How to choose a shopping cart and ecommerce platform – part three

In this final part of our look at shopping carts, we look at free and paid-for off-the-shelf software before looking at add-ons, apps or widgets to integrate into websites, including WordPress sites and Facebook.

Free off-the-shelf Software

Another option if you are selling a large number of products is to go for off-the-shelf software which you install on your own or your web host’s server. This is an attractive option because there are well-established free and open-source shopping carts available such as OSCommerce, Magento and ZenCart. Typically, there is an administration area where you can add an unlimited number of products and categories. If you want to customise the templates beyond the basics, it helps to know a bit of HTML, CSS and PHP. A web designer/developer should be able to help get you up and running. Consider the type of support you may require as these sites are ‘community-owned’ (a strength in some ways) and although there may be a forum and wiki to go to for help, there may not be dedicated support for on-the-spot answers.  They may take a little more time to set up than a hosted shopping cart.

Of the above three, ZenCart is probably the one to go. Magento is a good platform but requires more technical skills. More recent newcomers such as OpenCart , PrestaShop and TomatoCart have a more contemporary feel; are becoming more popular; and offer an impressive range of features.

tomato cart screenPaid-for off-the-shelf Software

Whilst most paid-for services are now offered online in ‘the cloud’, there are still a few paid-for off-the-shelf carts around which are usually just as friendly to use. If your internet access is poor this could be a good solution as you can build your store offline before publishing it. The initial outlay can expensive but it could be a better long-term alternative to paying for a hosted cart on a monthly basis.  For example, the cheaper Pro version of ShopFactory, desktop software with an impressive range of features, costs £299. You can also ‘rent it’ for £23.95 per month. The Gold version costs £599 but will not be necessary for most stores. Cheaper alternatives are available from CoffeeCup. Its basic Shopping Cart Creator is $49 whilst its Pro version is $129. They do the basics well but are not as comprehensive as some other carts, though is reflected in the price.

Shopping Carts for WordPress, Facebook and other sites

Ecwid, which describes itself as a widget, enables you to integrate or run your store on an ordinary website, Facebook, WordPress site, or other social networks and blogging platforms, and provides a mobile optimised storefront too. It’s neat and free for up to 100 products.

ecwid demo screen

If you have a WordPress site, there is a number of free plug-ins available to add to your site. These typically operate like Ecwid and integrate into your existing site. At present, the most popular plug-ins are WP e-Commerce and WooCommerce, of which the latter gets a better average ranking from WordPress users. Both have a good range of features and you can pay for extra themes and extensions. There is an add-on called SmartManager which works with both of these and improves store administration.

Finally, it is likely that more and more ecommerce will be conducted via Facebook storefronts – plug-ins or apps that work in a similar way to the WordPress plug-ins. There are an increasing number of companies offering free or paid-for Facebook or f-commerce shopping carts. There is quite a lot of hype regarding social commerce and many of these cart providers may not survive long so if this is important for you, make sure you go for a company with a track record. One leading platform is currently Payvment, which has a basic free platform as well as paid-for options.

Most of the shopping carts mentioned in this article also offer integration options with Facebook or soon will so check out their features, sometimes known as a Facebook extension or tab. Not all f-commerce ventures have been successful and some companies such as Gap opened and closed Facebook stores within a year. One analyst said it was like ‘trying to sell stuff to people when they’re hanging out with their friends at the bar’. Nevertheless, it is a straightforward way to extend your Facebook presence or set up a first store, and people may yet get a lot more used to shopping on Facebook.

So which Cart?

The ultimate decision lies with you.  Seek advice from a web designer if you are unsure. Consider whether you have the time and skills to set up and maintain the cart yourself or whether you would like a web designer to set up or maintain the store. If you need to update your store regularly you will probably want to do this yourself so it is essential that this is straightforward but you may want help setting up the store in the first place.

Bear in mind that if you have a large number of products, it will be a lot of work to switch to a different cart provider once you have chosen one. Whatever solution you opt for, it is essential that the online shopping experience is smooth and intuitive for your customers so before going live try out a number of options and get friends to try out the buying process. With the right marketing and the right products to sell, you can then start watching the orders roll in.

shopping cart

Finally, I’ve just helped design and write copy for an ecommerce store for a great little gift shop based in Cornwall, Sloppy Jo Gifts, Falmouth, using ekmPowershop. As mentioned in my last post, it’s easy to use and both me and the shop’s owners, like what we’ve seen so far. I’d welcome any feedback from anyone using any of the above carts or any of the many other carts that I haven’t been able to mention.


How to choose a shopping cart and ecommerce platform – part two

Continuing our look at shopping cart options, in this post, I look at some of the simplest options, most useful if you do not have too many products to sell and have a limited budget. I then look at a selection of hosted shopping carts, which are more suitable for a larger range of products but come at a cost.

Marketplace Sites

This is a good way to start selling online as you simply use an existing site to sell your own goods. EBay is obviously a leader in this field. This is a good solution if you only have a few items to sell, and the leading sites are well-known and trusted. Once you have a track record, you can open an eBay shop which will raise your profile further. However, it does not look as professional as having your own store. The other obvious place to sell online is Amazon.

If you design products, you can cut out a lot of hard work, by using a site such as Cafepress or Zazzle, where you can not only set up an online shop, but they will also manufacture your products ‘on-demand’.  The sites sell your own designed t-shirts, calendars, mugs etc. They also manage payments and shipping. Of course, a good deal of the profit is geared towards them, but you get paid through a royalty system.

