added it to the little one-page directory on our organic food site. :)

  9. Brian says:

    Hi Diane,

    I'm having trouble installing Sunshop on my server because I'm developing it while my existing shop remains live. Do you know of a workaround to allow me to work on the new site while the other remains live?

    Thanks

  10. Diane Vigil says:

    I was going to say no, but this might help:
    Installing on a test server without a license

  11. Vaneli says:

    Thank you for the test server link Diane. I was looking for it.

  12. Ryan Kaufman says:

    Thanks for the review on this. I think you have sold me on it now, plus i love that there is no monthly fee.

  13. Diane Vigil says:

    I like the lack of monthly fee, too, along with fact that everything's on your own server where you can always download a "dump" of your database.

    I also like the fact that TurnkeyWebTools updates their software with new features now and then. If your one-year license has run out (during which time you get free support and the ability to download new versions), then you just pay the renewal fee and you're good to go.

    I guess I should also state that I haven't been paid for these reviews (actually, I've never been paid for a review); I'm just a fan.

  14. Linda Bookhardt says:

    Diane,

    Can you put a wordpress blog on sunshop. I have been reading about wordpress but my mind does not wrap around how it would end up in sunshop. I know how to install it on my hosting server through cpanel but do not see the connection? Have you had any experience with this?

    Thanks for you help?

  15. Diane Vigil says:

    > Can you put a wordpress blog on sunshop …

    Actually, that's way too much work. Websites are just a bunch of pages held together (from the user's perspective) by links to the various pages.

    So … you'd install Sunshop, and you'd install WordPress, and use your menu of links to link to both, like:

    Home
    Shop
    Blog

    Does that make sense?

  16. Linda Bookhardt says:

    I'm not sure. You know they say blogs draw traffic to your website and I am trying to keep my SEO up. Here is how my junior brain is looking at this. Sunshop page has a tab at the top titled blog. As I sell discontinued and rare cosmetics, I could blog about that and send links to not only my website but to others. I am hosted and have fantastico which has wordpress. In my mind I don't know how the two would connect. If you installed wordpress on my account, how would I get it on to Sunshop.

    Or… should I. What do you mean by too much work. I know you have vast experience with websites so I am confused about how all of this fits together.

  17. Diane Vigil says:

    Okay. Originally, you asked how to put a WordPress blog "on" Sunshop, which I took to mean "within" Sunshop. My answer was that you don't have to merge the two to put them on a website; that is, you don't have to combine the software (WordPress and Sunshop). That's what I meant by "a lot of work".

    Essentially, you have Sunshop as the home page of your site (what people land on when they go to yoursite.com).

    Then you can put WordPress in a subdirectory, say /blog.

    Then, both WordPress and Sunshop have editable templates, so you just add links from Sunshop to the blog, and from the blog to Sunshop. That ties the two together.

    It's fairly easy if you know what you're doing and can write a bit of code, but otherwise, it can be pretty confusing.

    Personally, I'm not crazy about using Fantastico to install anything, because that can create problems down the line when you want to upgrade. Manual installation is my recommendation.

  18. Linda Bookhardt says:

    That is good to know about manual install of WordPress. Would I be creating a template page in Sunshop with a link? How would people blog in it? Would the blogged material automatically show up on the template page. I have never blogged so that would probably help with the problem. I apologize for being so ignorant. I can pretty well follow the code that is in different examples and figure out how to use it to my advantage. I certainly could not take a blank page and write code though.

  19. Diane Vigil says:

    No, you'd just add a link to the blog in the Sunshop template, and add a link to sunshop in the blog template.

  20. StevenH says:

    Hi Diane,

    I don't know if you remember me. Is

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

    one of your all time favorite quotes? :)

    Still running SS4.latest.greatest and probably like it more than when I first posted in here over 2 years ago. Anyway, just wanted to stop by and say HI!

    cheers

  21. Diane Vigil says:

    Yep. I remember it, on the first Sunshop review.

    Glad you're doing well. :)

  22. Sunshop Shopping Cart Review says:

    […] as possible, I thought I'd do a review. This was a review of Sunshop 3.x — please go to my Sunshop 4 Review […]

  23. Diana says:

    Hello,

    I'm looking at starting an online biz and Sunshop seems to fill our e-commerce need. Is anyone out there using 4.0 and, if so, how do you like it?

    Also, is there a way to see the various template designs? I only see one design and am not quite sure it's for me.

