WordPress can manage product catalogs and sales with plugins that enable product management, track shopping cart selections, handle checkout data and shipping, and send confirmation e-mails.

Some plugins work well and offer support for popular payment gateways and shipping options. A few have extra features, such as membership functions or WP BuddyPress integration. Others may lack one or more features that you need or let you down because of buggy payment or shipping procedures.

I recently spent some time looking for a reliable and user-friendly eCommerce plugin for a WordPress niche site. Basic requirements were support for PayPal Standard or Express and weight-based shipping. After looking at umpteen eCommerce sites, I narrowed my selection to several widely-used or highly touted plugins:

Then I looked more closely at each plugin’s publisher site, documentation, reviews, blog posts, and forums to get a sense of the user experience. Next, I set up dummy sites for three plugins that seemed promising because of their feature lists, popularity, good reviews, or solid reputation. This post reflects what I found and experienced, and my decision on which plugin to use for my next project. It is not a definitive or technical review, and except for the WP e-Commerce plugin, is from a new user’s perspective.

WP e-Commerce Plugin (Get Shopped)

WP e-Commerce is a full-featured plugin with support for organizing products in hierarchical categories, product variations, multiple shipping methods, and many payment gateways. The latest stable version is 3.8, a major rebuild that differs significantly from version 3.7.x. Version 3.8 was rapidly followed by a number of releases to fix bugs or other issues. Version 3.8.7.1 was the latest version available for download when this post was written.

Any theme may be used with WP e-Commerce, but some have been written with compatibility in mind. I’ve used StoreFront Themes and the StudioPress themes with WPEC. StoreFront Themes are very attractive, with great attention to detail, and integrate closely with the plugin. The Boutique theme, which is quite new, has a clean, modern look and supports BuddyPress.

My first test site with WP e-Commerce and StoreFront’s Boutique theme looked perfect and everything went well, given a few expected tweaks to the presentation. Then, I tested checkout transactions with PayPal Sandbox and it fell apart. I had a persistent problem with incomplete PayPal Standard and Express transactions. I set up payments as stated in the documentation, then as recommended by an expert with some credence on the forum, and finally with several variations. Maybe it happens only with the PP Sandbox, but I decided to stop beating my head against the wall and move on to a different plugin for my current project.

Before committing a project to WPEC, which can work and does many things quite well, I would recommend thorough testing, especially with checkout and shipping. Those are the most frustrating parts of this plugin, where problems have lingered over several versions. I would really like to see the developers resolve several problems that are often reported, because WPEC pulls together many great features.

I would also like to see a modestly-priced version of WPEC with some real support, thereby eliminating the oft-repeated excuse that goes something like, “It’s free, so why are you whining about support?” I did purchase Gold Cart at one time, but it no longer adds features that are unattainable with WordPress and a good theme. For $40, the buyer gets support for a grid layout, product search, multiple product thumbnails and one “premium support token.”

There is little active support on the WPEC forum from its development team. Many questions are from people about to commit seppuku or jump off the nearest building. Too many questions go unanswered, ignored, or blown off with condescension. Some people are, indeed, trying to make the plugin do things for which it wasn’t designed, but most are simply trying to get it to work. There are some exceptionally generous folks who hang out on the forum, but they can’t handle all the questions. Don’t take my word for it. Visit the forums and judge for yourself.

The bottom line: If you have only a few products, and you can get WPEC working, that’s great. If you have a large catalog with many variations, which may cause your database-size to increase geometrically, I would proceed with caution. In any case, test thoroughly before going live.

MarketPress

MarketPress is a relative newcomer to eCommerce by WPMU DEV, a subscription service that provides access to many solid WordPress themes and plugins. WPMU DEV has a theme framework (MarketFrame) and two new themes that work with MarketPress. The MarketGrid theme is quite handsome, with a clean, chunky look, a grid presentation for products, and support for the most popular payment gateways. It has several strong color scheme options and can also be customized without difficulty.

I set up a dummy site with MarketPress and everything was going great until I got to shipping, which does not yet offer a weight-based option. It can handle table rates and flat rates, but some product catalogs cannot work without weight-based shipping. MarketPress is an app to watch. It’s functional and solid, like other WPMU DEV offerings, but I can’t use it for my current project. If your needs are simple, it could be an excellent choice.

Shopp

Shopp has a babelicious variety of ways to present products and was very, very tempting. However, there’s a major revision nearing release that will make it work better with the latest versions of WordPress. Instead of jumping in cold with the current version, I plan to revisit it later to see how it fares with users. There is a 30-day guarantee, but no trial or “lite” version for a test drive prior to purchase. It is licensed at $55 with optional premium add-ons. Some people love Shopp, finding it solid and well-supported, but others complain about complexity and lack of support, so I’m keeping it on my list until I have more information.

Cart66

This plugin has mostly positive reviews, so I downloaded the free version, Cart66 Lite. It was very easy to set up. And mirabile dictu, test transactions with PayPal Express and a Sandbox configuration worked on the first try. It supports common payment gateways and has the option of weight-based shipping.

Cart66 works differently from other eCommerce plugins in that it has no built-in structure for organizing products into categories. Nevertheless, it’s easy to do that with already-available WordPress post categories. Only basic product information is entered into the product form and it’s up to you to describe the product as you wish in a separate post or page. I think this approach gives the user freedom to create a consistent product presentation, but to diverge from it when a particular product requires special treatment.

Shortcodes allow product information to be placed in any page, post, or widget. Products can be organized and presented as a group on a WordPress category page. It might not be the best plugin or cart for large, complex catalogs or international shipping, but I think it would work well for many small stores selling to U.S. and Canadian buyers.

Cart66 Lite may be all a small store will need. The subscription version adds forum and product support, membership capability, more product gateways, and popular third party applications, such as Mail Chimp. I purchased a 5-site license and set up a test site with Elegant Themes Boutique theme, which is designed to work with Cart66 and several other eCommerce plugins. Test transactions have been smooth, with a nice-looking user confirmation and printer-friendly receipt. Both Cart66 Lite and the full version are robust and have a good mix of features. Bingo!

Jigoshop

Jigoshop is new, simple to use, Ajax-based, and free. It’s suitable for small stores or digital product downloads.  Jigoshop looks quite spiffy and is forward thinking. It supports only free and flat shipping, so I couldn’t use it for my next project. Jigoshop is included here because it caused quite a buzz when released and has an enthusiastic community.

WooCommerce

WooThemes are very widely used and they just introduced WooCommerce as a WordPress eCommerce plugin. WooThemes has a couple of themes, including a free one, for use with the new plugin. WooCommerce is a forked version of JigoShop coded by two former JigoShop developers. See Woo Themes’ announcement for details. There must be an interesting story in these shenanigans, but you can draw your own conclusions about former employees and forking. I’m not going there.

Conclusions

After a weekend of playing with eCommerce plugins, I discovered two that worked well for me, and one that had everything I was looking for. Both MarketPress and Cart66 appear to have solid code and good support. For my current projects, I’ll use Cart66 and keep an eye on MarketPress. I hope my somewhat skewed review has provided some useful information for people looking at eCommerce plugins. They are an investment of both time and money, so make it count and take your time picking what works for you.