Ecommerce Spot

An In Depth Look at Pinnacle Cart

An In Depth Look at Pinnacle Cart

Pinnacle Cart is a PHP shopping cart made by Desert Dog Software in the USA. A while ago, I had a chance to have a good look at Pinnacle Cart in version 3.30. Pinnacle Cart have released a few versions and I had another look at their latest version, 3.6.0. Some of the new features in the last few versions include:

  • One page checkout
  • Product zoom/magnify
  • Gift certificates
  • Layered navigation
  • Wish list
  • Plug-in system allowing developers to create plug-ins without affecting upgrades (a problem that plagues many competitive products)
  • New easier templating system
  • "Customers who bought "x" also bought these products"

Pinnacle provide a more detailed list on their site.

The overall focus of the product is on running the business. The saying “run your shop, not your shopping cart” is very true, and Pinnacle Cart make it easy to do this.

Initial Impressions

Logging into the admin screen for the first time was a good experience. As a shop owner you are going to be spending a lot of time here, and it's nice to look clean. All functions are clearly accessibly and labelled, and there is a nice summary screen of month sales statistics, recent orders and recent users in your face. I could see some of those functions become very addictive to see update.


Admininstration home page

The default skin on the public facing shopping cart is functional and clean. While it won’t win any design awards (and a default skin probably shouldn’t), it is well thought out. Updating the skin is impressively easy to do as we’ll see later. The default settings as to which modules are shown are sensible.

Setting up & Managing Products

Let's put some stock in our shop. First thing we want to do is create some categories. Creating categories & sub categories is very straight forward & intuitive, and has nice touches such as when a category is created it takes you to a screen with a list of the tasks you are likely to want to do next. Attention to detail like this does make it nice to use, and saves a lot of on going frustration when you are creating the 20th category that day. By default, the categories are created as a tree view menu.

Creating a product is a nice experience. While there are a large number of options for the categories, it's set up so that the main options (price, category, name, description, etc) are immediately accessible while other less common options such as quantity discounts are easy to get to but not right in your face. Sensible promotional features such as "Show Product on Homepage" are easily accessible. While this is far from a unique feature, it is sensibly laid out, easy to find and to understand.

A particularly impressive feature is the ability to manage inventory at an attribute level. This is one of these features that tends to frustrate people no end. Most shopping carts manage inventory at a product level – you have an item, and you have a stock level. Most shopping carts also allow attributes, e.g., you can define whether you want your jeans in blue or green, large or small, etc. However, with most carts, there is only one lot of inventory. You have 10 pairs of jeans in stock, but the shopping cart has no awareness that you have 5 small and 5 large. This is one of those things that non-techies often assume, as from a business perspective it seems obvious. Technically it’s relatively challenging. Kudos to Pinnacle for including this.

Product attributes have additional flexibility. For example you could easily create a drop down box which allows the user to choose between red and green, where the green option is $5 cheaper and only half as heavy as the red. It's also possible to automatically assign a particular attribute across an entire category, a big time saver for some people.

You can turn on a product navigation feature. As well as the more normal "click on this image to show full size", the user can move their mouse over the image and see a section magnified. Nice!


Image magnify function

There is also the ability to support digital products. There's more about advanced product features in the marketing tools section below.

Payment, Shipping & Taxes

Out of the box, Pinnacle has a good range of payment gateways. I enabled a few gateways I have accounts with, and integration seemed to be very good & appropriately customized to suit each gateway.

The shipping supports a range of options. As well as having great support for real time shipping calculations for UPS, USPS, FedEx and Canada post, it allows you to create custom shipping options. These can be based on price, weight, quantity, flat rate, or pretty much any combination of the above. I wanted to be able to create flat rate shipping with the customer able to choose a "regular" or "express" price, and had it up and running in under a minute.

Taxes allows you to define taxes per country, or for the USA, per state. There didn't appear to be a way to include taxes into the item cost, which is the practice in most countries outside of the USA, so some of those visitors who are accustomed to tax being included might get a shock at the checkout.

