Thursday, 25 June 2015

Is Drupal Commerce still a pig for adding products?

Sometimes when walking around, it's easy to re-run an old journey just to see if anything has changed. It seems to happen on autopilot. I really meant to see if X-cart installs from Drupal, from among the shopping carts mentioned on another page, but I think it only links in some way.

I remembered why I started writing this blog about Drupal for ecommrece a few years ago, thinking it would be a temporary set of notes kept for a month until I could get a better veggie shoe shop site online - hence the blog name "buildlog". I remembered that Drupal plugins are rather exciting in inviting you to a techie world rather like the script installer on your web host. Drupal has a pre-arranged "distribution" for daily deals and another for a hotel selling bookings. It's easy to hope that there will be some module soon for whatever trade you are in, or maybe a developer could write something for you that would be much harder to write for standard shopping cart software, like a link to your accounts program or something more exciting perhaps. There is a chance to collabrate, which is more interesting than just competing. I remembered that you can install Drupal from there, then go to its admin page to install more modules. You can see the "Modules" link near the top right of the picture. Click on it and this is what you get:

You can find modules and themes on
The following file extensions are supported: zip tar tgz gz bz2.

For example:

If you can find the right module from the modules link, right-click to "copy link location", then go back to paste it into the "Install from a URL" box. Press "enter". If all goes well you get a barbour's-shop bar accross the screen for a while, then some message that includes a linke to "install new modules", which takes you back to the modules section of your admin screen.

Names of required but now missing modules are in red that you now have to track-down and install from the same site (it's not automatic). Then you can tick the box next to Drupal Commerce, press enter, and automatically the thing installs all the relevant modules with a the odd hickup where you have to press control+backarrow and try again. Finally you have a new admin column called "store" and an option to "add product".

It's not a lot of good is it? A bit liked a stipped-down racing car or a quadbike for someone who really wants a delivery van or a market stall or some other wheeled retail thing as a metaphor. In the USA where they watch films of cowboys and covered wagons or carts, they call the things shopping carts. The term is well-know in the internet retail trade. It is not what you write from the screen shown shown above.

There's no help about related issues like the categories of the catalogue and how they are laid-out, nor attributes, nor any warning on the page about this instruction:
On a clean install of Drupal Commerce, simply adding products to the backend is not enough to display them for sale with an Add to Cart form. Drupal Commerce separates the definition (on the back end) from the display (on the front end) of a product.

I tried a google search by date in case there's anything recent to say "this new module irons-out the techie awkwardness of doing the most basic things on this software", but not much came-up. Only one thing came-up in the last 12 months from 2015.06 .26 backwards.
No results. Except something 10-months old about writing your own php code, which very few shopkeepers are likely to want to do, unless they are sick of being shopkeepers and want to build a new career in php code-writing. Not many people would want to do both at once for long.

I tried searching modules on but find the search system hard to use. The Drupal Commerce site itself has a list of modules so I tried reading the title of every single one, loosing track a little. still set themselves a dual role in bidding for big-budget work while promoting Drupal Commerce for the cheap or DIY work of which they have no direct experience to keep them up-to-date. If they could somehow find enthusiasts from among developers who do this kind of work to keep that part of the site up to date, that would be great.

They have a "distribution" category. They don't mention whether you can use a script installer on your web server and then press a button to upgrade Drupal to the full distribution; I don't know.
  • they don't mention a new one - Drupalife Store mainly in Russian.
  • I doubt these are a first choice for a shopkeeper looking for a cheap e-commerce system because of the fiddleyness of installing Drupal without being able to use a script installer, but they may be good for shopkeepers who want a bit of this and that and some integration.
Drupal Commerce themselves have a "utilities" category. These can be installed onto a Drupal installation that comes from a script installer on a host site. Drupal Commerce mention a module as well as providing a screencast of how to use it, but it remains in Alpha release with no further development planned:
  • (thanks
  • got further (thanks
  • is actively maintained I think - this page is a note in progress and I may change it in a day or two. 
      • If the module is perfect, there's still the problem of the people who write Drupal-based shopping cart software, usually for a living as part of some company and think it OK to promote software to small business which is no good for small business; it is a kit for web developers. I don't know if it's chance that Wordpress shopping carts have problems fitting-in to their market too. I haven't tried Joomla-based shopping carts but maybe they don't know what their prospects want either. A bit like most of us in other parts of life but I shall stick to technical discussion of shopping cart software.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A tourist guide to Royal Mail for small ecommerce shops & web developers

Introduction: Royal Mail for ecommerce

picture of a letter box
A frustration of using ecommerce software in the UK or outside the US is that so few web developers write a postage module for the simplest basic postal service. They don't even write a tablequote kit so that a shopkeeper can fill-in a managable small table of their own prices for zones and weights, like this:
  • UK - where a 2nd class 2kg parcel can be posted for £2.80 and there is a 2.5cm "large letter size" that goes cheaper up to 750g
  • "Europe" with a fiddly "UK zone B" for the Channel Islands, and 64 other countries
  • "Worldwide Zone 1", which is everything else except
  • "Worldwide Zone 2" with 34 countries.
    The zones outside the UK have detailed price / weight tables.
    There is a table further down this page for converting Royal Mail's names to ISO country codes.
I tried to change one shopping cart module so that "Afghanestan" became UK, "Andorra" became Europe, "American Samoa" bacame Worldwide Zone 1, and "Aruba" became Worldwide Zone 2. It felt like being Napoleon without the war crimes, but I didn't quite manage to make it work. Recently, I've discovered that the Drupal Ubercart module imports a country once and then keeps the name on the database. If you can find the right program on the control panel of your web host to poke into the database, sufficient trial and error brings you to the names of countries which you can change by hand to anything you like.

I wished that someone used-to modules and code could have done it for me. Maybe the shopping cart developers think "I'll make a living selling add-ons on commission, and someone is bound to write a Royal Mail add-on". Then module developers look at Royal Mail's web site with all its complicated extra services like franking, and its whimsical change, and decide not to write a module. Nobody wants to get caught between a sprawling set of services that can change at any time, and an irate customer who has only paid £10 for a module but expects some kind of support.

