Drupal Commerce

I posted on Optaros website (EN | DE). Here is the copy of the post:

Drupal has always been good piece of open source software for content management. We use it at Optaros as one of the core components of OCentric. However, Drupal could never stand its ground as a solid e-commerce platform. With the new Commerce module Drupal is moving that direction.

Background

It hasn’t been long since online businesses realized that there are a couple of buzzwords to stick to: social media and SEO. Indeed, social sites are very good place to be and engage with (potential) customers, not mentioning that these sites enable word of mouth (aka viral marketing). Search engine optimization helps to save money and still allow showing up high in Web search results; normally it goes hand in hand with quality content to please not only Web crawlers but (potential) customers as well.

Actually, what this implies is that e-shop owners have very special needs that go something like this:

“I want to create a website where I want to display my products. There I’ll have discount campaigns. The information about them should be sent to customers, but not intrusively (otherwise it goes to spam) rather in a friendly fashion, e.g. somebody tells to friends about it. Then we can introduce some sort of reward system for those customers who brought other customers. Also we want people to come to our website often, therefore we’ll have a blog and a lot of information about products and the field in general. People should have their profile page and see what their friends are buying. We also expect that the shop is something like Amazon.com where you have ratings, comments, and recommendations.” And so on, and so on.

I come across similar business requirements very often. What it comes down to, as far as technology is concerned, is the following:

  • Shopping cart
  • Content management system
  • Social stuff (integration to social networks or local features)

In Optaros parlance it rounds up to the triple of Community, Content, and Commerce (aka C3C). In fact that’s what gave birth to OCentric.

Drupal 6.x and Ubercart

Drupal is a content management system that allows creating community oriented sites very easily. The last piece of the puzzle – commerce – for quite some time was the Ubercart module. I don’t understand why it got so popular. Even for the simplest shop there was something missing.

Ubercart is almost a framework on its own: you need to learn it and live with its limitations (or hacks). My overall impression about Ubercart is that it has many features you normally expect from an e-commerce platform, but as soon as you start working with it you realize that it is a big work around.

Ubercart’s approach is – sell nodes. A node (before Drupal 7.x) is a basic content type. Ubercart is implemented in a way that products are node types, but it’s very unnatural to treat a product as a content type. This is probably the biggest flaw of Ubercart’s architecture (not sure if this has been somehow addressed in Ubercart 3.x).

While in many cases Ubercart does the thing – you can sell stuff on your Drupal site – I stumbled on so many problems that I almost lost hope to have a cool e-shop with Drupal. Just to list a few:

  • It’s nearly impossible to customize the checkout page without hacking Ubercart’s core.
  • Internationalization doesn’t work, because in Drupal a new node is created as a translation, which means a new product gets created as well.
  • Presentation is not well decoupled from data model, therefore theming any part of frontend is very tedious.

Drupal 7.x and Commerce

Drupal 7.x introduced a lot of enhancements both for module and UX developers. The most famous one is the Field API. Having realized the benefits that Drupal 7.x brings Ryan Szrama, the creator of Ubercart, has launched the Drupal Commerce project.

Drupal Commerce is the reimplementation of Ubercart’s featureset on Drupal 7.x. It’s not a port of Ubercart 2.x but literally a reimplementation. You can see the video of Ryan presenting his work on the module at DrupalCon 2010 in Copenhagen.

The Commerce module heavily relies on native Drupal 7.x features, therefore there’s barely any risk that it will become a framework on its own. While Drupal 7.x remains a content management system, it allows for more generic entities than just content. For example, products, order, order line items can all be first class citizens in Drupal 7.x. Therefore the Commerce module is architected in a way that e-shop owners can sell products, without pretending that a node content type is a product. Moreover, the data model is decoupled from presentation, and multilingual shop is no longer an issue as it was in Ubercart.

What makes the Commerce module even more powerful and flexible is that it depends on several great modules (Address Field, Entity API, Rules, Views). For example, Views – almost everything visible in Drupal Commerce is a view. That means you can switch it on/off or customize easily. This is invaluable for checkout and shopping cart pages.

Summary

In version 7.x Drupal has become quite a generic framework, sort of entity management system, that has built-in content and community features. The Commerce module plugs in very nicely into this framework and solves a lot of issues of its predecessor Ubercart. Given that many businesses need to have content, community and commerce in one, Drupal 7.x may become an option as it matures.

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