Practical Ecommerce

10 Essential Shopping Cart Features

There are hundreds of ecommerce platforms that online merchants can choose from. The differences between these carts can be significant, so knowing what features matter is important.

In this article, you’ll find a list ten “must-have shopping cart features” that either improve the shopping experience for the consumer or make it easier for the merchant. In truth, this probably should be a much longer list, since narrowing down shopping cart features to just ten important ones necessarily leaves out a lot of other important capabilities too. This list is also something of a matter of opinion. But at the moment, in mid-2011, these are the shopping cart features that I could not live without.

Finally, it may be helpful to quickly define “shopping cart.” In the context of this article, it is an ecommerce-specific content management system that — among other things — serves product detail pages to a shoppers’ web browsers, manages online transactions, and acts as the portal for site maintenance. Also, the terms ecommerce platform, shopping cart, and cart will all be used interchangeably.

You may also notice that features near the top of the list are relatively more important, in my view, and get a bit more ink, so to speak.

This first section of features is aimed at improving a shopper’s interaction with the site and boosting sales.

Large, Functional Product Images

Product images are among the most effective ways to communicate with customers on an ecommerce site.

“Now think about it, whenever you’re shopping online, the product image is the only opportunity you have to see that product, so if it’s not impressive from the photo, customers aren’t going to buy,” said Matt Winn, an online communications specialist with Volusion, a hosted ecommerce platform.

Although product images are essentially a standard feature on all shopping carts or ecommerce platforms, it is important to find a solution that is flexible enough to allow you or your developer to resize the images, since bigger is usually better. It is also helpful if the cart supports product image zooming.

As an example of how powerful a big, beautiful product image can be, take a look at the Victorinox site, the makers of Swiss Army knives.

Sometime ago I came across a picture of the Victorinox site in an article about product photography. The picture was so compelling that I went directly to the site.

Another example comes from clothing retailer Roxy, which uses 417 by 561 pixel product images on its product pages. Shoppers may also see a larger version of the image, which is 683 by 792 pixels.

Uncrate is another example of a retailer using large product images to help it sell.

Product Reviews

A 2009 study from The Nielsen Company found that some 70 percent of respondents trusted “consumer opinions posted online.” While there may not be a perfect one-to-one relationship between “consumer opinions posted online” and product reviews on an ecommerce site, the study nonetheless provides some data. With this in mind, it is imperative that a shopping cart either includes support for product reviews right out of the box or has an easy way to implement third-party product reviews.

Several very successful online stores make excellent use of product reviews. For example, Newegg, the electronics retailer, frequently has more than 75 reviews for individual products. These reviews can help shoppers make good buying choices.

Layered and Faceted Navigation

Layered and faceted navigation make it much easier for shoppers to find just what they’re looking for on an ecommerce site.

This kind of navigation divides products into rational sub-categories, and displays those sub-categories as product filters. Using this kind of a system, shoppers may drill down to products based on price, color, features, or attributes. As executed in a shopping cart, this feature should be data driven and programmatic. A site administrator or owner needs only establish the business rules and the shopping cart should do the rest.

You will find examples of layered and faceted navigation on many — if not most — leading online retail sites. Zappos, the footwear retailer, makes extensive use of layers and facets on its pages. In fact, if you look at the URL for a typical Zappos product category page, you will even see references to these facets. Here’s an example:

http://www.zappos.com/search/null/filter/category/%22Swimwear%22/subCategoryFacet/
%22Swimwear+Bottoms%22/categoryFacet/%22Swimwear%22/productTypeFacet/%22Clothing%22

Notice “subCategoryFacet,” “categoryFacet,” and “productTypeFacet” in the URL above.

Single-Page, Fast Checkout

Actually paying for a purchase online is the last hurdle a shopper must traverse before completing an order. A shopper interested in buying wants to complete this step as quickly as possible, and a merchant should try to get out of the way.

“Just like the supermarket, online shoppers are looking for the shortest line,” Volusion said on its website.

One of the simplest methods to speeding checkout is to limit the checkout form to as few fields as possible and keep the entire form on a single page to avoid loading a new page at each stage of the checkout process.

