Zero to e-commerce in 2 days with CRE Loaded

If you have done any amount of freelance web development, you have probably been asked at some point to put together an e-commerce store front for someone. Most likely, the request also contained some caveats--like, the customer was just getting started, and wanted a store front for cheap, and they wanted it to be up pretty quickly (i.e. no long development cycle, with a minimum to the requirements gathering process), and they wanted some kind of admin tools so they did not have to contact you any time they wanted something simple like a price change.

As a custom build, this would be nothing short of impossible. Hopefully your next thought is to use an existing framework and customize it, to accomplish the goals and get something up quickly and cheaply. Next, you are also thinking about hosting, which can be expensive too, depending the requirements of the tool you buy.

I was presented with a similar request lately, so I started looking at some existing frameworks. My research took to through such disparate tools as DotNetNuke (of course the Microsoft guy would look at DNN) and MamboCharge, but I landed on CRE Loaded. CRE Loaded is a PHP script that has been developed on the popular OSCommerce framework. And the results are amazing.

Some of the best parts of CRE Loaded are the multitude of plug-ins available (including secure credit card processing), the availability of resources (both people and web content that can assist), and the easy and speed of getting a store up and running. CRE Loaded brags about how quickly you can get a Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant store up and running, which promises secure processing in an industry standard framework. And it is every bit as easy as they say.

I recently got a store up in just a few days. I spent additional time tweaking the product, and learned a lot of the ins and outs. Let me tell you that if you plan to do any serious customization, or even maintain an inventory of even 100 items, you owe it to yourself to learn how to make changes in the SQL tables directly. I am sure CRE Loaded would rather you would either use their front end, or their custom load process--but if you know what you are doing, you can turn a difficult update across your entire inventory into a few minutes work.

Case in point, I was setting up shipping for the store, and discovered that shipping requires product weights. The inventory list that I had gotten from the customer's POS system was missing a lot of things, not the least of which was shipping weights. So I had 3 options--go through the admin screens and add a weight to every item (probably close to an hour's work); extract the database to a spreadsheet, update the spreadsheet, and then reload the spreadsheet, praying that the only thing that would be changed would be the product weight (probably 15 minutes work, plus an undetermined amount of time to fix anything that might have been broken due to a typo, etc); or, write a SQL query to set every product weight to 1 pound (1 minute's work).

If you are PHP person, you can also dig into the entire source, and tweak the application. This is not for those lacking caution, though, because it is a somewhat complex script, so I would not advise hacking into to it to make changes--spend some time first and figure out what it is doing. Another example, I had to make some changes to the shipping module to allow various flat rate shipping types, selectable by the customer. Currently, CRE Loaded expects that you will either use one flat rate, or chose from a number of different available shipping options. The moral of the story, though, is that will a little analysis, even this was a fairly easy change, and I could customize the app to meet the business' requirements.

CRE Loaded offers a free version that is a bit limited, but the pro version does a lot and only costs the equivalent of a few hours' work. In am impressed with the speed, ease, and flexibility. If you need to get a storefront up, make sure you include it in the list of products you research. It is worth every penny!


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