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As a long time web designer I've dealt with any number of eCommerce options over the years.    In general you've always had two major options:

1) You build and code from scratch.   This required a great deal of knowledge in various coding languages in addition to the ability to design an attractive interface which will work within the construct of the website's structure.

2) You pay a company with pre-built systems.   This was not only extremely expensive but rarely allowed you freedom to create any sort of pleasing design as it would have to conform to their limited header/footer customization.

Well, I've seen the light now!   The future is here and (unfortunately for people in "the business" like me) it's unbelievably easy to do.

These free solutions are Open Source based online shop e-commerce solutions that are available under the GNU General Public License. They all contain a rich set of out-of-the-box online shopping cart functionalities that allows store owners to setup, run, and maintain their online stores with minimum effort and with no costs, fees, or limitations involved.  Most of these  Open Source solutions provide an e-commerce platform, which include the powerful PHP web scripting language and the fast MySQL database server. With no special requirements, they are able to run on any PHP 4.1+ enabled web server running on Linux, Solaris, BSD, Mac OS X, and Microsoft Windows environments.

Unbelievable right?  Well,, it's true and I'm loving it.   

In addition to the obvious advantages of these open source stores, there are many less obvious benefits such as.

- Active user forums where you can get answers to most any question without dealing with charges or "canned responses" from a profit company.

- The ability to change the design of your store nearly instantly by simply selecting a new "template" from within your administration panel

- Countless free "add-ons" and "modules" which add all types of additional features to your store.

- As the projects continue to grow and the stores improve you can upgrade, and of course the upgrades are free also.

In my opinion once of the greatest of the above features is the ability to change the design and/or appearance of your site with the ease of a few uploads and button clicks (ONCE YOU HAVE A DESIGN DEVELOPED).  The most common complaint I found from OS users was the same one I've heard about other e-commerce packages. People weren't aware of how much work would be involved in getting an original design put together. They would get to a certain point, hit an unexpected bottleneck, and be unable to keep going. The majority of the work involved in getting your store up and running was getting a design to function within the limits and restrictions of the store's code. Every implementation will run into these problems, and everything takes longer and costs more than you plan for it, whether it's proprietary or open source. There are now; however, easy solutions for this issue which will prevent you from getting overwhelmed. Many  businesses on the web (example: & ) who focus on web template development have entered a whole new era in template design.   They have begun development of stunning designs for Open Source eCommerce solutions such as OScommerce, ZenCart, and CRE Loaded (the most popular of these Open Source eCommerce solutions).  This allows you to easily implement a perfect store design within minutes.  While these design templates are not free like the eCommerce solution, they are worth the mere $50 average price, saving you weeks of frustrating design.

You can find more information on these Open Source eCommerce Solutions at their hub sites.   Just type in the OS solution name you wish to research into your search engine and their home pages will show up.  The most popular solutions are ZenCart, OScommerce & CRE Loaded.  But there are many other ones out there to choose from; however these three have proven themselves over time and have such large user bases and support groups that I would recommend trying one of them first before attempting to delve into lesser known solutions.

To sum this all up.  While large companies will always need a custom built solution for their online stores, the average small business no longer needs to spend five or ten thousand dollars to have a quality store developed.   The use of a free OS solution along with an inexpensive design template will have you selling online for pennies on the dollar compared with a custom built store.  Even if you don't feel you have the skill set to work with the OS solutions, you can hire any competent developer to implement it for you.  Sure you'll be charged, but the price will be a small percentage of what you would have paid.

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