Again according to Volusion, single page checkout “boosts sales conversions,” “reduces abandoned shopping carts,” “enhances user-friendliness”, and “streamlines customer experience.”

For examples of single-page checkouts, one can look at Kalyx, a retailer of women’s sports apparel.

Search

As surprising as it may seem, some ecommerce platforms do not support site search. So be sure that the one you select does. What’s more, make search prominent.

Coupons and Discounts

It is the Groupon-age, as sites like Groupon, Living Social, Google Deals, Retail Me Not, Rimbambo, and others offer shoppers daily deals, hourly deals, and oodles of coupons. In this environment, an online merchant must be able to process coupon and discount codes, so that deal crazy shoppers can get their savings fix.

A good ecommerce platform will have couponing and discounting built in. For example, when you shop at the U.S. Olympus store, the camera retailer, you’re given an opportunity to enter discount or coupon codes as soon as you start the checkout process.

Large effective product images; product reviews; layered and faceted navigation; single-page checkout, site search, and discount and coupons codes combine for a pretty powerful user experience, but a good ecommerce platform should also take care of the merchant. Here are three more features that you must have.

Product Import and Export

The Internet is always changing and evolving. Likewise, so is ecommerce. A few years ago, it would not have occurred to me that a shopping cart should have good product import and export capabilities, but now this is a must-have feature. Whether one is exporting product data to a shopping comparison site or a Facebook store or synchronizing inventory from an online store to a physical location, the ability to easily transfer price, inventory, or product updates in to or out of a shopping cart is essential.

Look for a cart that makes this extremely simple.

Easy Integration with Third Party Solutions

There are many ways to go about building an ecommerce shopping cart, including a modular construction that allows site owners to easily add third-party solutions. For example, if you would like to use QuickBooks for accounting, there should be a simple way to connect it to your shopping cart without spending a fortune on development work. Likewise, if you would like to use MailChimp to manage your newsletter, it should be easy to integrate.

Analytics and Sales Reporting

Finally, a good shopping cart must have built-in sales reporting and analytics capabilities — even if the later comes from simple integration with Google Analytics. Be sure that you can track product sales down to a significant level of detail. Sales reports should also be easy to export.

Summing Up

There are many shopping carts and even more shopping cart features to consider, but the ten listed here are essential.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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Comments ( 22 )

  1. Juan@PixelMill June 1, 2011 Reply

    Very useful set of ecommerce shopping cart features Armando. Thank you. We share your sentiment that there are more to consider especially for newer merchants evaluating the options of available software solutions but we agree these features are essential.

    In addition, we recommend new merchants focus on ease of use and support features that will help them quickly adapt to the shopping cart admin area. This often means to take advantage of the trial period (if one is offered) to test easy features like adding a new product, a new category or even try more advanced features like importing a spreadsheet. Also, how much support material is available and is it in a form you find easily consumable meaning support documents, videos or merchant forums?

    We would also investigate how easy it is to alter the design without having to spend big bucks on a custom look. The shopping cart software should offer a number of options to alter the basic appearance so the new merchant can set themselves apart without having to drop big bucks on hiring a designer. Once the store is making some money, the merchant might consider a full custom design. This brings to mind the idea of scalability, not only for design, but how well will the software grow with you to support future enhancements.

    Certainly a lot to consider but your feature set will definitely point them in the right direction.

  2. Armando Roggio June 1, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Juan. Pointing folks in the proper direction was my goal. There are certainly dozens of features that are vital.

  3. hawkeye28 June 2, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for the tips. What ecommerce platforms do you suggest that have all of these features/functionality without having to build it from scratch? Even if it’s not one particular application – if you have a few recommendations or a previous post you can refer me to on some of the better cart solutions out there, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

  4. Marc Bigbie June 2, 2011 Reply

    Excellent article. The only "asterisk" I’ll add is on gift giving sites we find that a multiple page checkout is better because of needing multiple ship-tos, a single page checkout is just too cluttered and confusing if sending 10 gift baskets to 10 different addresses and forcing them to place 10 different orders just for the sake of having a "one page checkout" will definitely not help conversions.

    Fortunately its a radio button selection on our software to switch between the two.

