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Monday, July 28, 2008

What is the Best Shopping Cart Software For Your Ecommerce Website?

What is the Best Shopping Cart Software For Your Ecommerce Website?
By Pat Fortino

Searching for the best shopping cart software for you ecommerce website can be a daunting task. There are literally hundreds of shopping carts and ecommerce solutions available. How do you know which one is right for you?

You should consider the following factors when you are searching for a shopping cart that fits your needs.

  • What is a shopping cart?

  • How much do shopping carts cost?

  • Should I buy or lease a shopping cart?

  • What Shopping Cart Features Should I Look For?

  • What Kind and How Much Support Does the Shopping Cart Provide?

  • Which Payment Gateways Work with the Shopping Cart?

  • What Hosting/Server Platform is Required?

  • What if I Need Customization?

What is a Shopping Cart?

First, let me define a shopping cart or ecommerce website. In the most basic terms, a shopping cart is software that allows you to list your products on a web site and then automatically collect fees when a customer buys products from your website.

For example, lets say that you sell vitamins from your home, and now you want to start selling them on your website. First, you need shopping cart software. You will also need to have a business bank account and a payment gateway, a service that allows you to automatically process credit cards on your web site.

Once you have the shopping cart software set up on your website, you can add your vitamin products to the website using a web browser. The shopping cart software allows you to add product images, descriptions, prices, shipping and tax rates, and so on. Once your shopping cart is populated with all of your products, you can start selling them on the web.

Here's how it works: A customer comes to your web site and adds products to her shopping cart. When she is ready to buy the products, she enters her shipping and credit card information in a form so you know where to ship the product and whom to charge it to. When the customer clicks the button to submit the order, the shopping cart uses your payment gateway (credit-card-processing service) to validate the credit card and then transfer the money from the customer's credit card to your bank account. Then it's up to you to ship the product.

You can also use a shopping cart to sell digital, or downloadable products such as electronic books, music, and software.

How Much Do Shopping Carts Cost?

As you might expect, shopping carts come in a wide range of prices, from free to thousands of dollars. Does that mean that the more you spend, the better cart you get? Not necessarily.

There are several free shopping carts that are very powerful and full of features; for example, OSCommerce and ZenCart. Both of these carts are completely free and offer most of the features you would expect in a modern shopping cart: unlimited products, connections to the major payment gateways, credit card payments, real-time shipping prices, discount customer groups, multi language, and more.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to free: free products lack good documentation and support. For example, there is no official support group that you can call when you need help. And there is no official user's guide to explain how to use the software. You usually have to search through user forums to find answers to your questions.

Free shopping carts are probably not be the best choice if you are new to ecommerce and are trying to do everything yourself.

Fortunately, there are many commercial shopping carts in the range of $100-500 that offer lots of features. The carts in this range usually have some kind of support system to help you with problems, and they usually have documentation to explain how to use their software. X-Cart and Ecommerce Templates are two shopping carts between $150 - $200, and both are very powerful and relatively easy to use. For a more complete list of shopping carts, see our shopping cart list.

Should I Buy or Lease a Shopping Cart?

There are two basic models for online shopping carts:

  • Pay a one time fee for the software and install it on your web server: This can be a daunting task unless you are comfortable working with Linux web servers and configuring web-based software. The good thing about this model is that you don't have to pay monthly fees, and the software is usually much more customizable than leased shopping carts. If you have the skills to install the software on your server, or if you hire a website designer to install and configure your shopping cart, this method is more economical than leasing.
  • Pay a monthly or yearly fee to lease the software: This model is easy to implement because you don't need to install, configure, or maintain any software. If you are going to do it yourself and have little web experience, this is the easiest way to get started. The downside is that leased software is often hard to customize and many ecommerce sites need some customization. Furthermore, it can be very expensive when you add in the cost of leasing over many years.

What Shopping Cart Features Should I Look For?

Most shopping carts come with standard features like unlimited categories and products, web-based administration, easy-to-use product creation screens, and tax and shipping calculation. Unfortunately, not all carts include all the functions YOUR business will need to operate an online store.

The following is a list of features to look for in a shopping cart:

Installation and Design

  • Easy-to-use web interface: A web interface allows you to administer your shopping cart from any web browser that is connected to the internet.
  • Shopping Cart Reporting: The ability to get detailed reports about your sales, inventory, states, users, categories, products, destination zones, taxes, shipping rates, orders, membership levels, etc.
  • Multiple Languages: The ability to display multiple languages in your shopping cart
  • Customer Support: Most carts usually provide email or forum-based support, but sometimes they provide live phone support.
  • Upgradeable: Find out if you can get free updates as the software is improved. Usually you can get free updates for 6 to 12 months.
  • Template-based Design: Tempate-based designs make it easier to customize the look of your website
  • WYSIWYG Editor for Products: This feature allows you to enter product text and images using a word-processor-like editor.
  • Content Pages: Does your cart allow you to create content pages? For example, can you create an "About Us" page?
  • Mini-Cart: A mini cart is a small box that indicates if the user has items in their shopping cart. These are usually located on the top or side of the page. Most carts have this feature.

Customer Features

  • Newsletter Function: Do you need to ability to send mass emails to your customers? Many carts come with the ability to send emails to customers.
  • Customer Order / Customer Account / Customer Registration: The ability for your customers to view their account and their order history.
  • Product Search: A search tool for your products. This function is especially helpful if you have more than 20 or 30 products.
  • Googlecheckout: Google Checkout is a new service that makes online shopping faster, safer and more convenient. Many carts have been updated so they work with Google Checkout.
  • Wish list: A "Wish List" allows your customers to save products to a wish list. That way they can come back to your online store at a later date and buy the products in the Wish List.
  • Send to friend: This feature displays a form that allows customer to enter a name and email address so the can send a link of a product to a friend.
  • Memberships and special pricing: This feature allows you to create memberships on your store and then give them special prices or discounts.
  • Printable Invoices: The feature allows your customers to print their invoices.
  • Multiple Shipping Addresses: The feature allows customers to store multiple shipping addresses. This is a handy feature for customer who often ship gifts to friends and family members.