Layered navigation

There is a new feature called layered navigation. This allows you to define price points that users can limit their searches by. For example, a user could look at a category, and have the option to restrict the display to items at $0 - $19.99, $20 - $49.99 or $50 - $100.


Layered navigation

Checking Out

An important part of a shopping cart is the check out process. Some studies have shown that out of people who want to buy, and for who money is no object can have a 70% failure rate simply because they can't work out how to buy.

Pinnacle Cart has two options. One is a fairly conventional multi-step checkout. The exact steps will vary depending on shipping methods and payment gateways selected, but will be similar for most combinations. I would like to see a clear indication of what steps are remaining. If this is step 2 of 4, tell the customer that, don't keep them guessing how much longer they have. The ability to be able to checkout without registering is a great feature as well.

The other checkout option, at the choice of the administrator, is their new “one page checkout” which is exactly what the name says. It does use some AJAX techniques to keep things moving along, but it basically is as simple as it sounds – the checkout really is one page. I’d love to know the experiences of people using the standard checkout who then switched to one page checkout, and how it impacted their conversions, but I’d suspect at worst it would be break even, and may well improve conversions.

Skinning

Pinnacle Cart has an impressive collection of tools to edit the skin without having to dive into code. If you want to simply change the colors of the default skin, there are several color combinations built in. Changing these default colors is easy and requires no coding. As an example of the flexibility, I was looking at the product page thinking I didn’t especially like the layout and how I would have to customize it. Then I thought to check the backend, and found an option to choose between several product page layouts, one of which was almost exactly what I wanted. What a joy!


Default skin

In direct contrast to most software out there, Pinnacle Cart actively avoids getting you to make HTML templates, CSS, and so on to make skins. Almost everything is available via the admin interface. While it might not be infinitely flexible, it’s pretty good. For the pragmatic shop owner, there’s no reason they couldn’t have a good looking shop up and running in a short amount of time with some minimal input from a skilled graphic designer (for color schemes, images, etc). The fussy purist will probably still need to dive into some code (which can be done). Their demo store shows there is a fair degree of flexibility.

Marketing Tools

As you would expect for a cart whose focus is marketers, Pinnacle Cart has a wide range of marketing tools.

Product Features

There are some marketing tools which are product centric. I was impressed with the "product promotions" feature. It allows you very simply to set up rules such as "if a customer buys 2 or more of product X, they get product Y for free". There is also very flexible quantity discount rules & product recommendations. The product recommendations are interesting as they operate on groups of products. You associate a few products you wish to recommend to a group, and then associate the group to the product. This is great if you want to promote the same products in several locations, but a slight nuisance if you want to choose different cross sell products for each product.

Discounts

There is a feature to create a promotional code. This allows you to create rules such as "when a customer enters this code, they get $5 off the order if it's over $20 and before December 24th". There doesn't seem to be an ability to limit the code to a certain numbers of uses, e.g., only available for the first 100 customers. Other features such as percentage off, free shipping offers, etc, would have been nice.

There’s also a report allowing you to see which promo codes have been used, the order size, discounts, etc. I’d love to see a way of telling how many were new customers, but that’s being a little fussy.

There is also a sale mode which allows you to set a sale across all products. 

Emails

Pinnacle Cart distinguishes between two types of email communications. One is a "newsletter" and the other is a "product update". Customers can choose to sign up to either one or both of them. The newsletter is pretty much what you'd expect - simply a newsletter containing freeform HTML (or text).

The product update is a nice feature I haven't seen before. It allows you to send an email containing all products updated in a particular date range (eg. the last month). For people with a very passionate customer base this is a great way to keep them in touch with the latest products.

There's a good range of email management tools - import subscribers, export subscribers, styles, etc. It should suit the needs of any small business and many medium businesses well.