From what I can see of other post offices' web sites in Europe, they follow the same pattern of a few world zones priced by weight, with a fixed size and price for 0-2kg parcels that they like to post on home ground, plus letters, large letters, and sprawling web sites with loads of decoy mail services that no sane person would use, special jargon words like "docket", trademarked premium services such as Like-To-Pay-More ® - all sorts of things. Names like "delivered ®" or"here to there with a stamp on ®" are common. Big courier web sites are similar. I've just found another page where emergency closures and delays are listed There seem always to be more pages to find.
Puzzling trademark ®
Large-scale UK shopkeepers or their warehouse contractors will know the kaleidoscope of  prices & services; they will simply tell a developer what they want. They may even know what franking machines are good for. This page isn't for large-scal shopkeepers. This page is just is a tourist guide to every-day Royal Mail services for individuals, ebayers, stallholders, crafters, smaller-scale shopkeepers, and developers who write for them. The stuff that ebay sellers and shopkeepers have picked-up just by living in the UK and hope that software developers around the world will happen to know too. They might post in a forum or send you an email. This is what they take for granted.

I've just watched a video that says "we live in an Amazon world. The customers' expectation is 2 days". But the bloke says this in front of a graph saying that customers are content for the first week, even in the US where people seem to expect chinese goods sold on a huge shop margin. People know that they can't download physical goods and have them now. He also says "fight with your suppliers", which could be why his goods turned-up late.

I've got a shortlist of shopping carts on another post: Most don't help much with shipping or even hinder in order to sell you an over-priced module. Individuals are offered a kaleidoscope of options from Royal Mail, that seem to overwhelm the people who try to make the clear on Royal Mail's web site let alone the people who have to read all this detail. Most of these prices and services are decoys designed to charge more for the person who doesn't care how much something costs. Basically Royal Mail sends 2nd Class 0-2kg Small Parcels to the UK at a fixed price for delivery in 3-5 working days and airmail to three other world zones with a table of prices by wieght. Simple as that. Other shopkeepers might have other favourite services like the 2.5cm thick large letter, but probably not many more. The prices are low for everyone. The only discounts are 0.5% cashback on some visa / mastercards held in individuals' names, (no Amex) and lower prices for bulk sorted mail to Royal Mail direct or some companies that feed-in to their sorting offices.
  • You might think that Royal Mail would offer to write modules for free. No.
  • You might think that the Department for Business and its drive would make sure it's easy, given that the taxpayer still owns most of Royal Mail and the Department for Business is there to sort-out market failures, but no.There are now several departments for business or for economic development, because devolution is fashionable, and any one of these development agencies or departments could do a bit of lobbying or funding, but no.
  • You might hope that the people who write shopping cart software would make it easy, but no: they're often based in the USA and get tied-up in obscure US tax rates before they have time to think about obscure non-US post offices. Sometimes they are the sort of people who buy a T-shirt by UPS. Americans can be like that.

 Zones - Royal Mail has 4 of them plus the fiddley Channel Islands.
Royal Mail has 4 world zones: UK including Isle of Mann and Northern Ireland (with a fiddley exception for the channel islands - a tiny extra zone), Europe, Worldwide Zone 1 and Worldwide Zone 2.
It's rather hard work for the shopkeeper to attach prices by weight to every single country, and for the customer to choose a country from a long alphabetical list including countries like Aruba and American Samoa which I only discovered from these lists. A module to assemble these countries into 4 zones for a table quote by price or weight might be enough of the job done to get your software company a hug from a UK merchant, or their business anyway.
(There used to be a cheap and green rate for surface mail outside the UK that could 3 months to New Zealand. A vestige survives in "economy" mail, but it is only a few pence cheaper usually; there is more or less one price now to most places. I guess that container-size loads are still be sent privately that way.)
Highlands and Islands postcodes can attract a fuel surcharge on contract prices while courier quotes can be slower or more expensive. I haven't come-across this myself; it doesn't apply to the rate that most people pay.
Northern Ireland is in the UK postal zone.. Royal Mail and Parcelforce couriers are the same company and you'll probably get the same postal zone for Parcelforce too.

Zones - ISO country names to Royal Mail country names

I've asked Royal Mail for this list, then found that it's in the source code of a Drupal module which I don't know how to use any other way for Ubercart. I installed and used FTP to find the right file and read it in a text editor from the drupal/sites/all/modules/rmzone/ . There are probably similar modules for programs like Abantecart or Prestashop or Cubecart and the rest which can be read in a similar way.

    'AL', // Albania
    'AD', // Andorra
    'AM', // Armenia
    'AT', // Austria
    'AZ', // Azerbaijan
    // Belearic Islands: Spain
    'BY', // Belarus
    'BE', //Belgium
    'BA', // Bosnia Herzegovina
    'BG', // Bulgaria
    // Canary Islands: Spain
    // Corsica's French
    'HR', // Croatia
    'CY', // Cyprus
    'CZ', // Czech Republic
    'DK', // Denmark
    'EE', // Estonia
    'FO', // Faroe Islands
    'SF', // Finland
    'FR', // France
    'GE', // Georgia
    'DE', // Germany
    'GI', // Gibraltar
    'GR', // Greece
    'GL', // Greenland
    'HU', // Hungary
    'IS', // Iceland
    'IE', // Irish Republic
    'IT', // Italy
    'KZ', // Kazakhstan
    // Kosovo doesn't have an agreed code, and Drupal's doesn't include it.
    'KG', // Kyrgyzstan
    'LV', // Latvia
    'LI', // Liechtenstein
    'LT', // Lithuania
    'LU', // Luxembourg
    'MK', // Macedonia
    // Madeira: Portugal
    'MT', // Malta
    'MD', // Moldova
    'MC', // Monaco
    'ME', // Montenegro
    'NL', // Netherlands
    'NO', // Norway
    'PL', // Poland
    'PT', // Portugal
    'RO', // Romania
    'RU', // Russia
    'SM', // San Marino
    'RS', // Serbia
    'SK', // Slovakia
    'SI', // Slovenia
    'ES', // Spain
    'SE', // Sweden
    'CH', // Switzerland
    'TJ', // Tajikistan
    'TR', // Turkey
    'TM', // Turkmenistan
    'UA', // Ukraine
    'UZ', // Uzbekistan
    'VA', // Vatican City State

The software doesn't list zone 1: it's everything but the others.

