Practical Ecommerce

Which Cart Should I use ?

All too often these days I see posts on forums of the type “I want to open an ecommerce shop, what cart should I use?” Then there are dozens of different replies from people all recommending their favourite solution. Rarely does anyone ask the original poster what they are planning to sell, how many products they will have and a whole host of important qualifications needed before a proper recommendation is made.

Of course if a new business relies on random replies on a forum for their strategic planning, then the business is in danger!

There are 3 general replies, or rather there are 3 general solutions.

  • A hosted cart, like Magento Go or Bigcommerce
  • A open source cart like Magento or Open Cart
  • WordPress with a cart extension.

Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them should be recommended without knowing more about the planned site.

Hosted Carts

This is an easy option to take for the less technically minded. A one stop solution. You sign up, pay a monthly fee, and the host provides a shopping cart, templates, support, etc. all in one easy ready to go package. The software is kept up to date and security patches always applied. You are typically paying more monthly than with the other solutions. However as a one stop solution there can be no doubt who to blame if things go wrong.

The downsides are several.

  • As it is a hosted solution, centrally supported, the host wants to ensure that all the shops are running the same software. Thus the extent of customisation is limited. All the shops will have similar features. Further there is a tendency to limit the number of templates available. This means it is harder for your shop to stand out above the crowd. This could hinder your SEO options.

  • Your ability to expand and grow is likewise hindered. Whilst the host may allow busier and busier shops they will certainly charge more per month and the extra costs make the solution even less attractive. Further if an operation grows then the chances are the systems supporting the operation will likewise grow together with more and more interface requirements. Sooner or latter the hosted solution will be too costly to continue with, or indeed be impossible due to core business interface needs.

  • Moving away from a hosted solution can be difficult. It is certainly harder than just moving hosts. This is because it is a virtual certainty that you will have to not only move hosts but also carts at the same time. This is where the biggest (and often forgotten) investment you have made can be lost. This investment is in your content; your catalogue. All your product descriptions, product images, customer data, product reviews, mailing lists etc. It is easy to forget that this content has almost certainly cost you more to create than the whole of the rest of the web site.

  • Some hosted solutions tie you into a long contract. There may be penalty clauses and additional charges to leave and move elsewhere.

For a small site when you are just starting out, then the advantages of a pain free shop would probably outweigh the disadvantages. It would leave you with more time to develop the business rather than waste time becoming an internet expert.

WordPress with a cart extension

I see this being recommended much more often. I can understand why. WordPress is a very easy to use content management system. It is extremely good for non technical people to install and indeed upgrade. There are thousands of good WordPress templates so it is relatively easy to find one to suit your needs. WordPress is also easy for developers/designers to tailor and enhance your design. The vast majority of decent shared hosts will easily support a WordPress solution.

It is also easy to move hosts from one WordPress installation to another. Thus you become independent on hosts and can move on if one should let you down.

In my opinion however the downsides are critical.

  • Its a blog. It is designed for blogs and comments on the blogs. It is very very good at this. It is not designed as a cart. Whichever cart extension you use will remain a bolt on to a blogging system. The weaknesses will be in the product search, the inventory administration, the order management. A busy site with many products and lots of orders will probably be very costly to administer in man time.

  • It is a short term solution. If you want your site to grow then sooner or latter you will have to migrate to proper cart. Again this is when the problem of moving the content will arise.

Whilst I can see the sense of using WordPress for a small site with a few products, I would tend to avoid it.

Open source carts.

These have been designed from the ground up to be ecommerce carts. Thus they remain the best option for Ecommerce shops. Carts like Magento and Open cart have a huge base of user and third party extensions. This means that you can probably get an extension to do virtually anything you need. It also means that whatever goes wrong it is likely that someone else has done it first and they will be a solution posted on a forum somewhere. However this is a hands on approach, and some of your time will be spent doing technical things rather than just selling.

Using an open cart means that you can have an independent host. It means that you can take your cart and catalogue from host to host. It also makes it easier to migrate onto another cart because there are plenty of tools and services available designed to move the data from cart to cart.

A popular open cart will have thousands of templates available, so you should be able to find one to suit your store. Magento templates, however are more complex than WordPress and thus harder to tailor.

The downsides of using an open cart are

  • It would probably cost more than a WordPress site to set up and run.

  • More technical knowledge is needed for both the set up and the ongoing maintenance.

  • Magento needs a more expensive host as it likes resources.

  • Support is limited.

Overall I would always recommend a cart unless you have a very small number of products and do not expect thousands of orders. If you consider future growth and expansion a cart will give you a firm foundation.

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Comments ( 17 )

  1. Prashant Telang August 5, 2013 Reply

    We have developed dozens of ecommerce sites. Based on our experience here is simplified advise

    WordPress with Ecommerce extension: Forget it ;WP is for blogging Possibly you can have an ecommerce site with blog developed on WP (Good for SEO)
    Hosted carts: NO , too proprietary. Your ecommerce site is caged

    Open Source: Best Choice; Magento, Prestashop or OpenCart . Magento if you have multiple stores to handle and require advance features. If you are selecting Magento ensure a dedicated staff to manage it. Magento backend is powerful but has a steep learning curve.