Search Engines

For many online shops, search engines are their life blood. Good search engine support is critical to the success of many online shops. While the default URLs of Pinnacle aren't very search engine friendly, it can easily be switched into friendly mode which is have “nice” looking URLs such as:
http://yourshop.com/review/catalog/Mac-2-1.html

The support for meta data and sensible title tags (which most search engines love) was reasonably good. There was also nice touches such as product names on their pages appearing in <h1> tags (which some search engines see as a vote for that text being more important). These small things add up and can bump you up a place or two in Google.

Other Marketing Tools

Pinnacle cart will create files for you in an appropriate format for Froogle or Altura. It also supports a 3rd party affiliates program. However, there are no built in affiliates features.

Reporting

I confess: I'm a reporting addict. I spend hours pouring over reports, I think there's gold (almost literally in the case of e-commerce) in getting & acting on quality reports. I'll let Pinnacle Cart speak for itself on the reports it has:

  • Top Viewed Products - List the top viewed products.
  • Top Viewed Categories - List the top viewed categories.
  • Orders by Products - Lists the top products purchased. Includes number of items sold and subtotal amounts for each product
  • Users Activity Report - Lists over number of pages viewed by registered users.
  • Top Referring Sites - Lists the top refering URLs to the site
  • Sales by Customer - This report shows overall purchase statistics by customer.
  • Payment Types - Shows purchase statistics by payment type.
  • Consolidated Orders By Date - This report shows overall statistics by dates from selected period. It includes subtotal, tax, shipping, discount, and total amounts for each day.
  • Individual Orders By Date - This report shows overall statistics by completed orders with received payment. It includes subtotal, tax, shipping, discount, and total amounts for orders.
  • Promo Codes Usage
  • Total Tax

All reports are available by any date range, and are as advertised. Combined with a decent web analytics package (or the free Google Analytics) it should be enough to keep the most reports addicts happy.

Extensibility

There is a plug-in architecture, it includes a "product feed" plug-in pre-installed which allows you to import product information from selected wholesalers or drop shippers. One nice feature is an included Google sitemap generator. It would be nice to see this dynamically generated so that you didn’t need to redo the sitemap every time you added products.

Support

The software comes with an extensive manual. The manual is well written, but like most software manuals focuses on each individual feature. This is more a critique of the software industry in general rather than Pinnacle Cart, but I'd like to see more documentation focused on how to do things. Feature based documentation generally assumes you know what feature to use to accomplish a particular task, you just aren't sure how that feature works. However, as far as feature based help goes, it's thorough and clear.

In addition to the manual, there is free 30 day phone and 12 months email support, as well as a support ticketing system and a knowledge base with a few dozen items in it. There is a support forum which seems to be fairly active and developing a great community. I did encounter several minor bugs during my tests, but none were show stoppers. There are also options for upgraded paid support.

Other Features

There are many feature I haven't touched on. There is a database management page, order management features and a little touch I really liked, a function which allows you to export your orders to Quick Books format for record keeping. Touches like this make life simpler for the small business person.

There is also a very simple content management function which allows you to create an unlimited number of pages. Optionally, those pages can be automatically be linked to in the header and/or footer - great for privacy policies, etc.

Conclusion

Pinnacle Cart is definitely has a great balance between power and ease of use. While I wouldn't ask my mother to set up an online shop using this software, I think any reasonably computer proficient non-programmer could set up a shop without too many problems. There's a real attention to detail in a lot of the features which really impressed me. There are a few features missing (such as product reviews), but most major functions are there. While it's not the cheapest shopping cart software on the market, I would be pretty confident you could set this software up faster than most other packages available, and using some of its more advanced marketing features a competent marketer could produce higher sales. I didn't get a chance to dive deep into the code to see how customizable it is, but they do have a good developer network in place to do custom upgrades if required. Overall, a great product to get your online business off to a good start.

Please note: a detailed review like this takes substantial amounts of time. As a result, the cost of time was partially offset by a payment from the makers of Pinnacle. At no time did they put any pressure on me, there was no incentives of future work or other kick backs, and payment was received before they saw the review. They thoroughly respect and value the independent nature of this site.

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