 * Returns a list of countries in the Royal Mail zone: World zone 2. Note that
 * there seem to be two islands that are part of the Norwegian Antarctic
 * Territory that don't have ISO 3166-1 codes: Peter I Island and Queen Maud
 * Land.
 * @see
 * @see
 */ replaces the iso decoding table mantioned above
with this explanation

    'AU', // Australia
    'PW', // Belau
    'IO', // British Indian Ocean Territory
    'CX', // Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)
    // Christmas Island (Pacific Ocean)
    'CC', // Cocos Islands
    'CK', // Cook Island
    // Coral Sea Island: Australia
    'FJ', // Fiji
    'PF', // French Polynesia
    'TF', // French South Antarctic Territory
    // Keeling: Cocos Islands
    'KI', // Kiribati
    'MO', // Macao
    'NR', // Nauru Island
    'NC', // New Caledonia
    'NZ', // New Zealand
    // New Zealand Antarctic Territory: New Zealand
    'NU', // Niue Island
    'NF', // Norfolk Island
    'BV', // Norwegian Antarctic Territory (NB this excludes Peter I Island and
    // Queen Maud Land, which don't have ISO codes - see
    'PG', // Papua New Guinea
    'LA', // People's Democratic Republic of Laos
    'PN', // Pitcairn Island
    'SG', // Republic of Singapore
    'SB', // Solomon Islands
    // Tahiti: French Polynesia
    'TK', // Tokelau Island
    'TO', // Tonga
    'TV', // Tuvalu
    'AS', // US Samoa
    'WS', // Western Samoa

UK private couriers for parcels over 2kg
lists sites that sell pre-paid labels for private courier services. There is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of services including obscure shop-to-shop services, shop-to-door, and the upmarket quick and signed-for ones, and a locker-based one which may accept your returns and not loose them forever with luck. The rule of thumb is that they are cheaper for parcels over 2kg and offer tracking. Everybody knows this except the one person  at the front of every post office queue who asks very slowly "how much would 2.1kg to Aruba be? - oh, that seems a lot. Does it include tracking?".

Private couriers are unlikely to become cheaper for 2kg parcels because their staff don't do a delivery round down the street; they drive from street to street delivering a parcel here and a parcel there, ringing a doorbell for each one and most likely leaving half their parcels with neighbours when customers are not in. They also miss a VAT tax break that Royal Mail enjoys (in exchange for delivering all-over the UK for one price). Their best known services involve two van-parking and doorbell-ringing trips because people are used to them collecting as well as delivering, while Royal Mail only collects sacks; you have to go to a post office and drop-off your parcels or use a letter box.

The courier that comes closest to Royal Mail prices is a cheapskate operation in handling standards, delivery speed, and pay scales. They encourage recipients to suggest a porch or safe place where a parcel can be left late at night or while the customer is out, but customers ignore this, just as they ignore services like CollectPlus and UPS collection points which allow them to pick-up a product at a local shop. Customers prefer to sit at home and grumble that the courier didn't come when hoped-for. The service is better value and quicker if you drop-off parcels at one of their agents, which are places like newsagents and garages that can give a receipt and keep a parcel for the daily collection. Maybe in a few years more people will be used to picking-up parcels at places like this as well as dropping-off.
There is a consensus that £30kg is about the most that a single courier with a trolly and a van can carry, and the usual maximum size is 56cm x 46cm x 36cm. Pallets cost more again. Rolls and matrasses are hard to shift. Worldwide container shipping is another market again.

Addressing - no need for counties or bar codes for Royal Mail
Within the UK, the administrative list of areas isn't used by Royal Mail nor couriers; there's no need to ask the customer their county or any local government area from any drop-down list, nor worry about whether an area is part of  "greater london", or "london". Just leave-out the whole process of selecting an area. There is a Royal Mail recommendation to write the post-town, in capital letters, to help sort mail where the postcode is wrong or illegible, but it's not necessary. If you do want to add an optional area to an address, use post towns if you can find a way, or a paid-for module that gets the customer to match an address and postcode from Royal Mail's database. does the same thing by hand - if you want to double check an address - and is free for a limited number of searches per period.

Customers have a number or name for each letterbox, and a postcode. Just write anything sensible in between if you want, as any address format is accepted. When pushed, Royal Mail say they need a "thoroughfare" next to the number or name of the letterbox, again as a backup.
John Smith,  Deputy Assistant Director of Dockets, Northern Irish Grant Artist Federation,
address and thoroughfare - on one or more lines
Unit 1 Grant Artist House, Verycranky Trading Estate, Long Road, Verycranky, Antrim
last line postcode

John Smith, Rose Cottage Rose Lane, AN1 1AB would be another example

I often see bar codes on large-scale mailings of bills. I don't know if there is any way to use them to get tracking thrown-in to the price. For smaller scale mailings, any clear typeface works well. Mail very seldom gets lost if the address is clear; I can't remember the last time. Automated scanners are replacing more of the hand-sorting at sorting office for pacels now, just as they did years ago for letters. gives more detail for larger customers, with astrisks next to the typefaces they suggest for printing but are unable to print themselves. Do you miss working for big organisations like this? No? It's good that somebody still works for them. They also ignore their own advice on the software that lets you print and pay-for postage online. It uses a sans-serif font with the kerning reduced so that letters merge into each other, and prints on a grey patterned background like a watermark.
Bold fonts must not be used. Recommended fonts as follows. Arial 10-12pt, Avant Garde 11-15, Century School Book 10-11, Courier 10-15, Courier new 10-15, Frankfurt Gothic 10-12, Franklin Gothic (Book) 11-14, Geneva 10-12, Helvetica 10-14, Letter Gothic 12, Lucida Console 12, Lucidea Sans Typewriter 12, Monaco 12, News Gothic MT 10-12, OCR B 12, Univers 10-15, Verdana 10-12,

