EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 264 - June 06, 2010 - ISSN 1528-6703     2 of 8

Four Tips for Selecting an Ecommerce Shopping Cart

By Greg Holden

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AuctionBytes Contributing Editor Greg Holden kicks off a summer-long series on shopping cart options. Today he shares four tips on selecting an ecommerce shopping cart for your website, and in future columns, he'll take a closer look at some of the most popular shopping carts on the market. The sheer number of choices available to you can be overwhelming, but Greg breaks it down to help you make the best decision for your online store!

So many steps go into creating an ecommerce website that it's easy to overlook the choice of shopping cart software. But while you may be preoccupied with photographing and describing your merchandise or with getting paid, your customers are concerned with the quality of the user experience you provide. And shopping carts are a big part of that experience.

One challenge with choosing a shopping cart is the sheer number of choices available to you. Consultant Mark Baartse, who reviews this type of software at, estimates that he has personally tried out about 20 packages. His site includes reviews of nearly 200 options. One reaction to the dizzying number of choices is simply to hire a Web designer and let that person make the decision for you. But if you do, you might miss out on knowing all the marketing and management features that are available to you. Consider the following points before you decide.

Point 1: Understand what shopping carts can do
Anyone who has shopped online knows what shopping cart software does, at least from the customer's point of view. You choose items to buy and they are stored in a cart until you are ready to check out. You can then decide what you want to purchase or discard, choose shipping options, and calculate sales tax.

As any seller who has installed and maintained a shopping cart knows, that's only part of the story. Depending on their level of sophistication, shopping carts can also provide you with:

  • Reports on keyword searches, customers by what they purchased, customers who did not make a purchase, and many more options.
  • Design templates that help you integrate the look and feel of your cart with that of your website.
  • Integration with external services (those not handled by the cart itself) that help you process orders, calculate affiliate fees, or notify your customers when an order is being processed.
  • The ability to put products on sale.
  • The ability to convert currencies at checkout time.
  • Coupons and gift certificates for your customers.

Shopping carts fall into two general categories: hosted and distributed. In addition, a few carts (like ZenCart, which I'll examine in an upcoming column) are open source. They're free and are continually updated by a community. They don't come with manuals; rather, you need to refer to the developer's website and its user community for help with installation and operation. In contrast, commercial packages can be very expensive, but in exchange for your investment, you get customer service, technical support, and often, hosting, as well as a variety of features already built into the software.

The key is to do some advance planning. Write down a list of the features you want. Look at other stores to see what features are available. Then look for a shopping cart system that either provides you with what you want out of the box or gives you the ability to add on features through programs called modules. According to Baartse, it's important to take three additional points into account.

Point 2: How much ability do you have to customize the software?
Before you choose, determine how easy is it to add a custom skin to the software, or to install add-on modules. "Many shop owners go for a free option like osCommerce and then find out they spend half their time managing their cart rather than building their business," comments Baartse.

You also have to determine how involved you want to be in the process of configuring and maintaining your shopping cart. Hosted shopping cart software resides on a remote server and you generally aren't given many options for customizing it. Distributed means you install the software on a server and have the ability to customize it or add new features as needed. Depending on your level of familiarity with programming, you may need to hire someone to help you with the process.

Generally speaking, if you want to be involved with customization and adding new features, you will be better off with a distributed package, and you might even consider an open source solution. If you want a full featured package that you don't want to customize, consider a commercial program. In the latter case, you might even consider hiring someone to install the cart for you.

Point 3: Find out what sort of support the cart gives you.
Does the shopping cart's support come with a fee? If your cart is critical to your business, it may be worthwhile, says Baartse. If you choose an open source option and your only option is to ask other users for help on a discussion board, can you afford to wait for up to 12 hours until the reply comes? Look for an active user form for non-critical issues, and if you need to hire programmers to solve urgent problems, make sure your cart is popular enough that you won't have problem finding someone who has experience with it.

Point 4: How powerful are the cart's marketing features?
You might not realize it, but your shopping cart can help you with bringing customers to your site through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or by helping you create special promotions such as 2-for-1 sales. "Almost every shopping cart claims to be SEO friendly, but I've yet to see one that can't be improved in SEO capabilities," comments Baartse.

Online seller Julie Cleveland of Blue Morning Expressions uses the open source package ZenCart. "Anyone serious about selling online needs to think about the shopping cart that you are going to use as much as what host to use," she says. "Your shopping cart must be able to handle all the payments that you are currently thinking about taking, as well be flexible enough to add on other types of payments as they become available."

Your choice of merchandise also plays a role in your shopping cart, Cleveland adds. She uses a package called SquirrelCart as a simple uploader for tangible goods for sale on one site, while ZenCart works better on another site, where she sells both works of art and downloadable products like patterns.

Whether you want to make your current site market your products more effectively or design a new storefront, a shopping cart plays a critical role, and in future columns I'll review several shopping cart options in detail.

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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