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Recently, a client of mine wasn't happy with Virtuemart and asked me to look around at some alternatives. Specifically, it's Virtuemart's checkout process that the client didn't like (the other aspects being basically okay). They felt it was rather disorganized and cumbersome -- and I agree with that.

So I went out looking for other Joomla-friendly alternatives, especially seeking any with a nice, clean checkout process. I know there are a lot of stand-by extensions that Joomla-folks go to for ecommerce, but I wanted to highlight one of these programs today that, IMHO, doesn't get much attention -- but should. It's a commercial Joomla! extension called J2Store. (This might sound from here on out like a commercial for J2Store, but I've never actually used it and have no relationship with them; I just *really* like what I saw there and wanted to discuss it!)

One of the complexities with most ecommerce extensions is that they basically contain a mini-CMS within the larger CMS. That is to say, they have their own content (product pages), their own categories, their own means of handling photos, their own page layouts, etc. Their integration with Joomla (or whatever other CMS) is usually done in other ways -- via the user base, the code/database integration, and the ACL settings to name a few examples.

J2Store approached this problem in a completely innovative way. Instead of creating a whole additional ecommerce CMS to go on top of the main site CMS, they basically said, "Hey, why not leverage the main CMS for most of this stuff?"

So, their approach was to extend Joomla's article capabilities so that any Joomla article could also serve as a product page. That's basically the equivalent of saying, "Let's have a lightweight, super-efficient code-base and instead of recreating the wheel, we'll just focus on the ecom parts."

Benefits of this approach?

Well first, it strikes me that suddenly developers and designers no longer have to struggle to make shop / product pages conform to whatever template they're using. In Virtuemart, for example, the product page layout is largely whatever Virtuemart offers (unless you invest significant time in tweaking it). But with J2Store, you're free to basically do whatever you like.

That goes for images, too. Now, keep in mind that Joomla has its two built-in images that get associated with an article (the full and the intro). By making sure to use these, you can now use any image-display-type extension (such as RokSprocket) to highlight store content. That's a pretty neat bonus. For people who want numerous photos per product, you'll simply need to include that functionality much like you would in a normal article. Some may view this as additional work; others might view it as liberating.

Another big plus is that J2Store already works on the J!3.x platform, which means you can not only leverage normal Joomla core categories, but you can now also take advantage of the tag system. So, a clothing retailer can now do things like have categories for "tops," "pants," "shoes," and "accessories" -- and also have tags on their pages for things like designer names, colors, sizes, and other ways to categorize content. This is a huge advantage over the existing Virtuemart, and likely over a few other ecom platforms.

I also like that, once an item is sold, for example a one-of-a-kind painting, you can just leave the article there and either disable the store aspect of it or let it say that the item is out of stock. Having these things be core Joomla articles makes a number of content management issues a bit easier than when products are content of their own internal CMS.

ACL also seems, to me, quite a bit easier to deal with when you're only using core Joomla articles vs trying to control specific pages within a secondary CMS (e.g., distinguishing between catalog pages / category pages / single product pages / cart pages / registration pages / etc.).

I'm sure there are other benefits as well. But, I'll end this glowing review with a note about the checkout process I'd initially complained about with Virtuemart. In J2Store, it's absolutely clean, intuitive, and easy to follow. They have it setup accordion-style so that the user is shepherded through the process like so:

Selecting an ecommerce platform is an important part of the overall process, and you'll have numerous choices there depending on your priorities and situation. There are other hurdles as well, such as design, server structure, SSL installation, and more. If your business is ready to start selling products or services online, give Marketing Portland a call at (503) 902-HTML.

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