  5. Paul Makepeace June 2, 2011 Reply

    Good Article! We have found that integration to shopping engines and shopping sites such as eBay, Amazon and Google base offers businesses the greatest advantage when using shopping cart software.

    If all of the above features are incorporated into one management system it offers business owners functionality and ease of use to manage their online solutions.

    Your feature list is a good starting point for business owners to compare shopping carts that are available.

  6. Bryan Smith June 2, 2011 Reply

    Nice Article. I value open source code, as making modifications to customize a site, often ends at a roadblock, after a lot of time has been invested, if portions of the code are not available.

    I would also like to see a comparison or listing of top carts, that contain most or all of the suggestions in this article.

    I am especially interested in reviews and ratings, and have not found any cart that provides features close to what NewEgg does with their ratings and reviews, and their integration of that with the Categories and Faceted navigation.

    I am currently using Magento, and would like to integrate a better ratings and reviews sort by in the product category page, or integrate PowerReviews at the product category page area. I have seen a couple of sites that have integrated PowerReviews in the product details page but not a the category page area for Faceted navigation like Newegg does.

    It seems like a cart which used the feature list in this article would shoot to the top of the market. Or perhaps if a developer would create an extension for Magento, do improve the reviews and faceted navigation by reviews and ratings, they would have a valuable product to sell.

    Thanks again for your articles on Magento, and this article.

    Bryan Smith

  7. Armando Roggio June 2, 2011 Reply

    @Marc Bigbie, perhaps Ajax could help or better page organization.

  8. Armando Roggio June 2, 2011 Reply

    @Bryan, I think that you’re right about Magento. It has everything on my list out of the box. This is, in fact, why I tend to use it most, but it could benefit from more robust reviews, no doubt. One of the things that makes Magento good is its modular construction, so bolting on third-party solutions (like an improved review system) is relatively easy. For example, I am currently building a Magento payment module that connects Magento to Braintree Payments via a transparent redirect, removing PCI scope.

    There are many other ecommerce platforms that have everything on this list too. ATG, Demandware, Elastic Path, and LemonStand all come to mind. Also, I would consider WordPress. It is a great platform for any kind of content.

  9. Armando Roggio June 2, 2011 Reply

    @Paul Makepeace. Great point. Ecommerce is an ecosystem, and being able to connect to eBay, Amazon, and Google Base is a great marketing strategy. I think this falls under the "third-party" feature. An ecommerce platform should make it easy to add connections like these.

  10. Armando Roggio June 2, 2011 Reply

    @hawkeye28

    There are a lot of very good carts, so any list of recommendations that I offer is limited by my experience, exposure, and taste, as such, I would recommend you research beyond my response here.

    I work with [Magento](http://www.magentocommerce.com) most, and it has all of these features. As a platform, Magento is far from perfect. It’s most common complaints come in the form of head-scratching and confusion because it can seem complex. I have not tried Magento Go, but I understand that it requires less technical skill than the Community Edition, which is where my experience lies.

    [ATG](http://www.atg.com/) makes an excellent ecommerce solution — think BestBuy — but is beyond most small businesses in terms of its cost.

    [Demandware](http://www.demandware.com/) is another cart I can recommend with confidence, but it can be spendy too.

    My brief exposure to [LemonStand](http://lemonstandapp.com/features/) has been very positive, but I have not tried to import or export inventories or extend its functionality with plugins or modules.

    [Shopify](http://www.shopify.com/) is another very sound choice, although again, I have not tried to import or export inventories or price updates. Also, Shopify using a templating called Liquid, which, in my opinion, is all wet. (But I should mention that I am no fan of templating languages anywhere.)

    [Volusion](http://www.volusion.com/ecommerce/online-store-feature-details/) also has all of these features and a very good reputation.

    This list could go on.

  11. Jean Park June 2, 2011 Reply

    The coupon code issue seems to be a mixed bag. I’ve read both opinions – on one end, placing the coupon code field too soon within the checkout process can potentially have you lose your customer since they’ll click off, look for a coupon, and may get distracted. So, those sites place the field further within checkout. Still others find no problem with placing the code right at the beginning.

