First Look at Thelia 2: Next Generation E-commerce?

Jacco Blankenspoor

Introduction

Unless you’re from France, you may not yet have heard about Thelia, an e-commerce system that is getting some international attention, due in no small part to the buzzwords thrown around in the media material released for the launch of the beta version of Thelia 2 in late September.

The full version won’t be launched until the end of this year, but when an e-commerce system is described in terms of open source, Symfony, HTML5, Bootstrap, Propel, PHPUnit, Travis, Smarty and semantic microdata, it warrants some attention.

Fundamentals

Thelia 2 is built on some popular tools:

  • Symfony2, a modern PHP framework which you will also find in ezPublish CMS and (in components of) Drupal 8.Symfony2 is using the MVC model
  • Bootstrap 3, a CSS framework for building responsive websites, on which Syed Fazle Rahman wrote an excellent article
  • Smarty 3, for its templating engine, a smart move because it makes adaptation easier

They obviously have their fundamentals covered, but using popular techniques doesn’t necessarily make a great e-commerce platform. So, let’s have a look at how it comes all together.

Front end

Thelia 2 front end

The homepage has the modern look used in most e-commerce tools these days, with a nice twist on the roll-over part. It looks clean, and a Yslow score of 91 means their code is pretty clean as well.

Thelia 2 product

Same goes for a product page, all crisp and clean – but nothing special. The basics are here: multiple products images, information tabs and product attributes (options). But this doesn’t set Thelia apart from all of the other modern e-commerce tools, so let’s dive in the back end to see what’s hidden here.

A clever front end touch is given to the oh-so important upsell: it’s right there after you add a product to your shopping cart. That’s how it should be done, right when the customer is in a shopping mood.

Thelia 2 front end upsell

Back end

Thelia 2 back end home

I’m a sucker for sales graphs, so they definitely score on this point. It just works better than raw numbers when it comes to motivation, and these should be clearly displayed when you log in.

Too bad they leave lots of space unused, which could be used for quick links, to-do list etc. And there’s no way to change it.

On top you will find the navigation bar, and when you compare this with a beast like Magento it certainly is again, clean. But there’s a reason Magento’s navigation is extensive – there’s a lot to set up and manage in an e-commerce store.

Thelia 2 edit product general

When you start editing a product, Thelia finally comes alive. It’s very easy to set up a multi-language store, and you can edit each translation by clicking on the flags. This keeps it very convenient.

Then you open the “Details” tab.

Thelia 2 edit product details

What you are seeing here are the quantities and pricing of the different variations of the product. But somehow it doesn’t work for me, too messy. These aren’t details, these are stock and pricing. Much easier to name them that way.

To make it even further confusing, they call them “attribute combinations”, but there’s also a tab called “Attributes & features”. This only confuses, but since it’s still in beta it might be on the list to improve.

Thelia 2 edit product attributes

Speaking of attributes, let’s see how Thelia handles this. Attributes are very important in managing consistency throughout your store, but can be a bit overwhelming. So it’s important to make this hassle free. Unfortunately, Thelia doesn’t convince here, either.

Instead of assigning attributes to a product, you first need to make a template that contains one or more attributes. And this template is assigned to your product. While this initially seems just a different approach, this can quickly become very annoying when you have lots of attribute combinations.

You have to make a lot of different templates, and since it’s in a drop-down list you have to make up tons of unique and identifiable names. A simple check-box list would be much easier. Also, these type of choices aren’t really attributes, but product options.

Product features are listed in a tab called “Additional info” on the front end. These are the real products attributes, and not features. Using selection fields isn’t a bad choice though.
All in all this is a very confusing part of the editing, and out of sync with what’s common in webstore terminology.

back-end-edit-product-associations

Now let’s look at the associations tab, used for cross-sell, related content and additional categories. Let me start by saying that none of this was working. I hope it’s just a bug in the beta, but it’s really too bad since handling cross-sell is an important part of e-commerce, and a major part in deciding which tool to use.

Also, I don’t get the related content part. With this you have three different fields to edit content (Detailed descriptions, products features and this) on three different tabs. But it might help if I see it in action though. Then additional categories: Again, why? Should be in the general tab.

The cross-sell part, called product accessories, makes a bit more sense. But, by calling it accessories you are limited to selecting actual accessories related to the product. This means it has to complement your feature product, instead of offering a different choice or brand. It does come down to how you define cross-sell, but it does remove the option to use it for upselling. That is, when you don’t edit it in the code yourself.

The images and documents tabs use simple drag-and-drop, and look fine. The only limitation in here is that you don’t use a central repository, but a per-product image/document library instead.
The modules section didn’t load, but is used for adding shipping and payment options. The configuration of these modules didn’t work either, so I can’t say anything about it.

So the product editing doesn’t come out very well: it’s confusing, not using proper naming and the features aren’t that advanced. And this does count for other parts of the system as well. There is:

  • No layered navigation (product filtering)
  • Discount only work by offering coupons
  • Reporting is limited
  • No product comparison or wish-lists
  • No social sharing on product-level
  • No extensions currently offered

And so on. It’s just missing important e-commerce features advanced tools that direct competitors like WooCommerce have. Of course it’s in beta, but we’re not far off the touted “end of 2013″ release date.

Conclusion

Keep it mind this is a beta version of Thelia 2, but some of the most important elements are either not included or incomplete. The interface is confusing, and very basic.

It also doesn’t help that the demo they host themselves isn’t fully functional.

If you look at it as a product on its own, you can’t really complain. They have the bases covered, and I am sure they will work out most of the glitches and keep improving their feature set. But when you compare it with Prestashop, for example, it just can’t compete on features.

However, as a developer you might like their approach of utilizing modern standards like Symfony2 and Bootstrap. Especially Bootstrap is not that common among e-commerce tools, while it’s a fantastic way of doing mobile commerce, for instance, an area that Thelia is deliberately targeting.

So the people behind Thelia 2 definitely know their stuff, and if they put the same level of effort into feature development, we might have a winner someday. And in the meantime, developers you might like it because you could undertake quite a lot if this development yourself, because Thelia 2 is free and open-source.

If you’ve had any experience with Thelia 2, let us know in the comments.

Resources

Front end demo
Back end demo (thelia2/thelia2)

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Anonymous

    Great article!
    back end Demo link not working…

    • Anonymous

      Back end demo link is working fine, Dimitri. Log in with username = thelia2 and password = thelia2.

  • Anonymous Coward

    What exactly is next gen about this?

    • Anonymous

      Hence the question mark, Anonymous Coward (I enjoyed writing that). Mind you, are there any other ecommerce solutions that draw on that range of new-ish tech elements?

  • EDS

    I disagree with using Smarty as it makes you literally learn a new language. I believe they should have used something like a javascript framework for templating like Pure.js or Traparency.js. These are much easier to template data passed to the templates themselves.

    Smarty has outlived it’s use and should go away. It is the lazy developer’s way of doing things. I have advocated its removal from Prestashop for years.