    OpenCart for smaller shops (upto 500 products with regular product attributes) easy to setup, good quality plugins are available free or at reasonable cost. Easy to manage. Non technical person with some learning can manage the shop.

    Both carts are SEO friendly
    Prashant Telang, TransPacific Software

  2. Hariharan Anantharaman August 6, 2013 Reply

    Hi,
    I would also say that business model also determines it to some extent. For http://www.hobbyshopindia.com , an Indian start up multi vendor e-commerce site, the options were less and i settled for cs-cart over magento with a plugin. Though it’s not very much SEO friendly we are slowly improving.

    I see hosted market maturing with players like shopify and can help any business if they already have a strong brand image.

    Thanks
    Hari

  3. Richard Stubbings August 6, 2013 Reply

    Fair comment, but only a technical person would describe Magento’s back end as "powerful". For the user, the order fulfilment/management is very poor. You cannot easily change orders, out of the box there are not enough order status values.

    Magento’s power comes from the front end features. Extensions and third party systems are needed to fix the back end joke.

  4. Richard Stubbings August 6, 2013 Reply

    The hosted market is certainly growing. Indeed I know of one company that has abandoned its cart package in favour of just offering the cart in a hosted solution. There is more profit in this for them! The poor customers using the cart on their own hosting were abandoned.

    The problem is, what happens if the hosted solution provider likewise closes down. A hosted solution is the least flexible.

  5. Matt Cotten August 9, 2013 Reply

    I would have to disagree with many of the points you are trying to make. The tone of your article is attempting to make hosted carts appear limited and promote open source carts as the better solution for bigger stores.

    Although customization of functionality maybe limited with hosted carts, they provide the majority of powerful features as part of the software. No third-party plug-ins or customization is required.

    The best hosted carts do allow you to fully customize the design and some have very nice templates by default. There is no SEO penalty for using a hosted cart vs. open source.

    Since the leading hosted carts have a large user base, they normally provide support or apps to integrate with other software packages for larger businesses. It’s true you will have to pay more if you have more products but nothing like having to pay for a dedicated server.

    I don’t see why you put much emphasis on the ability to change web hosts. You need to make the right decision the first time. If you are changing hosts, its most likely because you are changing platforms.

    The best part of a hosted solution is you can call them for free support. With open source, sometimes you don’t know if there is a problem with the web hosting or software. You are dependent on your developer or stuck asking for help on a user forum.

    I see the same "Which shopping cart should I use?" forum posts and I always shake my head when someone plugs Magento. The question is usually from someone that is new to ecommerce so it’s best they try a free trial with a hosted cart rather than invest time and money customizing an open source cart.

  6. Richard Stubbings August 11, 2013 Reply

    You are of course entitled to your opinion. I disagree with many of your points too.

    A hosted cart means you are tied into that solution. It can limit your growth. It can make expansion more expensive than it should be. Decent packages are over $100 a month. Indeed many are over $200 a month. Dedicated servers can be much less than this. Further you have to be a big shop with many visitors to need a dedicated server. Most shops can get by with a decent shared host package or even a VPS.

    Also why do you shake your head at Magento? If someone is serious about starting in retail they would hire a shop fitter to do out the shell. So why should you not recommend someone who is serious about Ecommerce hiring a decent designer/developer and using a cart best suited for their needs. This may be Open Cart, or Magento.

    You say that there is no SEO penalty for hosted carts. I was not talking about a penalty as such. What I was saying is that inevitably hosted carts have certain constraints put on them by the host. Thus they all tend to be clones. There is less opportunity to develop a site that has the WOW factor. That can stand above the crowd.

    But if you read what I said, you would see that I actually agreed with one point with you. Let me repeat what I concluded about hosted solutions:

    "For a small site when you are just starting out, then the advantages of a pain free shop would probably outweigh the disadvantages. It would leave you with more time to develop the business rather than waste time becoming an internet expert. "

  7. Delia Wilson Lunsford August 13, 2013 Reply

    I love how y’all are ignoring other open source options. Zen Cart is an offshoot of OsCommerce which continues to improve. The ZC core team is working hard at the next version and in the meantime gained PCI certification with the release of 1.5.

    Unlike Magento, it can be used on any decent shared hosting, doesn’t require special server settings and is more appropriate for less than enterprise level shops. Magento’s admin is like greek to me and I’m no stranger to e-commerce. There’s no way I want to put my clients in a cart that was obviously not designed to have an owner manage it.

    Zen Cart’s admin is daunting for sure but I’ve just recently documented all the settings and they are available for free at http://allthingszencart.com.

    Anybody that’s really serious about e-commerce should have a hosted solution. You have more control over your cart, your data and are more likely to make bigger bucks. (no, I have no proof of that but considering the clientele I have, I can tell you that they wouldn’t have a site that really works for them with a hosted cart.)

    WordPress and e-commerce? Get real. Get a cart with some longevity and solid performance. Get a real cart.

