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.
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.