    Thanks.

  24. Diane Vigil says:

    We've been using Sunshop 4.0 for quite some time now. You can try out the templates included with Sunshop on their demos page:
    http://www.turnkeywebtools.com/sunshop/demos.html

    (1) View the Store Front
    (2) In another browser window, go into the Admin interface:
    > Manage Settings > Shop Settings > Theme Directory

    Those are the templates that come with Sunshop. If you are able to design, you can edit those themes to whatever you want.

  25. Frank says:

    Hello Diane,

    I really like what you have done with the Sunshop sites that you have developed. We are looking into setting up another site using Sunshop 4.2.5 and I am able to design (I did the Okdecor.com website).

    Now I am used to designing from scratch and I was wondering, when you did your customizations, did you have to customize all of the template files?

    Also, when I try to use the SunShop editor, or my own editor, I cannot see the page when I do a preview, only lines of text on a white background, which I would expect from CSS. I like to be able to see what my pages are going to look like before I upload them. Were you able to preview your pages in Dreamweaver before uploading them?

  26. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi Frank, and thanks for the compliments.

    Now I am used to designing from scratch and I was wondering, when you did your customizations, did you have to customize all of the template files?

    No, not all of the templates (there are a *lot* of templates). I normally customize a handful, maybe ten.

    Also, when I try to use the SunShop editor, or my own editor, I cannot see the page when I do a preview, only lines of text on a white background, which I would expect from CSS. I like to be able to see what my pages are going to look like before I upload them. Were you able to preview your pages in Dreamweaver before uploading them?

    No, because the templates are partial parts of a page (although there's one main template that contains the header, sidebar, footer, etc. … main_index.html). Personally, I highly dislike having to edit code in a browser; I'd much rather edit and upload. That said:

    – The new Dreamweaver CS5 apparently has some functionality that allows you to preview dynamic pages made of multiple templates. I'm not sure how it works, but I'd read that.

    – You can install Sunshop in a subdirectory on the server, and work with it there, so you'll be able to see everything. This is a help because there are more pages to Sunshop than just what you'd see in the main template … for instance, there's a customer login area where they can see their orders, past orders, etc. This would not generally be displayed simply by looking at templates. Nor would checkout pages. All the pages use the main_index.html template, and Sunshop adds content based upon what page it is.

    Does that help?

  27. Frank says:

    Yes, it was very helpful thank you. I am finding that I like this Sunshop software and it's flexibility.

    May I ask, which template you used to customize that Auction site?

  28. Diane Vigil says:

    Actually, I don't recall. Essentially, I designed the main site, and then converted whatever theme* I chose (probably a blue one) to their design.

    * In Sunshop, a theme is a collection of templates for a particular design … kind of the "the blue theme" or the "green theme". Each theme has dozens of templates.

    Sunshop 4.2.5 comes with a number of themes (they're up to eight now), any of which you could customize.

  29. Terry King says:

    Hi Diane, Thanks a lot for taking the time to teach us all some things.

    I am building my own site with SunCart as the store; the rest is Educational Material for Microcomputers for schools and hobbyists.

    I'm OK with HTML and can wade thru CSS ok, have Dreamweaver etc.

    IsThere some reference that shows where the different elements of the main SunShop page come from?? You said "All the pages use the main_index.html template, and Sunshop adds content based upon what page it is."

    But how can I modify menus? How can I change the whole page width and proportion of Left VS Center sections? (It's only 800 total on the template I'm modifying).

    My fantasy is there's an image of the Main Page and there's circles and arrows pointing to elements that say "THIS comes from xxxxx" and "yyy.css sets THIS" and like that.

    Am I dreaming???

    THANKS!

    Regards, Terry King ..On the Red Sea at KAUST.edu.sa
    terry@terryking.us

  30. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi Terry. I assume you're talking about Sunshop. But, in any case, unfortunately, I don't know of any illustrated template guide to Sunshop. That's a terrific idea, though.

    In the meantime, the only solution is plowing through the templates. Pretty much I can say that there's a main template (main_index.html) and everything else plugs into that.

  31. Joanne says:

    I just purchased SunShop. I can't figure this thing out. Like, why aren't my subcategories showing? Why, when I click on a main category, do the subcategories not show. And why, when I click on a product under featured, I get no product listing at all?