    As a customer though, I usually don’t bother with looking for codes. I just use the in-store specials. I’m going to assume I’m not the only one. :)

  12. Delia Wilson Lunsford June 3, 2011 Reply

    I have to take issue with you listing a single page checkout as a must have. Do some more research and you will find that cart abandonment rates have nothing to do with the number of steps to checkout. I’m sure Volusion is going to say how great it is but that’s because they have it.

    There are pros and cons to any cart and not one is perfect. I consider being able to have any web host as paramount in case one needs to take their business elsewhere and most open source carts can do that – except Magento.

  13. Bryan Smith June 3, 2011 Reply

    Armando, Thank you for the response, I will check out those carts, and keep my ears open for a more robust reviews/faceted-navigation extension for Magento. I use Magento inside of WP via a WP plugin, which is working quite well. If you hear of anyone creating an extension like I have described I would appreciate a heads up.

  14. Armando Roggio June 3, 2011 Reply

    @Delia Wilson Lunsford I am not sure I understand the second part of your comment, what do you mean about not being able to use any web host?

  15. Armando Roggio June 3, 2011 Reply

    Bryan, regarding the faceted navigation, Magento is quite good. What is it that you would like to have it do that it is not? Maybe I can help.

  16. Bryan Smith July 2, 2011 Reply

    Hi Armando:

    I am referring to the Sort By function, at the product category page in Magento.

    My favorite site Newegg, has a simpler more functional sort by.

    The Newegg sort by, provides Featured Items, Best Rating, Lowest Price, Highest Price, Most Reviews.

    The Magento Sort by, has a small arrow requiring use to set Ascending and Descending order, and no backend setting to change each attribute in the sort by to ascending or descending as the default. This results in most of the sort by defaults to display in the opposite of the most intuitive display. Newest products defaults to oldest, and similar issues on the rest of the sort by attributes. Reviews is not part of the standard sort by offerings, and can be added, but again the ascending descending creates problems.

    The back end in Magento should allow additional attributes to be easily added to the sort by function, and set the default ascend descend, or simply get rid of that ascend descend issue, and simply use descriptive words like newegg such as Highest Price, Lowest Price, Best Rating, Most Reviews, Featured Items.

    A developer that can create and market an extension for Magento to do this could help move Magento to the top by matching the other top favorite sites such as Newegg, Amazon, and Macy’s.

    Top consultants such as Forester have shown that a robust and simple reviews and ratings function is very high on the list of most important things that attract the retail public, and magento in its current form just does not offer this simple reviews and ratings functionality.

    I need an open source cart, and Magento is the best I have found, but I am frustrated with the current functionality of the sort by and reviews and ratings area of the cart.

    Thanks for all your contributions with regard to WP and Magento and the other carts.

  17. Kåre Kork April 22, 2013 Reply

    I have been using Interspire Shopping Cart for years, and going to Bigcommerce was a big letdown. If you are not from an english speaking country the cart is nearly impossible to use. You have limited access to some core files, but there is no way to translate the cart like you could in Interspire Shopping Cart. I ended up buying CS-Cart from http://www.nettxpress.no. Buy the way. Why no review of CS-Cart?

  18. Shopping Cart Application October 5, 2013 Reply

    thank you for sharing the very useful article about Shopping Cart Application

  19. Kata OS October 23, 2013 Reply

    I start working with AbanteCart. I needed to import the data from osCommerce to the cart. I found good and quick tech support on the forum. So I can set up pages and blocks very easily and manage each product separately. I wish for more extensions, but I see they are adding them.
    Everything work well.

  20. cece August 12, 2014 Reply

    Hi just went through your article. I thinks is absolutely brilliant. I am in the process of building my own website. Please can you suggest the best shipping cart I can use on my site. My site is a multi vendor. Thanks

    • Armando Roggio August 12, 2014 Reply

      Cece, do you have a site now? If so, would you mind providing a link? If not, you’ll need to tell me a bit more.

    • Clara December 15, 2014 Reply

      HI,
      Hope Multivendorz ( http://multivendorz.mercuryminds.com ) shopping cart would be helpful for you. One of my client created multi vendor shopping cart website with the help of this software.

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