One of the most important dilemmas facing e-commerce merchants today is which shopping cart solution to choose for their Web stores. The sheer number of options can be daunting – a recent Google search on “online shopping cart” turned up 12.7 million hits, many of them offering shopping cart products of their own. No wonder it’s a tough decision.
A good way to narrow the field is deciding what kind of cart is most appropriate for your needs: open source (available at no cost) or proprietary (available for a fee). There was a time when many in the e-commerce world frowned on open source products. Some said they were difficult to install and configure, while others bemoaned their lack of available features and technical support. Fortunately for online entrepreneurs on a budget, those days are all but gone.
The latest open source shopping carts offer pretty much everything you’d find in a proprietary solution, provided you have the basic technical expertise to install and configure them. Most have become much easier to install than previous offerings and include numerous developer contributions for increased features and customization. Technical support tends to come in the form of user forums which, at least for the most popular products, are heavily trafficked and often yield answers in a matter of minutes.
The grandfather of open source shopping carts and still among the most popular is osCommerce. In operation for more than eight years, it now claims 176,100 store owners and offers 4,700 free add-ons. osCommerce is compatible with all PHP 4 versions and features automatic browser-based installation and an object oriented backend.
Another popular choice is ZenCart, which was initially based on osCommerce code but has developed dramatically and is a fully independent product. Known for its long list of added features, ZenCart is PHP-based and uses a MySQL database and HTML components. Its frequently praised gift certificate module allows merchants to create, distribute and manage digital coupons.
An alternative to these two somewhat similar options is Ubercart, a shopping cart product built on top of the leading open source content management system (CMS), Drupal. Designed to take advantage of Drupal’s core and other contributed systems, Ubercart gets high marks for its flexibility and intuitive layout.
These are just a few of the open source shopping carts available today. All three are free under the GNU General Public License.
Which of these (or other) open source products would be best for a particular merchant’s online store? That depends on individual business needs. Factors like design flexibility, search engine friendliness, reporting and back-end functionality are important to weigh when choosing between products. Most product sites include demos and lists of live sites running the software, which can also help differentiate between competitors.
Uncomfortable with the technical requirements of setting up a shopping cart application? It’s possible that open source solutions are not for you. Proprietary programs cost money, but generally offer configuration, design and support services that can take the headache out of launching a store for the less technically inclined. For others – especially smaller merchants with limited startup budgets – open source solutions can provide precious cost savings at a crucial stage of store development.