EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 265 - June 20, 2010 - ISSN 1528-6703     4 of 8

ZenCart Helps You Build Your Own Store Online

By Greg Holden

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As marketplace sellers and brick-and-mortar retailers make the leap to launching their own online stores, many have turned to a shopping cart system from ZenCart to power the engine. In today's column, AuctionBytes Contributing Editor Greg Holden takes a look at this popular service as part of his summer-long series on shopping carts.

As I reported in last week's column, more than a hundred shopping cart applications are available to you when you're creating or improving your ecommerce website. (See, Four Tips for Selecting an Ecommerce Shopping Cart.) Some are only shopping carts: utilities that store items in a virtual holding area and facilitate the checkout process. But many go well beyond that function. They have the ability to design full-fledged commercial websites and help you monitor your inventory and market your products as well.

The product I'm examining this week, ZenCart, does have basic shopping cart functionality, but through a series of add-on modules, it gives businesspeople many more capabilities. The major thing that sets ZenCart apart from the competition is the fact that it is open-source software. Open source means the source code is made freely available to the user community.

Typically, working with open source software is a tradeoff. On the plus side, the software is updated frequently, and the level of functionality is high. You also gain access to an active user community you can consult if you need advice. (This is certainly the case with the popular Web server program Apache, for example).

On the other hand, the user community is your only source of support: you can't call a technical support team if the software "breaks." Rather, you post messages on the discussion boards provided by the program's developers. And on top of that, you frequently have to work directly with what programmers call "code" written in languages such as PHP or Perl. ZenCart, for its part, is based on PHP.

The potential complexity is something to consider, according to Mark Baartse, who has tried out about 20 shopping cart programs and reviewed some of them at Baartse has a mixed opinion about ZenCart.

"For open source, ZenCart has a great community and an almost infinite amount of add ons," he says. "If you are comfortable messing around with code (or can hire someone who is) then it can be a good option, although I would argue that's rarely the best use of time/money unless they are actually creating custom functionality to support their business."

But Paul Wills, who operates the Boaters on Top website from his home in New Port Richey, Florida, says installing the program and learning to operate it was a straightforward matter even though he is not a computer professional. "The forum and the FAQ's work quite well and even past that, the community of users in the forum are full of knowledge. This is like having the actual programmer available to answer questions and works quite well." The big advantage of the program is the cost savings, not only in acquiring ZenCart, but on ongoing maintenance as well.

The lack of a user manual hasn't deterred people from downloading and using ZenCart. On the contrary: the program has been downloaded by lots of users. Why is it so popular? It is a useful tool only for store owners but for those who want to develop full-fledged commercial websites. And as long as you have a merchant account set up with a bank, a MySQL database, and products to sell, the program is ready to go out of the box after installation. The templates included with the software enable you to set up Web pages, contact forms, product listings, and everything you need to run an online store.

Plenty of Web design templates are also available from third-party developers. It's to your advantage to hire a Web designer or to alter the look and feel of your site so you don't resemble the other ZenCart sites that are already out there.

Anne Roqueni, a Web designer who has created more than 75 sites for clients using ZenCart through her Picaflor Azul company, says she uses the program because it is well-designed and highly customizable.

"Between its native functionality and the thousands of modules available, it can do just about anything any business owner would need it to. In the cases where a customer needs a custom feature, this can be easily and ecomonically achieved because the source code is available."

The core features required of any shopping cart application are certainly included. These include Products, pricing, shipping, newsletters, sales and more; they are all managed by the store's owner through an administration area.

ZenCart is preconfigured to receive payments from any major credit card, and several popular payment gateway services are included. Beyond the basics, you can add features ranging from advertising banners, shipping estimators, "low inventory" notices, and a Cross Sell feature that suggests other products to shoppers just before they complete a purchase.

ZenCart is an attractive option if you're interested in customizing your store. But no matter what application you consider, it's important to look for good online documentation and support, according to Roqueni. Beyond that, it's important to know that the software has been well-programmed so it won't run into bugs or "crash" under heavy loads, she says.

"While most users may not know good code from bad code, the open source collaborative process used to produce ZenCart has been shown to consistently produce better quality software than different models," she explains. "After setting up so many shopping carts I can say that this is indeed the case with ZenCart. Zen Cart allows me to produce standards compliant code which is extremely important for Search Engine Optimization considerations."

Good code, after all, makes for a good user experience - not just for customers, but for store owners like you as well.

About the author:

Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.

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