Select A Free Shopping Cart – Create A Profitable Online Store Part 3

This is part 3 of a 5 part series on how to create a profitable online store. So you’ve signed up for your webhost, registered your domain name, and established where you are going to source your goods. It’s now time to start working on your online store front.

Most people have the misconception that you have to pay thousands of dollars to hire someone to create a website for you. Thanks to open source, there are many fully featured shopping cart software packages out there that are absolutely free. What’s nice about using an open source shopping cart is that you aren’t tied down to a specific company or service provider. You can take your store wherever you go and you pay absolutely nothing.


When my wife and I first started our online store, the available shopping cart choices weren’t nearly as mature and feature rich as they are today. Now is the perfect time to start a professional online store at no cost whatsoever.

For this article, I went ahead and downloaded, installed and evaluated the latest open source shopping carts to provide you with recommendations. I’ll also talk about some of the choices my wife and I made in selecting our shopping cart software and the reasons why we made our selection.

Introduction

There are many free open source shopping carts available. Some of the carts that I looked at were

While everyone will have different criteria for their own shopping cart, I narrowed down my recommendations based on product maturity, features and 3rd party support.

Please note that some of the carts that didn’t make my recommended list are absolutely fantastic and have lots of potential but were ultimately lacking a few features that I felt were important. Prestashop, for example is an amazing and modern shopping cart but lacks a few key payment modules for the US marketplace. If you have any specific questions about any of the shopping carts above, please feel free to leave a comment or email me directly.

In any case, my philosophy is that if you are new to building an online store, you are going to want to err on the more conservative side. You’ll want a shopping cart that is stable, fast, does what you want it to do and has a good responsive community. It is based on this criteria that I can wholeheartedly recommend the following carts OSCMax, Open Cart and Magento.

OSCMax

oscmax-logoOSCMax is based on the granddaddy of all open source ecommerce shopping carts, OSCommerce. In fact, OSCMax is identical to the base install of OSCommerce except that it has many useful plugins already pre-installed. Because it is based on OSCommerce, you have access to the thousands of free third party plugins available on the OSCommerce website

The library of plugins is so vast that if the base install of OSCMax is missing something, you will probably find someone who has written a plugin for it. The only caveat is that adding plugins can be a major pain in the ass and you’ll probably need a tiny bit of php knowledge to do this. Personally though, I think that the OSMax base install is very feature rich already.

OpenCart

OpenCart is an incredibly feature rich shopping cart that is fast, easy to use and has a very modern looking feel to it. While OpenCart doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as OSCMax or Magento out of the box, it probably has most of the features that you will need to run a basic store.

In addition, OpenCart is one of the easiest shopping carts to install and get running right away. Why? It’s because most if not all webhosts offer a one click installer right from the CPanel interface. You pretty much just have to click on the Simple Scripts installer and voila, you are ready to go.

What I like about OpenCart is the backend administration interface which is simple and intuitive. In addition, there are a ton of companies and independent developers that are very active in developing website templates and themes. The downside to OpenCart is that if you need additional functionality that OpenCart doesn’t offer, you’ll need to implement it yourself. Compared to shopping carts like OSCommerce or ZenCart, OpenCart doesn’t have as vast of a plugin library. But overall, the out of the box features should be more than adequate for most users.

Magento

logoIf you know that you are eventually going to require the most feature-rich open source shopping cart available to run your online store, then Magento is probably your best bet. After playing around with Magento for a few days, I can say that it is probably the most feature rich open source shopping cart out there right now. You can perform some very intricate sales promotions on individual or groups of items. You can even manage multiple stores from a single installation.

The downside is that Magento runs extremely slowly and thus can not be run on shared hosting. This is unfortunate because Magento pretty much does everything, but all of that functionality comes at the cost of speed. Since it can be major pain in the ass to switch shopping carts though, you may want to consider starting out with Magento.

How Easy Is It To Get Up And Running?

Many people are afraid of the technical aspects of getting a website up and running. So to show you how easy it is, I put together a quick video on how to install an open source shopping cart and start your online store in under 5 minutes.

How to install an open source shopping cart and start your online store in under 5 minutes

If you can follow the directions in the above video, then you are tech savvy enough to use a free open source shopping cart!

What If I’m Completely Tech Averse?

I generally advocate going with a free open source shopping cart and hosting it yourself as opposed to signing up for an all-in-one hosted ecommerce solution. After all, if you host your shopping cart yourself, you’re in charge of your own destiny. You have full control over the source and no one can suddenly raise prices on you. Plus, there are many cool things that you can do on your own that the big hosted solutions won’t allow you to do.

But I’ve come to realize that using an open source ecommerce solution and self-hosting may not be the right solution for everyone. Some people just don’t feel comfortable installing or tweaking their own website let alone modifying an open source shopping cart.