Basic ‘add-on’ Shopping Carts

This is another good solution if you only have a small number of products to sell. It looks more professional. You simply add ‘buy now’ or ‘add to cart’ buttons to the products on your site which when clicked takes the buyer to a secure payment gateway. To add a button, you enter product details on the button provider’s site. Code is then generated which you copy and paste into your web pages. This works well with an existing website if you know the bare basics of HTML. PayPal provides an ‘add to cart’ and ‘view cart’ buttons and Google Checkout provides ‘buy now’ buttons. Both charge a small commission for this service.


Hosted Shopping Carts

If you are selling a wider and larger range of products, a hosted shopping cart might be a good option. They are usually easy to set up and do not need any technical expertise. Hosted by a third-party on their own server, these shopping carts enable you set up a complete online store taking care of shopping carts, orders and secure payment processing. You can use the store as your website (which might be a bit limited) or integrate it into your existing site. Most packages offer a variety of templates or themes that you can customise to some degree so that you can get the right look and feel for your store, which is especially important if you wish the store to complement your existing site.  You can then simply add images, logos and products into the template design to create your store. There is no need for expert help to do this if you have basic computer literacy.

Basic packages are relatively cheap but more advanced packages can become expensive. For a store with 100 products, 1GB of storage and basic features, expect to pay £15-20 per month.  The top two carts according to Top Ten Reviews are Volusion and Shopify. Volusion charge £15 a month for 100 products and £25 for 500 products. Shopify charge $29 (about £20) for 100 products but also charge a transaction fee of 2%. This reduces to 1% on their professional plan at $59 (£40) per month for up to 2500 products.  The top plans are £100 and £120 a month but for most businesses, cheaper plans will be sufficient. ekmPowershop charge a standard fee of £19.99 per month which may be a good deal if you have over 100 products to sell. There are plenty of other carts available so shop around and try a few out. Most offer a free trial. Some carts will also integrate in with your PayPal shop if you have one and almost all work with a standard PayPal account as well as providing other checkout options.  Web hosts such as 1&1 and Go Daddy are now also offering ecommerce hosting. 1&1’s prices start from just £11.99 and Go Daddy’s 100 products deal costs £18.99. One client found ekmPowershop’s more intuitive to use than 1&1 whilst Go Daddy’s cart was one of the lowest ranked in Top Ten Reviews’ ecommerce software review. Watch out for any extras you have to pay such as security features which may be included in some plans.

The main disadvantage with hosted carts apart from cost is that you may be limited to a small number of standard templates which can mean that your store will look similar to others. This limitation will depend on the degree to which you can customise the store through changes to the templates, themes or (if you know CSS) style sheets, and how many templates are on offer. If it is important that you stand out from the crowd, then this might not be the ideal solution.

There is also a small risk that your host might go bust and it is worth considering what would happen should this occur. Try to minimise your risk by going for a reputable provider.

In the next post I look at some off-the-shelf options, most of which are free and some ecommerce plug-ins or apps that you can add to your WordPress, Facebook blog or own site.

How to choose a shopping cart and ecommerce platform – part one

shopping cart

Selling online is a great way to expand your business or start a new one. To do so, you need a website with a shopping cart, secure payment processing and a process to fulfil orders. This article, which will be spread over several posts, mainly focuses on the shopping cart, the main platform for an ecommerce site. There are hundreds of carts to choose from so this is not a straightforward choice. Shopping carts can be expensive and complicated to maintain but do not have to be. The right one for you will depend on the size of your business, the features you require, your basic technical proficiency and the money you are prepared to pay.

What features do you require?

A good starting point is to write a list of features you require and then decide which ones to prioritise. All singing, all dancing carts come at a price so it might be worth dividing the lists into ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’. The following are some of the features you might be looking for on your wish list:

  • Order tracking and shipping
  • Customer communications and managemen
  • Payment Processing – security is a must
  • Webpage design and flexibility – the degree to which you can change the look and feel of the store
  • Product management/catalogue and inventory tracking
  • Facilities to offer discounts and gift certificates
  • Display of multiple images for products, and zooming-in facilities
  • Product reviews and ratings, wish lists
  • Suggestions for similar or related products – ‘you might also like …..’
  • Social network integration
  • Marketing and eNewsletter facilities to market your store and its products
  • Security – SSL secure checkouts, encryption and so on

Look carefully at the features the different carts offer and how closely they match your requirements. To some degree, you get what you pay for, so do not expect every feature to be available on a cheaper cart. Make sure you are comfortable using the cart and its features, and that the process of buying online is smooth and simple. Customers will often not complete an online purchase if the buying process is irritating or too cumbersome. Most carts offer a free trial or a demo so look at a few carts before deciding. Also, consider the level of support on offer.

What types of cart are available?

  • Marketplace sites – sites that you can use sell your goods such as eBay and Amazon.
  • Basic ‘add-on’ shopping carts – enable you to add shopping cart ‘buy now’ buttons to your existing website and process payments securely through trusted brands such as PayPal or Google Checkout.
  • Hosted Shopping Carts – online e-commerce packages that host your store for a monthly fee e.g. Shopify, ekmPowershop.
  • Shopping Cart Software – off the shelf, paid-for or free open-source carts that you install and add to your own site e.g. ZenCart or ShopFactory.
  • Plug-ins and extensions – such as WooCommerce and Ecwid for WordPress, Facebook and other sites.

full shopping cart

In the next post, we will begin to look at more detail at these various options.