Store and Products

  • Unlimited Number of Products: This feature means you can list as many products as you like. With many leased shopping carts, the total number of products is limited by your plan. The more you pay, the more you products you can list.
  • Unlimited number of categories: Products are usually stored in categories; for example, Men's Clothing, Women's Clothing, Children's clothing.
  • Products can be assigned to multiple categories: This feature allows you to assign a product to more than one category.
  • Featured Products: This feature allows you to list feature products in a box or area on your home page.
  • Bestsellers: This feature automatically lists your best-selling products.
  • Related products: This feature allows you to relate one product to another product so the customer can see products that are related to the product they are looking at.
  • Unlimited product options and option price modifiers: This feature allows you to add options to products, and the options can add or subtract from the product price. For example, T-Shirts come in sizes Small, Medium, and Large and colors Red, Green, and Blue.
  • Custom Input Fields for Products: This allows you to add fields to products. For example, if you sell custom greeting cards, you can use a custom field so the customer can enter a custom message to be printed on the card.
  • Unlimited number of product images: This feature allows you to add more than one product image for a product.
  • Popup Product Images: This feature allows you to add popup images so your customer can see a larger, more detailed product image.
  • Manufacturers: This feature allows you to associate manufacturers with products.
  • Drop Shippers: This feature allows you to sell products that another company stocks and ships. When your store receives an order for a drop shipper product, the shopping cart sends an email to the drop shipper with the product and shipping information and that company ships the product to your customer.
  • Discount coupon codes and gift certificates: This feature allows you to sell gift certificates or to offer coupon discounts.
  • Inventory control: This feature allows you to enter the number of products you have in stock and then automatically makes a product "Unavailable" when there are no more products in stock.
  • Quantity discounts: This feature allows you to give discounts based on the quantity ordered.
  • Retail and wholesale price: This feature allows you to create a wholesale and retail price for any product.
  • Limit minimal order amount: The feature allows you to specify and minimum order amount.
  • Real-time USPS, FedEx and UPS shipping calculation: This feature allows you to provide realtime shipping calculations for USPS, FedEx, and UPS.
  • Shipping Label Generator for USPS and UPS
  • Allow your customers to choose delivery methods: This feature allows your customers to select a delivery method; for example, USPS, FedEx, or UPS.
  • Add handling fee: This feature allows you to add a handling fee per order.
  • Digital Electronic Downloads: This feature allows you to sell digital products such as E-Books, Music, or Software. Once a customer purchases a digital product, the cart sends them an email with a link to download the digital product.
  • Product-specific taxes: The feature allows you to charge a unique tax on any product.
  • Payment Gateways: This feature is VERY important. Most carts support many different payment gateways; for example, Authorize.net, Paypal, or 2CheckOut. If you already have a payment gateway, make sure the cart you purchase supports your gateway.
  • The ability to Optimize all pages for search engines: This important feature allows you to optimize your product and content pages for Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other search engines. This is a VERY important feature; if the search engines can't find your products, your customers can't find them either.
  • Multiple Administrator Accounts and Account Levels: This feature allows you to have multiple administration accounts. This feature is very handy if more than one person maintains your shopping cart.

What Kind and How Much Support Does the Shopping Cart Provide?

Shopping cart software and ecommerce is pretty complex and there are many opportunities for problems. Whatever shopping cart model you choose, be sure to consider amount and type of support offered by the leasing host or the software seller. Because a smooth operation of your website and shopping cart are necessary for financial success, you'll want to have appropriate support for emergencies.

Which Payment Gateways Work with the Shopping Cart?

If you are going to use a leased shopping cart, or you are going to buy shopping cart software, find out which payment gateways will work with the shopping cart.

Note: Each shopping cart provider builds their own interfaces for payment gateways.

What Hosting/Server Platform is Required?

Will your website and shopping cart be hosted on a Linux / UNIX server or a Windows server? If you are going to use a hosted shopping cart, you probably don't need to worry about this unless you already have other web-based software applications installed on your current web host.

If you are going to buy shopping cart software, your choice might be limited by your server choice. Currently there are many more shopping carts made for Linux / UNIX than for windows.

What if I Need Customization?

Every shopping cart I have installed, designed, and configured, has required some customization. In most cases, the client wanted to do something the cart did not do. For example, one client wanted the ability to send a custom email with specific products so he could send special instructions whenever a customer ordered a specific product. A few shopping carts have this ability, but most don't.

The best solution is to first determine your specific shopping cart requirements and then find a cart that fits your needs. Unfortunately, it's hard to find a cart that does EVERYTHING you want it to do. If this is the case, you'll need to have some custom development done to add a new function to the cart.

Keep in mind that many popular shopping carts have dozens of Modifications and Plugins that you can add to the shopping cart software to make it fulfill your requirements.

Note: If you use a leased shopping cart, you will probably not be able to make modifications to the software.

See our competitvely-price ecommerce package

Pat Fortino is a website designer specializing in small business websites, ecommerce web sites, and Joomla Content Management (CMS) websites. If you are looking for an affordable solution, give us a call at 303-907-6133

writenowdesign.com

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1 comment:

George said...

Online stores are increasing in popularity these days because they facilitate easy transactions and they are inexpensive and simple to set up.

Thanks
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