One time, I tried to help a coworker of mine launch her online store using OSCMax. Unfortunately, she didn’t possess the basic knowledge to even make simple edits to her store and had to ask for help for every little change. Ultimately, I had her go with a paid solution because of the added support.

What’s Out There?

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few years test driving fully hosted shopping carts and I’ve found that both Volusion and BigCommerce offer an awesome hosted shopping cart solution for a low monthly fee. The key here is that they only charge a fixed monthly fee and no transaction fees whatsoever. Plans actually start as low as 25 bucks.

Their business model is different than most hosted shopping cart solutions in that they charge a flat fee based on the number of products that you offer in your store along with a bandwidth limit. But outside of the monthly fee and possible bandwidth overages, your fees will not grow linearly with your revenues. Volusion and BigCommerce make their money from a fixed monthly subscription model as opposed to taxing their merchants with a percentage transaction fee.

The Design Tools Are Pretty Good

In terms of website design, the out of the box graphical design tools are pretty good if all you want to do is create a basic store design. But keep in mind that you will eventually have to know how to edit html code in order to make your store look exactly the way you want it to.

BigCommerce for example offers an intuitive drag and drop interface where you can shuffle things around with your store at the click of a button. Both Volusion and BigCommerce also offer a pretty good library of standard templates for you to start out with. All in all, you can throw up a decent looking store within a matter of minutes without knowing a lick of HTML.

Their back end features and tracking are also top notch and there’s built in support for popular social media sites like Facebook. Again if you know the basics of web development, adding these things isn’t a big deal but it is convenient.

You Don’t Have To Be A Tech Expert To Start

If you have an ounce of tech in you or you are eager to learn about the web, then I still recommend hosting your own cart. Who knows? Volusion and BigCommerce could go out of business someday and take your store down with it. They could also increase their fees once you are dependent on their services.

But for now, both Volusion and BigCommerce are offering a heck of a deal at only $25/month to start a fully featured online store. If you want to avoid the technical aspects altogether and focus on selling, then going with either of these services is a good choice.

You’ve Given Me Too Many Choices. What Should I Choose?

Unfortunately, only you can answer that question. I’ve already narrowed down the field from hundreds to just a handful of shopping carts for you. Most if not all of these shopping carts can provide you with a test drive of the front and back end of the storefront as well. Do your own due diligence and run through the features of each cart to determine what you need.

I would naturally start with one of the 3 open source shopping cart options that I’ve recommended because they are free. In addition, you have full control over the source code of your shopping cart and can add new features at any time. All of the open source shopping carts I mentioned above have a strong developer community that is constantly adding new plugins and additional functionality for free.

If coding or installation is way over your head, then I would then look at some of the paid options that I mentioned above like Volusion and BigCommerce. Again, keep in mind that once you choose a shopping cart, it is extremely hard to migrate to another platform. Plus, the fees with respect to fully hosted solutions may seem small at first but substantially increase once your store kicks into high gear.

What Do I Use?

I selected the base OSCommerce install to run our online wedding linens store. Looking back, this was probably not the best decision but I went with OSCommerce because I was paranoid about server speed. Things can be quite unpredictable when you use a shared hosting environment. I knew that I wanted my store to run as fast as possible, so I chose a very basic store and only added the functionality that I absolutely needed.

The following are must have features in a shopping cart

Search Engine Friendly URLs
Availability of 3rd party templates and themes
Fast product upload from a spreadsheet
Coupons/Gift vouchers
Wide array of payment processors
Cross selling
Dynamic photo resizer
Integration with real time shipping services
Single page checkout


Today, my store is so heavily customized that it is difficult to add any new features. Eventually, I will migrate our cart to something more powerful but it will be an extremely painful move. If I were to do it all over again, I would have used OSCMax or OpenCart. Both OSCMax and OpenCart run fairly well on a shared hosting environment so you have nothing to worry about.

Next Up – Select Your Credit Card Payment Processor

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41 thoughts on “Select A Free Shopping Cart – Create A Profitable Online Store Part 3”

  1. Pingback: Shashikanth Blog
  2. If you have the time and skill you should do everything yourself. However, I find that most people don’t have the time to that. And a professional looking site is important also.

  3. I have been using Zen Cart for the last 2 years and once you get to know it the things you can make it do are unlimitles. There are some great mods for it, the people on the forum are a great help and unlike some other OS carts they are willing to help for free.

