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Should I upgrade to StoreFront 6.0 - a review

A common question I frequently get is should I upgrade to StoreFront 6.0. Given the nature that most of my clients asking this question of me have in the past contracted me to do some minor to major modifications to either their StoreFront 2000 or StoreFront 5.0 based site, I usually give the rather empty answer of “it depends.” I will attempt to qualify this answer to hopefully help you make an informed decision.

First the good news, LaGarde listened to the market and built in many features in StoreFront 6.0 which are only available with 3rd party add-ons for StoreFront 5.0 users. Notable feature enhancements include:

    • enhanced merchant defined templates for store layout
    • customer defined attributes (read custom text entry)
    • gift certificates
    • shipment tracking
    • customer specific discounts
    • drop shipment support
    • support for a common navigation systems

Store setup

Set-up is fairly easy though I did have to directly enter the database to set the initial store paths manually. Starting with a fresh installation of v 6.1.3 I went from using the web creation wizard to a site with a fifty products spread across a half-dozen categories in under an hour. I did have the advantage of “cheating” on the category/product entry page since I used my Product Import Tool to import a spreadsheet with this information. I could have used the web based admin tools for this but it would have added a few more hours for the data entry; see my weaknesses section below.

Specific criticisms are:

  1. The product entry interface is functional though painfully slow to use. Each section of the product entry requires a postback to the server and even working locally, you can easily spend hours for doing minor data entry tasks. <salespitch>See my Product Manager which resolves all these shortfalls</salespitch>
  2. StoreFront provides a tool to import products from a delimited file. The bad news is it doesn’t do much except import basic product information. If you want to import information such as category assignments you’re out of luck. Also, it can function for a one time use but you have to manually set the import parameters for each field every time which will get old very quickly. You will have to use the Merchant Tools to update every product after you import them. If you have more than a few products this could take a very long time.<salespitch>See my Product Import Tool which resolves all these shortfalls</salespitch>
  3. Order status is limited to “has this product shipped” along with a tracking link to the shipping carrier. If you use carrier based shipping. If you use value based or product based shipping you don’t get the tracking link capability. The back end tools for order management are still rudimentary and really only adequate for low volume sites. An additional package is available to hook up with QuickBooks.<salespitch>See my Order Manager Tool which resolves all these shortfalls</salespitch>
  4. Customer specific pricing (AE version) – My opinion on this is decidedly negative having built this specific functionality for the StoreFront 5.0 version. In my opinion this module needs to recognize that not all products are created with equal profit margins. As such, the merchant needs control of pricing at the individual product level, by customer. The StoreFront 6.0 implementation gives you control by customer, but the pricing is a fixed amount or percentage from a set price, you can use either a cost or retail price, for all products. Thus you cannot give your best customers a break on item A which enjoys a fat margin without giving them an equal break on item B which is a commodity item with a razor thin margin.
  5. Gift Certificates - StoreFront missed the target on this one in my view. StoreFront 6.0 provides basic functionality for a customer to enter a certificate code during checkout which provides the appropriated discount but not much more. Functionally this is little different than providing customers with unique discount codes. The merchant has to manually create individual gift certificates and manage the process itself manually. If your site does or wants to do a substantial amount of gift certificate sales you will find this very painful. Perhaps the next version of the StoreFront will offer the features already available in my Gift Certificate add-on for StoreFront 5.0.
  6. StoreFront 6.0 is one of the first .NET shopping carts written using VB.NET where as StoreFront 5.0 is a classic ASP application written using VBScript. I won’t argue the benefits of one platform versus the other but I will say there is a massive learning curve associated with the transition for developers, one which a substantial number of developers have not made and may never make. As such, if you need to make a change to your site you will find there are a lot fewer folks capable of making the change for 6.0 versus 5.0. This brings us to the next point, namely . . .
  7. StoreFront 6.0 is compiled code which means unless you own the top end XE version, your ability to make changes are very limited. You can contract out the changes but be warned, unless you specifically contract to have the documentation to go with those changes, you will be tied to that developer if you need to make additional changes later or even to update to a later release. Unless you own the XE version, the developer can only deliver the compiled end product to you since it would be a copyright violation to send you the original source code. Finally, the StoreFront 6.0 is structurally much more complex which results in increased development time for even relatively minor changes.