    Their online documentation is horrible and many questions in the forum go unanswered. There's no logical progression offered for designing the site,

    I've now been 79 minutes on hold waiting for support to answer the phone! I guess it's time to hang up and email them. They obviously don't want to talk to people on the phone. They should make it clear when you pay for support that you'll really only get email support or have to search things out yourself on their forum where maybe someone will help you.

  32. Diane Vigil says:

    Hi Joanne. I of course can't see what you're doing, but in Categories (Categories > click on a specific category), is the category marked "Viewable"? If not, it won't be viewable. This is Sunshop's way of allowing you to turn off categories as you wish.

    Secondly, I can't see any products at all on your main category pages or the home page (for the home page, you'd have to specify within Sunshop that the home page would show products specified as "Featured" in the Sunshop admin panel, and in each product, you'd need to specify whether it belongs to the Featured category as well.

    Have you entered any products into Sunshop? The way this works is that, as you add products to Sunshop, you specify which categories they're assigned to.

    You'd also have to set up subcategories, if you want them. If a sub category has no products, it may not display on the site. That said, if the subcategory is not marked viewable in Sunshop … and now we're back at the beginning of my comment here.

    Lastly, have you looked at this:
    http://docs.turnkeywebtools.com/sunshop/

  33. Joanne says:

    What they neglected to include in the documentation (among many other things, like what's a custom field or custom META data?) is that your site has to be "open" to see the listings.

    But the most basic thing eludes me. Like how to change the text and get rid of that TV in the welcome message on the home page. I've looked all over and can't find anything that allows me to edit that text. Like a simple, "Edit welcome message." Or how do I get rid of the menu "manufacturers." How do I add/delete menus. Where's the documentation?

    There's no information in the documentation on how to show nested categories. The first post while searching categories in the forum is from 2005. While a Turnkey Administrator posted in that thread, he offered no answers. Seriously, why is creating nested categories so difficult? And why is there no documentation explaining such an essential aspect?

    There's another thread with two people asking how to created nested categories. But nobody from Turnkey is answering, because they don't make money on the forums. Most of the time they say, "open a ticket," which is fine if you have free support. Their forum community is not very active, so many questions go unanswered.

    In their "Presales Knowledge Base" under the question "Do you offer phone support, they write:

    One of the most important factors in choosing a product from any provider should be the support offered. We offer many forms of support including phone support during regular office hours and support via tickets, email and forum 24 hours a day.

    Phone support? I was on hold for an hour an a half before I hung up. They obviously don't want to talk to people, and plenty of product reviews complain about this. They will answer email.

    I'd bet this software is wonderful if you know what you're doing, but you really do need to be a programmer to get anything modified beyond the basic template.

  34. Diane Vigil says:

    Joanne, I get that you're upset. But did you try any of the tips I mentioned above?

    You could try searching for subcategories (rather than "nested categories"), a phrase that was mentioned in the TurnkeyWebTools forum thread you posted in today.

    I'm sorry you're having trouble reaching TurnkeyWebTools. I've only had that happen perhaps two or three times in the seven years I've been using their software. I just hung up and called later.

    Lastly, re your comment:

    There's another thread with two people asking how to created nested categories. But nobody from Turnkey is answering, because they don't make money on the forums. Most of the time they say, "open a ticket," which is fine if you have free support. Their forum community is not very active, so many questions go unanswered.

    Actually, there are a lot of threads asking about subcategories (see link above). That said, you do get a certain amount of free phone support when you purchase Sunshop. I've never had it be an issue. If they're busy when I call, I call back.

    I'd also suggest that, well, maybe they request that a specific customer "open a ticket" when it appears that there's something going on with that particular Sunshop installation that they'd need to take a look at. These things are kind of hard to guess from a distance. Especially if you have to play 20 questions in order to get enough information to make an educated suggestion. And, frankly, it's Saturday.

    I've found plenty of answers (and offered some of my own) in the TWT forums. At this point, I'd suggest checking the link above for threads that might answer your questions. I'm quite sure I've read responses to questions about replacing the welcome message image.

  35. Emma says:

    Hey, great blog! I purchased Sunshop yesterday after having too many unresolved problems with Tomatocart. I've tried numerous free shopping carts over the last 2 months, and really felt like I was making a mistake caving and paying the money for something I should have been able to make work. I definitely feel more confident with my purchase after hearing so many great things.

  36. Diane Vigil says:

    Excellent, Emma. From visiting your website, it looks like you're going to need to install the ionCube PHP Loader (or use the Zend version if your web host provides Zend). Good luck with your site!

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