Pricing & paying:
UK 2nd class 2kg parcels have one price; 3 zones of weight tables ex-UK
Proof of postage is free but fiddly and effects the system to use:
online / drop&go
..quote dozens of sizes weights and services in a format called "handyguide.pdf" that changes at whim year to year; the Royalmailtechnical web has released a spreadsheet, but only for large scale services so far and the firm refused to publish a clear spreadsheet of prices in the past. is a route into is a new shorter form to do the same thing:
print a stamp and address from an address and postcode, and tell you a clear price if you don't buy. It can also import addresses, but only from ebay according to the help page. Ebay and Paypal also have a system of printing-out pre-paid addresses on your home printer without going to the Royal Mail web site.

Royal Mail no longer has a cash-on-delivery service, even for the annoying packages priced at over £15 that arrive from outside the EU and so have a tarrif plus VAT tax plus collection fee to pay.
Online postal payment systems demonstrate the pointlessness of weighing your post and printing a stamp with an expensively hired and serviced machine from approved suppliers. There is a small discount on franked post for no reason except to keep this pointless industry going and after a brief experiment I decided that no discount is worth the trouble.
The first /pricefinder url gives more information about sizes: Second class 1-2kg small parcels are the best value, along with letters and a thing called a large letter which is 2.5cm thick. There's probably some way of getting a robot on the customers' computer to transfer names, postcodes, and first lines of addresses onto the online postage page but no need. You can also put  pre-stamped mail in letter boxes or drop it in a sack without queing a lot of post offices. Most of them are independent franchises and capable of ignoring instructions from head office about whether to leave an open sack on your side of the counter for dropping-off mail.

Tracking is only available on expensive signed-for services, so proof of posting can be important. You have to queue-up and ask for proof of postage, which the staff do for no fee by printing-out a receipt for £0 showing the destination of the parcel. If you use ebay's Paypal postage, the old Certificate of Posting system survives, which is rubber-stamped and squiggled at the counter. Staff are polite about doing this work for no money and other systems may survive for proof of posting several parcels. They used to hide blank certificate of posting forms, though, to discourage people from using them.
is run by Post Office Counters and tried to integrate charging and reports into Royal Mail's web site, without success; it's still a manual system and the Royal Mail side of the firm have introduced a simlar one in competition. Anyway, shopkeepers can open an account, then then jump the queue at a post ofice branch and leave addressed parcels to have stamps stuck-on by the staff who's branch makes a small profit on them. Happy post office. May remain open. They can print form headed "manifest" on which to list postcodes and addresses for them to stamp as proof of postage. It's possible to download the form as a pdf and to made it editable so that you can cut-and paste the three columns of 2nd class / street number / address that are most used.
Free collections at the ground floor exist for sacks, or more precisely "free weekly collections for customers who spend over £15,000 a year with us". If you only send the cheapest £2.80 parcels, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, that's nearly 22 parcels a working day. Comments on message boards say that the £15,000 limit isn't strictly enforced, and of course the customers who opt of for first class or export parcels will reduce the minimum number, as will use of a specialist pick-and-pack mailing warehouse in some cheap part of the UK, or collaboration with one or two neigbouring firms to collect shared mail from the ground floor: I don't know if there's a way to make that work.

Bulk customers can get small discounts for doing some of the sorting but I don't know how much that takes-away from the benefit of having a sack of mixed mail collected. They also have a long pre-computerised tradition which may still have its odd jargon or options for manual book-keeping. I don't know what a "docket book" is for example, but they do.

Royal Mail's Europe zone is very large, including non-EU countries like Ukraine for which a customs sticker is needed and possibly a tariff paid by the recipient.

Neighbouring post offices that speak English -
Netherlands,  Ireland, Channel Islands, Isle of Mann

Anyone who writes about how Royal Mail works has to mention the Isle of Mann and Channel Islands. So why not write about a couple of bigger neighbours first? These two speak english. or serves the Netherlands, a country of 16.8 million mercantile & well-educated people next to the UK's 61 million people. I think people in the main dutch towns often do business in English by default; a client's IT department is likely to accept sales contacts English, with Dutch and Flemish more common at home, in the country, or when buying rather than selling. Signs at Schipol Airport are all in English. I don't live in the Netherlands and might have got this wrong, but the main postal service seems to be for 3.5cm "letterbox size" 0-2kg parcels delivered cheaply in Holland or the Benelux countries, with another zone for Europe and I think another for "world".

Cash on delivery is available. That's different to the UK.
Online stamping and addressing isn't obviously available. I might have missed it. own the TNT Post courier service in other countries, and briefly tried doing a door-to-door delivery round in parts of London, as well as touting for the sack collection trade under the name Door-to-door delivery staff were made redundant with zero warning, but UK sack collection continues with a minimum of 250 items per collection. for the Republic of Ireland's 4.6m people is like in using €uro & speaking english. Fewer Irish people speak other languages than in most countries of the world I guess, but politicians have diverted resources from social insurance, including education and health, into making sure that, should people suddenly start speaking Gaelic all at once in the future, pubic services will be ready for them. That's the sort of thing that politicians do with your social insurance payments if you don't watch the bastards. Signs at Dublin Airport are in Gaelic and English, as at Knock airport, where you can go to see the miracle of priests evading prosecution for false statements or worse. It's a great place to visit in other ways though: living there is the problem and unfortunately, UK politicians are picking-up these tricks just as Irish ones try to get rid of them.