    • Kevin August 27, 2013 Reply

      Open source solutions are fine, but then the onus is on the store owner to either 1.) enjoy spending time working on your cart, or 2.) find great folks that specialize in that cart.

      Zen Cart has been on life-support for several years. Most people that supported Zen Cart have seen the writing on the wall and moved on. So, finding talented, committed developers for Zen Cart is very difficult. Finding talented Zen
      Cart designers (a different role) is impossible.

      So, it’s not just that Zen Cart is old and out of date, it’s that finding good resources to help is super hard.

      Go with an actively developed and supported solution if you’re looking at open source.

  8. Melissa Chelist August 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for this thought provoking article. We have been using an open source cart since our we first developed our website. Over time, we have added many custom features. We did look at switching to a hosted platform, but quickly discovered that the features that we currently had were either impossible or cost prohibitive in the hosted cart.

    To reiterate what the author said, the hosted version is great IF it has everything you need out of the box. Don’t forget to consider where your company website may be in the future.

  9. Manish August 13, 2013 Reply

    Nice take on the hosted versus open source carts.
    If you take the SMB ecommerce space, most businesses are heavy on business and light on technology as far their resources and expertise is concerned. With this in mind, the hosted solution has clear advantages for someone starting out in ecommerce.

    If a business has some in-house IT resource and want better control over their site, then open source custom developed may make sense.

  10. Blossome August 13, 2013 Reply

    Hello every one, well as an ecommerce future launcher and looking for real advice:((((, yes this is how I feel about all your comments> so confusing and going around the circle. One say this! One say that!? And at the end all contradicting.

    With your expertise as you confirm, there must be one best solution that covers now as a starter growing with what we have and certainly not leaving it behind, then moving with it to a bigger space and larger number of products wishing to keep our grounds+shoppe (s) and display and walls and necessary/ useful tools and every thing with them and forward on!!!!!

    So EXPERTS – ADVISERS – PROFESSIONALS :))))) please give ONE GOOD SOLUTION we can grow with from small to giant and every way we turn with our INHOUSE AND VISITORS customers that is. A HUGE AND BIG THANK YOU. I do really need your favourite option. I am launching an ecommerce and planing to put in every product of a good use and quality to every one. I have the where and how, just must find the right answer to my choice of the platform, the host, the template, the space, the easy use and practicality for me I, and my customers+visitors.

    Again THANK YOU for your help.

    Blossom

  11. Blossome August 13, 2013 Reply

    Ms Delia Wilson, hello there I agree with you on that a real cart! And so what is a real cart to you then please, not a Worldpress. I got that:) thank you. Blossom

  12. ProductCart August 13, 2013 Reply

    There is actually an alternative to Hosted versus Open Source… and that is a "Licensed" shopping cart such as ‘ProductCart’ (among others). In this model, the merchant receives the full source code, with the flexibility to customize it and host it on their own server, as well as the benefit of having the developer standing behind (and supporting) it. In terms of cost, it is typically far less expensive than a hosted cart (comparing ‘apples-to-apples’ features), and pays for itself in less than a year. Merchants that are considering opening an on-line store (or switching to a different eCommerce platform) should definitely consider Licensed solutions, which can provide the flexibility and lower long-term cost of open source, along with the support backing and features found in hosted carts.

  13. Richard Stubbings August 14, 2013 Reply

    ProductCart. You are right I did not mention that much. The reason being that you are tied into one supplier. That supplier can abandon you. Look at the poor interspire customers who were given the option to leave or move to Big Commerce. Or the Litecommerce customers who were just abandoned or left to move to XCart.

    Blossome. There is no one size fits all solution. It really depends on what you want to do, how you want to do it, what your budget is, how much you already know and a lot of other factors. Magento is probably the closest to a general solution but because of this it is a sledgehammer of a solution. You epitomise the "what cart should I use post". The simple fact is that everyone has their own opinion and they will likely all be different. There is simply no way that anyone can properly answer your question based on the limited information you have provided.

    Delia, There are lots of open source carts. This blog is talking in general and does not attempt to say which one is best for which requirement. I cannot mention all. Zen is a good cart too.

    • Kevin August 27, 2013 Reply

      Zen Cart WAS a good cart. It was actively developed in the early 2000′s, but it is a hobby for the 4 people that work on it, and hasn’t really progressed since 2008. Google “Zen Cart 2.0″ to get an idea.

      Open source carts can be a great choice for the right business, but choose one that’s actively supported and developed.

  14. Richard Stubbings September 4, 2013 Reply

    I have just re-read all the comments and see that they reflect nicely what I have seen in forums. There is the one plugging hosted solutions and thinking they are best, there is the newbie wanting advice, there are those plugging their favourites.

  15. Ishan September 26, 2014 Reply

    I would anyday go with Avactis. Earlier it used to have some limited features in the free version, but the newest version AvactisNext4.6 is fully unlocked and very easy to use, & stillvcompletely free. I have easily migrated my website to their store and i am loving it. Its very simple and easy to use and their support people also very helpful in resolving any issues.

    I would recommend anyone to give it a try.

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