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The Magento Enterprise edition is part of a wave of high-end ecommerce solutions for sites with a budget. Magento 1.5 (the FREE community edition) delivers a Magento website for the cost of a Magento developer to get the pieces in place for you. A good Magento programmer can set up your server, install Magento and Magento products, and make your Magento website all that it can be – for much less than the cost of the enterprise edition. This is part of a series we’ll be writing to share our experiences with Magento and features on the various eCommerce sites we’ve worked on.

As the most in-demand eCommerce system on the market, the accolades that Magento 1.5 has received as the most universal and powerful eCommerce platform is well founded for its superior performance and flexibility to suit the vast range of eCommerce site needs and possibilities – including translation into any language for marketing to any country and its unmatched performance on the SEO front.

Clients have great expectations when they opt for a Magento website, but there are things to know when about Magento development projects in order to set expectations and site goals. We’ll lay the groundwork by talking about the reality of what the Magento site process is, what to expect from the default install of Magento, and the amount of time it takes to customize your next big eCommerce blockbuster.

There’s not much that Magento 1.5 can’t do for eCommerce. However, the new Magento site isn’t the kind of out of the box experience you’d get with a super-deluxe happy meal. Because of the depth and richness of the Magento framework, your website will unfold more like that Thanksgiving dinner your grandmother would start 72 hours in advance, with classic recipes slow-cooked to perfection.

With all the time that goes into buliding your Magento store, it helps to know what the system is like fresh out of the box, what to really expect from the system and what it expects of you. But first, here’s an overview of things to consider before you dive in.

Out of the box

Magento’s free Community Edition has been designed to consolidate roughly 85% of the needs any eCommerce system could need into one hub. This gives you an expansive array of features for managing products, categories, customers, transactional emails, page content, order information, and so much more. For most sites, this basic install is more than they will ever need. For other sites with very specific requirements for page and product display functions, additional plugins or programming might be necessary. Play around on the Magento Demo to make sure that the community edition default install has everything you need, and take note of what else you’d like to see on your site in terms of functions, views or features. Odds are what might be missing can be found with a plugin or extension, more on those below.

Magento Hosting

Where your Magento site will live will affect how it well it performs. Because this is a powerful system that can deliver fast, stable and safe shopping, it needs a hosting space that can keep up with it in all those aspects. You’ll need to get a PCI compliant server that is set up to give you the most speed, stability and security out of Magento. We commonly recommend hosting at Nexcess for their hosting packages optimized specifically for Magento websites.

Magento Store Fronts

When it comes to the look of the site, you can go with a custom design or a pre-built theme. Themes cost much less than custom designs and come ready for your site assets to be showcased on the home page and interior pages. Themes also take less time to set up than designing custom layouts which need to be built to pixel-perfect specifics. If you decide to go with a theme, be sure to demo the themes to get a feel for the layout and the features, and take time to imagine how your products will look in the theme. This will help the decision making process, and you’ll know again at this point if there is additional functionality that you’ll want over and above the default installation.

Store Set Up

Once Magento 1.5 is installed on your hosting solution and a design or template is in place, it’s time to set up the store necessities that make an eCommerce site what it is: categories, products, policy pages, shipping details, merchant account integration, and the messaging on all the emails sent from the site. Learning how to use the tools that Magento provides is not for the faint of heart when it comes to knowing the ways of the web. You will have to know basic content management and a solid knowledge of HTML will be key to your success. Photoshop will also be key in resizing images for the site product displays and for crafting the home page images.

Magento Plugins

If you need functionality that is not part of the default install of Magento’s Community Edition, there are a host of plugins and extentions to use to fill in the gaps. For example, a retail site that we worked on needed a swatch selector on their product pages, and we used a plugin that provided that functionality for them without custom programming. Another great plugin that can optimize your shopping cart experience for your users is the OneStepCheckout plugin which is extremely popular and a wonderful solution for making it easier and faster for your customers to buy things from you. Let your developers help you find plugins that will work best for you if you need additional functionality.

Magento Customizations

If you need functionality that cannot be fulfilled by using an established plugin, the Magento eCommerce system is customizable to suit your needs. However, Magento’s site structure doesn’t make custom coding – as in, changed to the default logic of Magento’s base install – fast and harmonious. Changes to the base structure also renders standard upgrades ineffective on any programmed file changes and will overwrite those files with the upgraded files, unless the upgrades are done by your development team. Talk to your team about your desired functionality and allow them to come up with custom solutions or potential plugins that will work best for your site needs.

Magento is a robust system that will work hard to help you increase your online sales, but there is an innate complexity to the platform that’s worth understanding so you know what you’re getting into and what expectations to have.

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