ANPost collects sacks from senders of 30 parcels a more a week outside Dublin - and an unstated amount inside - and from post offices and letter boxes in the southern Irish counties. says that collection services outside the republic have been sold-off.
ANPost delivery price zones are Ireland - north is the same price, GB, Europe, World.
ANPost addressing guide is at
There is no online address and stamp printing service, but large customers can use a machine for printing normal-looking stamps and a database of addresses can be hired.
The pointless franking industry survives in Ireland as in the UK, with small discounts and perhaps some purpose for the bulk mailers.

Just recently I had a parcel returned as insuffiently addressed to putting two lines together and ommitting the new postcode; I don't know which triggured the return, but they now use postcodes slightly longer than the UK ones, so best to check from their site what's happening. It will suggest a printed format in roman letters that's hard to cut and paste into your own software, but there is bound to be a way.

I don't think they've got up to the UK / Canada pattern of six letters and numbers. Counties are named after the county town, so you can leave out "County Limerick" if the town is "Limerick".

The Channel Islands' 164,000 people use UK currency in three independent EU states, sharing some services like embassies with the UK. They do not have a Channel Islands postal service. They have two:
E-commerce is a regular business in the Channel Islands.
For a while this meant that you could sell your ebay items from a Channel Islands warehouse and not pay VAT. More recenlty the state-owned Royal Mail has added a separate "sub zone" price to all mail from the UK to the Channel Islands, and all goods from the channel islands now have to pay UK VAT on entry - not just goods valued under the usual £15 threshold.

The Isle of Mann's is a separate post office for the 80,000 people who live there. The island has its own EU government and tax rates but shares the UK pound while its post office seems to share the same postal zones of UK, Europe, and world. Like AMPost, it offers signage in Gaelic. Letters cost less to send than from the Royal Mail; parcels more.

Gibralter's serves 30,000 people in the EU who speak English first and have regular air deliveries of mail to the UK & US as well as land deliveries via Spain.
Other neighbouring countries have english-language post office web pages and english-speaking clients, but I don't live in any of them or have any off-the-cuff knowledge to add to what you find. In Europe, the northern countries and those with coastlines are the more mercantile but have worse weather. I guess that most have a handful of world zones priced by weight and a favourite size of 2kg parcel that they like posting so much that they do it very cheaply.

Oh here's a thing. The Italian post office is not yet as reliable as the others - see Time Out Guides, Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, or google phrases like "ex pat guide to life in..." for details about the Italian post office and whether it has got any better. Items I send to Italy are more often delayed than to other countries, although they turn-up in the end. An ebay seller might choose "everywhere in the EU but Italy" as a choice for where to post.

I began by writing about Royal Mail and neighbouring services as though you were selling your software at a trade show in the UK. The Indian post office is further away and different in pricing for more different weights and countries. It serves a population of 1252 million.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Free Fast and Pretty: which shopping cart?

Choosing a UK business bank account
Free, Fast and Pretty: shopping cart software for ecommerce < this page
Simple Bookkeeping and Account Agregators
Free Online Bookkeeping Software for Simple Accounts

Free Fast and Pretty - which shopping cart?

This is a note of all the shopping carts that are free & pretty, to install automatically on a site.
A site the uses a database is going to take time to install and backup; it's easier if there is an installer like these. The shopping carts run on Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal, or more simply are called shopping carts and download as a single thing.
- fantastico scroll-down to E-Commerce for a list of shopping carts
- softulicious  Softulicious shopping carts
- installatraon Installatron ecommerce and business apps
With luck, a super-fast super-cheap hosting company will have a version of one of these three script installers free for customers to use on its control panel, ready do install shopping-cart software with a single click.

My fast site is on a server chosen from and test ones are on or who allow 2 database sites per account. You can see what I want to change away-from at my shoe shop here.
Promising shopping cart software is red. I have 2 F-words & 4 P-words for whittling-down choice.
Free, Fast & Pretty; Postage, Payment, & Product management are essential too.
Product management sub-divides into another five points to whittle-down the shortlist. puts shopping cats into categories, with this category at the top - known for being free, but without hosting or customer support and known for being harder to set-up than a hosted shopping cart.

There's a separate bit about hosting at the bottom titled "Hosting:"


The cost is hidden in the price of modules. Open-source ought to be cheaper I guess, as well as being a prettier idea to deal with than something corporate. I don't want to pay so-much-a-month for a hosted service like Shopify or Bigcommerce. I haven't read that they're better than self-installed software; the same money could pay for developers to help you install. And if I can't pay bills, then Shopify and Bigcommerce put up a sign saying "closed". Self-hosted software can go on a slow free server like Byethost and leave me with just the cost of the domain to pay-for until business picks-up or the firm is sold or I run the firm down gracefully or my health recovers or I get back out of prison or whatever the next stage might be. (Joke: I am not in prison)


Not that I know of any measurements, but Magento gets bad reviews for this compared to Prestashop (I haven't googled the others for speed tests recently that I can remember)
Trying to re-check this fact with a quick google in July 2017, the first result puts Magento ahead in the US and Prestashop in Europe.
So the test is not to put two similara set-ups on one server, one using Magento and one Prestashop. It is to test a number of other peoples' shops on whatever server they happen to use, and of course some firms throw money at the problem and have super-fast servers. The second test puts Prestashop behind as well with the same measuring system
This one is confident that on the same host, Prestashop does better and that it can work better on cheaper hosts; it's less bloated. No facts are quoted to back this up.
This review seems pretty sure why PS should be faster, even if it can't explain very well
This one says "small e-shops get-on very well with Prestashop" under "performance"
This review puts Prestashop ahead, and rates some paid-for software even faster
There are some videos to check and some reviews mentioning Open Cart alongside.

There is a bit about hosting at the bottom of the page as well.


Not that I know of any measurements, but the ones with "specials" on the front page of the demonstration are always ugly for some reason.

Postage = shipping

I want to sell in as many countries of the world as possible with cheap and greenish postage. I don't want software from a developer who says "use the Fedex module, UPS, or role your own with this bit of rubbish I provide. Or search the forum in case another shopkeeper sorted this problem ten years ago for a previous version".