    1. @MGL
      Even if you have limited knowledge, you can still put together a great looking and functional store because of premade templates which I’ll discuss in part 5. If you are completely tech averse, you can still go with one of the paid solutions I’ve suggested

    2. @Paul
      I’ve been impressed with ZenCart. Back 2 years ago when my wife and I started our business, ZenCart wasn’t nearly as good as it is today. But now, it’s a pretty feature rich cart with excellent support

  4. Among the list that you gave, I only tried CRE Loaded, Magento, ZenCart, and osCommerce. Among the four platforms that I have used I like Magento because it’s simply the best.

    1. @Algozone
      I agree. Magento is awesome. If it only ran a little zippier.

  5. I am with Pappashop (with Mals Ecommerce) and I am thinking of switching. The customer service is always very helpful and the system is easy to use but there are a few features that are missing. I may look into Zen Cart. Thank you for this list!

    1. @Carla
      I’ve heard of Mals Ecommerce before (not Pappashop). Do they host everything for you or can you take the software along with you when you switch hosts? I always try to not be reliant on any 3rd party provider which is why I went open source. Why are you considering switching?

  6. @Steve – Pappashop host everything for me, but I wouldn’t be able to take the software to another host. I can use a different software for this host though (Zen Cart, etc) via their cpannel Fantastico. There are certain features that are lacking in Pappashop. Its not severe but I’m not able to do things like give more than four or five options for a particular product. I tried an open source (Joomla!) and it was a nightmare.

  7. Why would you choose OSCMax if you moved away from your current cart? I know OSC itself is old if you are using 2.2 but it is solid and just works. Why would you add a cart that is just OSC modified by people that didn’t originally develop OSC. I always hate to work with something that wasn’t developed directly by the author of the original program.

    As for templates, how are you getting OSC to use templates? Did you modify it to use BTS or one of the others?

    Thanks for your blog it is very informative.

    1. Hi Phil,
      OSCMax is simply OSC with a lot of the essential plugins pre-installed. Our online store is a heavily modified version of the OSC base install. Having installed many plugins by hand, I can definitely say that it’s a major pain, not to mention the fact that you have to thoroughly test your cart once you are done. The people who maintain OSCMax install the plugins for you and do the testing as well.

      I always prefer to use a standard install as well but the OSC project has been taking too long to integrate new features in the cart. You kind of have to rely on other people’s plugins in order to have a fully featured cart. This guide is meant for newbies as well. It’s much easier to have something working out of the box and tested which is why I recommend OSCMax and ZenCart as a good starting point. The last time I checked, the base install of OSC was missing some key features.

      The templates for OSC that you can purchase online depend on the version you are using. For most versions of OSC, the term “template” is a bit misleading as it’s not so much a template that you get but installation files that you copy over the base install when you make your purchase. It’s definitely not as nice as when you use a cart with a built in template system.

      For my cart, I did all of my modifications by hand, but I have helped several friends with their online stores in which purchasing a template first and then making minor modifications was the right choice. In general, I can’t recommend the base install of OSC to non-tech saavy people. There are just too many manual changes that need to be made.

  8. I think the template override system in Zen Cart is a real winner. When their much awaited Zen Cart 2.0 is released, it will really shake up the open source shopping cart space. I’m really looking forward to it! The great support through the Zen Cart community forum is worth it’s weight in gold too.

  9. Hey Steve,

    Would you be willing to post the mods/add-ons that you use? I have been looking through the community site and there are a ton of them and some of them are duplicates so I am not sure which is the one to use.

    For instance, monthly sales reports? There are several add-ons for this, same goes for coupons, etc.

    Thanks,
    Phil

  10. nawallace says:

    Hi Steve. I’m in the process of installing oscmax. Unfortunately, the very last step (enabling the template) just isn’t working for me. The url that they gave me ends in php. I wonder if for some reason my computer can’t read php extensions? Do you know if there’s something I can download to be able to read it? Thanks!

  11. Rick Brown says:

    Should I choose a cheap shopping cart like shoppingcartdepot.com or should I opt for a pricy one? Do you think that price would be an important factor in how solid the shopping cart is?

  12. Hi!

    Is it ok to choose just one site for everything? like godaddy? You recommend this for everything?

    thanks you!!

  13. name says:

    Interesting, but without a date I can’t tell how useful it is at the present time. Was it written in 2005, 2006, 2007……….?

  14. Kim says:

    I am considering Volusion form my shopping cart package. Do you have any knowledge of this product? Thanks

  15. Mostly all of free to use shopping card i found, don’t look like the popular real online stores. Is there any way to find which one they are using on their website?

  16. Hello!
    Your information is realy usefull for me.

    I want to create a shoping cart for sumissura store (it is integrated in my website) – donaz.ru
    My site is on wordpress.

    What can you advice for me?

    Is it the best variant – WordPress ECommerce?

    Thank you for future answer.

    With best regards to you,

    Maria.

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