Now for the situation specific recommendations:

Just starting out

If you’re starting a site from scratch, are happy with the feature set 6.0 offers and don’t envision needing to make any changes beyond cosmetics then 6.0 would be my recommendation. If you think you may need some changes, want to do it yourself (I don’t recommend this approach as I feel you’d be better off spending your time on site promotion work) and don’t know any programming you will likely find 5.0 easier to work with. If you know you need changes and are going to hire them out you should get time and cost estimates before you start. If you get bids from both SF5 and SF6 developers (some such as myself do both but many only do one or the other) you’ll be in a position to make an informed choice.

You'll still want to invest in add-ons for your StoreFront 6.0 based site.

Must have StoreFront 6.0 add-ons

These are the StoreFront 6.0 add-ons which I feel are a must have. They either pay for themselves in time you save or in the orders you save.

  1. Product Manager - hands down you need this if you ever edit your products. The StoreFront tools are just too painful and the no questions money back guarantee make this risk free
  2. Product Import Tool - if you have more than 50 products to import this will pay for itself in time saved.
  3. Ship-Rate Shopper - if you intend to use real-time rates this helps prevent lost orders. People frequently abandon their cart if they don't see shipping charges early. This add-on gives you that ability.
  4. Streamlined Checkout - even with the shorter checkout found in the current release of StoreFront 6, it is still longer than necessary. This add-on shortens it even further and takes away the checkout length as a factor in customers abandoning their carts

Useful StoreFront 6.0 add-ons

These are a few StoreFront 6.0 add-ons which are a must have. They either pay for themselves in time you save or in the orders you save.

  1. Order Manager - If you manage your orders using the StoreFront tools you've probably let out a scream or two. This will pay for itself in time spent and that's before you get to the ability to print out all your sales in one step. This will make the must have list once all of its intended features are ready
  2. Dynamic Product Display - increase sales through suggestive selling. What more can I sayhands down you need this if you ever edit your products. The StoreFront tools are just too painful and the no questions money back guarantee make this risk free
  3. SalesCentral - Personally I love this tool and use it every day. Some find having a central page to see all your orders for the day, orders awaiting shipment, and your best sellers on the same page gimicky.

Existing StoreFront 5.0 based site

This is the most complex area to provide general rules, but I’ll try. First, write down the features SF6 has that you need followed by the ones you want. Don’t write down because it is newer or because it is .NET it must be better; we only care about functionality for this discussion. You then need to figure out the costs associated with purchasing the additional add-ons necessary to bring your SF5 site up to your desired standard (as a rule anything SF6 does SF5 plus add-ons can do and often times do much more) and compare against the cost of the SF6 upgrade. If the add-on route is cheaper, go that way. If the SF6 upgrade route is cheaper you need to carefully look at all your pages. If all you use are standard search_results and detail pages you’re an excellent candidate to upgrade rather painlessly.

The biggest issues to upgrading your website may be the loss of your individual page search engine rankings and the slowness of the 6.0 site compared to the 5.0 site.

If you have you a lot of product pages you created by hand you will need to recreate them all for SF6 as they’re incompatible. Results will vary greatly by the complexity of the page so you will need to estimate a time to recreate all the pages for SF6. Compare that time against the cost differential between going the add-on route versus the upgrade route. You can then figure out what your time is worth to decide your path forward. You then have to consider the final issue, your search engine rankings. All those pages you've created will cease functioning so they won't be there anymore to drive your sales.

Finally, just to really throw you in confusion, you have an alternate route. I've prepared a Master Template (essentially a complete, prepackaged StoreFront 5.0 site reworked for security and efficiency with my major functional and productivity add-ons pre-installed ) which for all intents and purposes replicates the functionality of StoreFront 6.0 in a StoreFront 5.0 (except for drop shipper support) except implements items such as gift certificates, promotions, and customer specific pricing in what I consider the proper way based upon customer feedback and in most cases, customers paying for specific implementations of the functionality.

Recommendations

There is no clear cut answer on which way to go unless you’re just starting out and are happy with the SE or AE feature set as it ships standard. If you’re looking to go beyond this functionality it becomes a matter of developer availability as much as cost. If you’re looking at the XE price range you can easily get more functionality in a SF5 + add-ons application but it really depends on the specific functionality you’re seeking to add.

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