The developers who say this are so over-paid that they don't even use the post office to buy mail-order T shirts in their native USA. Post offices are usually cheaper and greener because they have a delivery round to most letterboxes on a street rather than one in my street and another a few streets or miles away. Post offices are usually public sector and not geared to writing free plugins for Posh-o-cart. So anyone paid under a zillion pounds a year ought to know that plugins for different post offices, or to help shopkeepers write their own plugins for post offices, are essential for promoting shopping cart software.

Royal Mail has 4 postal zones of UK, Europe, Airmail, and Oceana with various different services that change in price. My next post is a guide to Royal Mail's main services for individuals & small-scale e-commrece trading. I want to offer a simplified version that has a basic price per weight or price per weight to each of these zones, or at least to three out of the four. 2nd class to the UK. Probably standard rate to the rest of the world. This should not be much to ask but most shopping cart software fails the test - including all or most of the Wordpress plugins and including the one written in the UK I think. Here is something about Drupal shipping modules and here is something else and another thing. The developers get carried-away thinking about US taxes while ignoring worldwide postage.


I want to use paypal for testing and then my merchant service provider - Elavon - for most real orders. If I get enough real orders I hope to shop-around merchcant service providers, but you can't haggle if you don't have the turnover, can you? No. We agree. And I do not want to pay a hundred pounds for the privilage of using the merchant service provider I am already signed-up to. Luckily this is getting a lot easier than it was a few years ago and some shopping carts do fit free Elavon modules.


If the top few points are OK then I'll play with the site and see if it can tell me things I want to know about stock, like
whether an advert helped a product sell. Remote-hosted checkout forms are bad for this - they confuse the tracking code.
whether a product has run-out.
If my software refuses to sell a sold-out product, then maybe it can automatically charge a customer at each purchase and save me a job.
when to re-order. This can only be a prompt, but still a useful one and I'm not sure how subtle the different stock control systems are or how to use them. Maybe they're add-ons. One version of Prestashop can even remember where a product is usually found in the warehouse and write that on a picking sheet. I don't know if that's the free version.
I'll have to learn the system for attributes = sizes as well. Some programs track a shoe as something that can be adapted to different sizes, as though these were like different sorts of laces. Others track a shoe as a range of several different products, one for each size, but sharing a supplier. I'll learn as I go. Presumably most software offers both options as a shoe in one size definately can't be re-sized to another, even with a broom handle and lots of leverage.
I want to search for products in several ways - whether my shoes are made in a democratic welfare state for example, or how well that country scores on a democracy index. Some shopping carts just have a tag for brand which they mis-label "manufacturer".

  I want any blogs and other bits to be part of the same web site if possible, as Drupal allows and possibly carts that can be slotted-in to other sites. Perhaps Cubecart.
I want to have a wholesale shop and maybe some others using the same software and looking different to the end-customer, while a supplier might want to share my shop so it looks the same to the end-customer but stuff is sent from another place. So carts with the word "multi" in them would be good.

Not quite open source?
Paid-for version has a bundle of modules including language translation and a "custom" mobile version.

promising suggests it can track stock of each variation of a product. My problem is uptdating it. Two trial installations have both got stuck updataing from version X to version X+1.

Ugly. The developer is also a car and car parts dealer in Canada, so the program should be well set-up for that trade.

Unusual in being based on perl rather than php. Long established. Available through one of my web host accounts on a special menu for Perl scripts, but not on the other. Ugly.. Is it fast? I have not tested the thing or installed.


Part of a hugely corporate suite of programs sold from Amercia. This software is presented as open source. It installs OK from a script installer but I haven't found the admin logon to test it at all. I haven't found a demo site.

CS cart
Fast and pretty with smooth back-end data for shopkeepers, it says of itself.
One installer doesn't include it.
One installer includes it, but when I try to install I get "licencing mode"; the program doesn't seem to be open source and has a free version or a $385 version.

Promising. More to follow. The developer pays UK tax that benefits me, and has no private equity funding, so he probably knows what a post office is. (Amazon and Starbucks are loosing customers in the UK for their failure to pay tax, which is great. Sod them) Getting back to shopping carts, Canadapost and United States Postal Service have free modules. Royal Mail has to be dealt with through the all-in-one module which I have used to set-up zones. instructions in 5 short videos.
Nifty but murky system for stock control of products which are sizes or other attrubutes of a type of product. A forum post suggests that the minimum and maximum stock levels show on the front of the site.
I haven't yet found-out how to get a table display of stock of each size of each product. As with most ecommerce systems, the forum has a small membership but can provide good answers.

As I write the new open source version of this product has just been updated to include cache modules for speed of download and so higher search engine rankings and easier buying for visitors. So this is an up-and-coming version of a long established product.

Drupal Commerce
You can now install Drupal from something like Installatron and the instructions for adding shopping cart modules are getting better. I tried Ubercart in about 2012.. It needed a shipping module. At that point the developers left, so there is still no shipping module. The developers wrote Drupal Commerce, which has neither a good Royal Mail shipping module nor a  way of connecting products on the admin database to products on the front-end. You have to enter them twice or install some kind of module for doing it. I tried it in 2013-14. The customers are exepected to be developers and the support takes the form of videos by people who don't say how they have set-up their demonstration before the video started, so you can follow it to the letter and find that your lack of something-or-other stops it working for you. You can see transcripts of the videos and links to them as earlier posts on this blog. Commerce Guys, developers, have received $7.3bn of private equity finance so they haven't heard of the post office except as a potential client - they haven't heard of it as a place where you post parcels. A pity because at first glance they look good people to write free software. It's just the way they're set-up that doesn't suit open source shopping carts for small business, and not enough people have found a way to jump-in and fill the gap of writing software cheaply or for free to help small shopkeepers on Drupal. My next post might encourage.

Slow. Reviews state that the extra features are at the expense of a multi-layered slow database structure. for example
A review says that smarty templates are hard to learn-about too.

