Choosing the Right Shopping Cart for Your Online Shop

shoping_cartPerhaps the biggest decision you will have to make as you move towards opening your online store is choosing the right shopping cart for your online shop.

Should you use one of the free shopping cart programs that are out there? Can you afford to use one of the fully paid shopping cart programs or should you use a hybrid shopping cart program that offers the core software for free but then requires you to pay a fee for each plugin you add for extra functionality?

Making the right decision is important because you will be locked into that software for years to come. Changing shopping carts because you made the wrong decision is both time-consuming and likely to cost you sales if the transition from one to the other runs into problems so it is definitely something to be avoided.

Free options
If you really cannot afford to pay upfront fees, and then ongoing fees while you build your shop and build up your sales, then the free options such as Oscommerce and Zencart could be right for you. These are stand-alone programs so you can build your whole site using this software.

Many hosting companies offer these shopping carts as one click installs so the basic installation is quite simple. However that’s just the start. Once you have the shopping cart software installed you then have to add a theme. Basically the theme is what makes your online shop look attractive and professional.

Some themes are free but many are not and there is usually something of a learning curve ahead of you when it comes to installing your choice of theme.

Once you have chosen the theme you then need to start thinking about what modules you need to add functionality to your online shop.

There are modules that cover just about everything from shipping modules that calculate shipping costs based on weight or postage charges to modules that allow you to add hundreds or thousands of products, direct from a spreadsheet with just one click.

Many modules are free, but you may have to pay for some. Of those modules that are not free, some can be bought outright while others require you to pay an annual fee.

There are several downsides to these free shopping carts. The first is that they are not really designed for beginners. While your host may provide a one-click install you will still need to have some web design and coding experience to get your shop up and running.

While it is possible to learn as you go most people want to get their shop up and operating quickly and don’t want to waste time learning how to do things.

If you are one of those people then you’re going to need the services of an experienced web designer to do the groundwork for you and that work does take time so you will have to pay for it.

The other downside is that free shopping carts rely on a community to make changes to the core software and the modules and when there are major changes needed, as there have been recently when PayPal required online retailers to comply with some new rule changes, there can be a lag in updating any part of the software and that will have a negative impact on your business.

Themes can also need updating and it doesn’t seem to matter if they’re free or not, there is no guarantee that the theme you are using will be updated and if it isn’t you will find that you have to hustle to install a new theme to keep your shop online.

Just recently a number of very popular themes for Zencart suddenly became unavailable and that caused no end of trouble for Toni and some of her clients.

money256Hybrid options
Perhaps the best known hybrid option is WooCommerce, a wholly owned subsidiary of WordPress. WooCommerce now powers over 30% of all online stores

The core programme is free and it needs to be combined with WordPress, which is also free. Installation is quite simple but, like the free options mentioned above, you will also need a theme and what WordPress refers to as “extensions.”

While WordPress says that there are free extensions most of the ones that we have looked at and consider to be essential are paid … on an annual basis … and the cost can really add up.

You will also need a theme for WooCommerce and while there are free themes the best ones are definitely the paid options.

Ecwid Is another hybrid option that plugs into a website built on WordPress. There are free and paid versions of Ecwid and it depends on how many products you’re selling as to whether you can use it for free or need to pay for it.

You don’t have to buy a theme for Ecwid because it fits within just about any WordPress theme. The learning curve for setting up an online shop using Ecwid is quite simple and I have used it for one of my online shops and one of Toni’s clients uses it for his busy little shop.

I would consider that a beginner could set up their own shop using Ecwid or WooCommerce but, once again, neither are instant solutions.

Paid Options
While there are quite a few paid options out there the cost of purchasing the software can be quite prohibitive for small businesses so many opt to use online businesses that offer software as a service.

Shopify, Bigcommerce and even Etsy are examples of these and they are definitely popular with many small businesses that want to sell products online.

They seem to be quite easy to set up but, from our experience, there are limitations with some of the themes and changing themes can be just as much of a headache as it is with the free or hybrid shopping cart programs.

I should also say that not everyone finds these programs easy to use and you may need to pay someone to set your online store up for you.

The downside to these options is that you have upfront fees and ongoing monthly fees while the upside is that just about everything other than adding your stock is handled for you.

And because these are commercial enterprises you don’t have to wait for updates when someone like PayPal updates their requirements.

online shop makeoverConclusion
Choosing the right shopping cart for your online store is vital and while each option has its unique set of advantages and disadvantages there is one issue that each of them have in common.

Regardless of which shopping cart you choose, adding the products is down to you and that takes time and patience. If you rush the process of adding your stock your chances of making sales will diminish.

In the past Toni has almost always recommended and installed Zencart for clients and it has worked well for those who are prepared to be patient when adding their stock. It hasn’t worked so well for people who are impatient or who are not prepared to learn the right way of doing things.

Lately though it has become apparent that the free options are struggling to keep up with the pace of change required by the major payment processors and Toni is now moving new customers to WooCommerce.

But if you lack time and expertise and keeping your costs down is not so important then perhaps you should be considering Shopify or Bigcommerce.

Ultimately though the final choice is yours and the success or failure of your online business could depend on which option you choose.