Web Store + Quickbooks = Headache

so frustrating, so laborious and so labyrinthine...

My wife and some friends have started an apparel business and, of course, I got roped in as cheap labor to do the IT stuff. I've discussed in this column some of the adventures my involvement has occasioned, but none have been so frustrating, so laborious and so labyrinthine as trying to get a Web-based shopping cart running.

The fun began when I started looking for a shopping cart that was suitable for the company's simple product line (five styles of hoodies, each in three sizes) and that would integrate with Quickbooks.

I began by looking at osCommerce, which is offered and quasi-supported by my hosting provider, EasyCGI. I say "quasi-supported" because OSCommerce is a freeware application that EasyCGI has pre-installed. It will provide some help with the program but, given it is bundled as a do-it-yourself option, you are pretty much on your own (all the same, a big tip 'o the hat to EasyCGI -- I still think it provides some of the best pricing I've found in the hosting market and excellent service and support).

It turns out osCommerce is really good but is complex to set up, would have taken a lot more management than I wanted to commit to, and was overkill for such a small product line. Add to that the fact that it has weak Quickbooks integration -- at least as far as I could tell -- and it seemed obvious I needed something else.

Intuit, Quickbooks' publisher, offers a collection of recommended service providers and claims you can achieve "Seamless Integration with Your Accounting."

I can now say that Intuit's definition of seamless has to be very different from mine. Only Bill Clinton's statement that "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" comes close to Intuit's mangling of the meaning of "seamless."

Seamless in the context of computer operations means the transition from one service or function to another is not noticeable; there's no friction, no bump in the road. This is most definitely not the case here, but before I explain why let me briefly discuss how my quest to find a shopping cart went.

Intuit recommends just four purveyors of "do it yourself" shopping cart services: Go Daddy, ProStores, Homestead and Network Solutions. The first, Go Daddy, can only be used to create very rigid, templated site layouts, and trying to get a truly custom look and feel (as opposed to just changing color and fonts and adding images) is, as far as I could understand from testing the service, reading the documentation and talking to their support, just not possible.

Next came ProStores, and again, customization was the problem. I signed up and started building a Prostores store. I found the service does allow for Web page source-level modification but provides no documentation for its custom page-building tags. Moreover, its technical support told me if I built a store customized that way it couldn't support me. Wow. OK, two down. Next!

Now it was Homestead. Homestead doesn't actually show any sample screenshots but, since Intuit recommends them, it seemed like it was worth setting up an account to see what the company had to offer. What it had to offer was a re-branded version of the ProStores system! When I spoke to tech support to see if they would be more helpful about customization, I found I had apparently contacted their anti-sales officer. The answer was definitely "no" with the implication that I was a pain in the butt for asking. Three down, one to go.

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