For all the money spent on this huge bundle of code, I don't see any great ease of use over other similar programs. I tried to train my Magento to recognise shoe sizes in my particular way. I even got hold of a textbook to train me in how to train Magento. On page 72 if gets difficult. I could probably have cracked it in the end and learned how to add my particular attributes to products, but I got bored of page 72 and then read reviews about bloat and slow loading.

Much liked by enthusiasts including me for ten years or so because it is free and stable, but it is also a shopping cart on a remote website that allows you to write order buttons that you can stick on your web site. In other words it is limited. I want to stop using Mal's because I want to link my orders to a stock control system. I also want a stock layout system that shows a shop window of my products with order buttons next to them, in some slick way that also works on mobiles an tablets and any other format that people invent over the years, and has some of the bells and whistles like better tracking of advert performance or slick one-page checkout on the same url. I don't want to loose the ability to rabbit-on like someone who always wanted to be a journalist. This makes my site easier to index. So, ideally, I will be able to keep a lot of text on the new more formatted site.

If there are ways of hosting one or two shopping carts with different urls but access to the same stock, that's unlikely to happen but worth thinking about. Mal's allows me to sell to a trade customer at 50% discount, and we would probably have met and found a way to work-around some of the limitations. It doesn't provide that trade buyer, or me, with a way of knowing what is in stock or anything like that, so it's better suited to goods I make than goods I buy in batches and sell-on.
Did you know that there is a $35 program for making shop sites with stock control out of an Excel spreadsheet? It can use Mal's for checkout. Another one called Rapidcart doesn't use Mals.

(type "demo" in both boxes to log in)
Promising at first. There is a Royal Mail module free. (post about Royal Mail here)
The installer provides an old version, but a new one can be unzipped on a hard disc, stripped of two files that have "config" in the names, and moved with a file transfer program to my server over the top of the old files.
Much praised by reviewers.
I've had a couple of bad days trying to make it accept stock, mock orders, categories, attributes, or shipping details - anything really. One online suggestion is that installing a module can trigger a loss of editing privilages which can be restored by ticking various boxes. I have done so. No joy.
Googling "Opencart Faults" I find a review on a site called that doesn't like the code. As I know nothing abut code, I rely on the review. Another on a site called which likes the code but says it doesn't work for upgrades, which comes to the same thing. I think a free service needs to be solid because of course there's no technical support

Thirtybees Prestashop 

This is the one I went with. Search engines will find you comparisons of Thirtybees and Prestashop, and a long list of reasons why you should never stick with Prestashop if you have a choice. They remain open source but the company that employs their 4 developers employs  about 180 other people, all funded by flogging modules that you wouldn't need if the thing worked in the first place. Prestashop user forums show threads years-old about problems that could be fixed with a few lines of code. And the latest Prestashop 1.7 charges you $60 for a sitemap module that was included for free in version 1.6. Even 1.6 needed a free module for you to tweak the code - such as the style sheet - from the software's own control panel, or to add blog pages. Free modules were rather hard to find among a cacophony of modules from £44 upwards that they try to flog from your own control screens on the back of the program. From a staff point of view, the main developers have left the organisation and those who still work for it give it bad reviews on glassdoor.

Thirtybees is free, faster than Prestashop, and pretty with its new Niara theme. I might be able to use it without a single paid module, given a lot of style sheet hacks to compact the one page checkout. That's not as hard to do as it sounds; you can see how to do it on their "tips and tricks" page. Installation is easy on Softulicious or Fantastico, but not Installatron; it's worth changing hosts to get Softulicious or Fantastico if you want to experiment and make a lot of fresh installations. The software is slightly too large to install on Byethost and I don't know of free hosting that installs it easily, but it runs well on paid shared hosting that costs me £25 a year.

Stripe and Paypal payment modules are available free.

Countries are zoned, so that you can tell the software by hand that European 2kg parcels cost £10, worldwide £15 and UK (create a zone for it) £3. That's Royal Mail 2kg parcels done, without any extra module.

The future looks promising. Thirtybees is run as a sideline by a few developers who make their living doing-up web sites for Thirtybees and Prestashop customers. Very good developers, you discover if they happen to help on a forum. They aim to fix every reported bug and have worked through dozens left-over from Prestashop. This is a slightly precarious way for something to keep going and they welcome donations of help or money, but it does mean that there's no payroll to fund from up-selling; no loan from venture capitalists who need a return, and it's in Thirtybees' interest to fix problems instead of leaving them broken and selling modules to cover-up the mistake.
Reviews compare it to its rival for most-used shopping cart, Magento, calling it smaller and faster.
Works in different languages by default by the look of things.
The backend has various mottos for self-employed people and might have a lot of feedback about how products are selling and why; it's well integrated with a tracking system. I haven't tested this carefully but that's my impression. The front end is good looking too.
Easy to test on the site, but you have to use their expensive Hipay payment system if you do that or pay over £100 to switch to Paypal. (pswebshop Service withdrawn)
Compulsory add-ons are expensive - over £100 each - and one review says that Prestashop's source code is written in some complicated way, so that add-ons are hard to write and are likely to remain expensive. My own experience is that they are no needed, or, for the bold, might be findable free on github for example for Worldpay but that's a bit beyond my abilities and needs. There is a free easy module for Stripe, that seems to be about the cheapest easiest card processor at 1.4% for limited companies.

Royal Mail postage modules have briefly been introduced and then withdrawn, quoting changes in RM's price data as a reason and with hopes to re-introduce.

Version ?7, which I am on, has introduced automatic zoning of countries so it's reasonably quick - less than a day's work - to set up Royal Mail's three zones plus the Channel islands. So far I have got stuck on this. It works in theory but prices all my parcels for delivery to Europe, even though knows they're for the UK.

Another module provides access to label printing for RM account holders who send more than 10-12 parcels a day.

There's a thread about postage here: without resolution, but I discover a £30 module that allows some kind of table quote by price or weight, so if you have the patience to work through thirty-something European countries and sixty-something zone II countries you can write your own postal rules.

Spree Commerce
Not on the installer systems for either of my web hosts.
Uses software I'm even less used-to than PHP, called Ruby.
Mentioned here because used by Bonobo - site that sells $100 jeans in the USA - and their main man makes a lot of videos about the how and the why - - so if you use Spree Commerce you are well-placed to follow his advice about how to get a picture of the product on the shopping cart to reassure the customer or whatever other idea he tells us and his video camera about. He's a bit like a private dentist. He talks in a very relaxed, re-assuring way, and ends by charging $100. I don't know how to install Spree Commerce or want to learn more about software than necessary so I haven't used it.

Mentioned by reviewers and available on installatron.
Multi-zone table-rate shipping is a freebie with a thread of comments and requests on their forum.
With luck that can be adapted to Royal Mail.
Payment  is not available for free via paypal or elavon. The forum has lots of comments about far-eastern payment methods but not about European ones.

Ubercart - the Drupal Add-on non-working demo
...can be installed fairly quickly by someone who is used to cutting-and-pasting the right module links into the module adding bit of a Drupal admin page. A year or so ago, the ubercart site was covered in spam and any attempts to get shipping zones easy to use for the UK looked unlikely. Now the Ubercart site is up to date and there is a Royal Mail zones module, so maybe something will come of this. My first attempt was bogged-down in attempts to classify the whole world into Royal Mail shipping zones, which are described by a different set of country names to the ISO list, on a web table that says "others" are in World Zone 1. There is now a module that claims to classify countries by Royal Mail rules. After installing it and thinking it did not work for a few weeks, I discovered that you have to tick the "User Interface" boxes to enable user interfaces of every likely module. Rules I think is the crucual one. Then a set of extra rules make themselves known when you start trying to define them for other shipping modules, starting with "country is in royal mail zone".

There is also now a global shipping module that allows you to put all the the world's countries into different empires and then set prices to post to each, which is a lot better than things were, but the older tablequote module has been abandoned. As I look at message boards online, I think I may not be the only one to have trouble getting Global Shipping Module to do what I want, but it's hard to pin-down why.


...add-ons were un-finished last time I tried them in about 2014. They were presented as free with the most basic functions like postage modules costing £50 extra, and then card processing £50 extra, and then something else again, with nothing at the end of it beyond what you can get for free on hosted shopping carts: the functions were basic. This is a quote from Jigoshop about their free postage options "allows you to set five levels of weight-based shipping fees for your products. Simply set the upper limit for each required level, with the fee for that weight range, and those fees will then be enabled. If you require more complexity or want to have shipping rates automatically updated in near real time from your shipping provider, please check out our other Jigoshop Shipping extensions." I liked the customers - Wordpress is aimed at part timers - but not the software. I tried the traditional product from Instinct Entertainment - a wonderful name, and a new one based in the UK then woocommrece which is a fork of it. I tried these things about 2014 when there seemed to be too many wordpress shopping carts trying to make a living for too many developers. Things may have moved-on since, and the Jigoshop web site's history page says that it's run by part-timers. In contrast my last cart provideer, Mals-e commerce, provides one living to a developer, no support, no office landlord, and a solid system that doesn't break down.

I wasn't sure at first whether this was open source, and how easily if could be used with Drupal. Kiril Marinkov of their sales team helped by writing this.
X-Cart Classic(4.x) and our new
X-Cart 5 platform are and have always been fully open code. Yes, there are encrypted modules for X-Cart Classic(4.x) created by 3-rd party developers. However for X-Cart 5 we do not accept encrypted modules of any kind to the marketplace.

The core of all X-Cart 5 packages is exactly the same. Higher packages just add extra modules and thus extra features. You can use the Free package for as long as you wish, as it does not have any limitations in terms of the number products, customers or anything else. And you can, of course, add features via stand-alone free and commercial modules or create your own:

And speaking about integration with Drupal, we do have the module that lets you insert X-Cart elements straight into Drupal That said, with the latest update the module has been deprecated. However if you wish, I suppose we would be able to provide you with the code base to create your own integration.

If you come up with any additional questions I'll be glad to answer them.
I find that X-cart doesn't install automatically on my fast server or my free server. There is a new one click install for my hard disk, but it has crashed two or three times trying to install itself.
On the other hand, Drupal installs automatically and I've done similar installations to X-cart's before, with far worse instructions, so this is worth a try.

I've not looked at this. It's a descendant of OSCommerce  apparently.


Good hosting is another way to speed-up a site. This probably deserves a page to itself, but the only comparison page I could find for web host speed was one sponsored by the top performer that asks the others to pay for inclusion. . Smaller newer hosts tend to do well because they have less customers per rented server, I guess, and then when the web performance goes down they drop-out of the scheme.

I worked down the list from the top, looking for a the first very cheap one. I found LChost at £50 a year plus vat and domain, but they have dropped-off the webperf testing site since. These are some jottings

Netcetera £36 ? VAT 5/80 GB ten and a bit. says ignore number one in the charts - it’s a rigged result.

Hub Network Service - no cheap shared hosting - four to six speed

Xilo - cheap hosting page is a blank white screen -

Good1 - four to five nearly six - you have to ask them for a price - hobbyist -  - £120 a year for a small web site - four and a bit to five and a bit speed - telehouse

LChost were three and a bit till November 2016 then kaput . Don't use them for domain hosting as well as web hosting in case they block-out the bit of cpanel that lets you move your domain to another provider. If you get into this situation, are good at extracting the domain name. 5/2/5 £59 five and a bit speed recently

My next post is a tourist guide to Royal Mail for e-commrece developers who don't live in the UK and don't know the basic services for vegan boots made in the UK

Vegan shoes boots belts and jackets mainly made in the UK: not shoe shop shopping cart software, but the shoe shop of someone who wrote this blog because bad at choosing it

John Robertson sells vegan shoes boots belts and jackets online at Feel free to share with the social sharing buttons below