Getting started in the world of e-commerce can be daunting; after all there are many different things that you need to consider.
One of the most important factors to getting your business off the ground and successful is the shopping cart.
Shopping carts help you by enabling your customers to buy your stuff easily online. Recently there has been a boom in the number and types of shopping carts available to business owners, making choosing the right one a dizzying experience.
The first thing you will need to do is to figure out what features are absolutely necessary for your business to run, both now and in the future.
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The reason for the long term approach is simple; if your cart can’t grow with you, you will have to go through the pain, time and expense of swapping carts.
Important Shopping Cart Features
Every business is different so not every feature is needed by everyone, but the following features are all important enough to warrant consideration.
By themselves, carts can’t actually process payments unless there is a payment processor attached to them. Some simpler carts are just an extension of the payment processor, such as PayPal buttons. More complex carts allow you to choose which payment processor you want to work with.
Make sure that the cart you choose supports your payment processor, and if possible choose one of the more popular processors such as PayPal, Stripe, and Authorize.net. This will give you a wider range of carts to choose from and reduce the likelihood of support being dropped for the gateway by the cart developers.
Easy to Add Products
Most shopping carts have a system where you add products into the software allowing visitors to brows and purchase them.
Testing out carts to make sure this process is easy is paramount, especially if you have a large amount of products or swap them regularly.
Having the ability to easily import (and export) large numbers of products will save you a large amount of time.
The web is a visual place and nowhere more so than on ecommerce websites. The customers want the ability to see the product images in detail, to make sure they know what they are buying, so any cart system that supports products, also needs to support large product images.
Most of this is down to whatever cart template you use, but it warrants review.
If the cart has additional features, such as a zoom function on the images or video embed, all the better.
Love it or hate it, the web is a social place and ecommerce is quickly coming around to the idea of “social proof”. The basics of this are that people are more willing to buy something if other people have said it’s a great purchase.
As such one great feature of a shopping cart is to allow for user reviews and testimonials.
If your store has a lot of products, a cart that creates its own easy to use navigation system is a boon.
Easy to Use Checkout
The core of any ecommerce shopping cart is the checkout. Ideally this must be a single page system that has everything the customer needs to know in an easy to read fashion – shipping costs, discount area, etc.
My rule of thumb for checkouts is that if your Gran can use it, it’s a good checkout.
Search hundreds of products for a particular item is no fun, so a solid shopping cart system should have its own functional search system built in.
Coupons & Discounts
While offering discounts has its own pros and cons, a shopping cart should have the ability to allow this.
Selling related items can increase profits, so unless you’re only selling a few items, this is a definite feature you want.
Regardless of the type of cart you end up using, having a mobile device friendly layout is imperative, especially as more and more people are using their handheld devices to buy things online.
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This feature might not be necessary for everyone and certainly not at the start, but being able to allow affiliates to promote your products is a great way to improve sales. Bolting on a feature like this further down the line is difficult so if it’s something you’re considering, make sure your cart supports it.
Regardless of your tech know how, everyone will need support at some point, some more than others. Having great customer support from the team behind the cart can make potential issues and problems easier to handle.
Consider these two URLs:
The second one is not only more readable by potential customers, but also by search engines. As well as helping with SEO, if a link is shared people are more likely to click the one that makes sense rather than the illegible one. Sure Amazon can get away with terrible URLs, but you are not Amazon!
If your cart doesn’t support human readable URLs find another cart!
If you ship internationally, or even just across the contiguous US, being able to tell people the shipping costs upfront can help reduce cart abandonments. Not all carts support this so choose wisely.
Do you want to be able to share your products with the world at large? If so, having a social network system in the cart will help with this.
The same goes for mailing list integration – being able to sign people up to your newsletter as they finalise a cart purchase is invaluable.
Bandwidth & Storage
If you’re looking at a hosted cart, an important feature to consider is the amount of bandwidth and disk space you will get.
Uploading hundreds of products all with high resolution images and videos will quickly fill up space, and all it takes is a spike in traffic to reduce your bandwidth to nothing.
While most will automatically upgrade you if you hit the limits, the costs can increase drastically as a result.
Ideally, any hosted solution you choose should have very generous bandwidth & disk allocations or unlimited options.
Types of Carts
Perusing the above features will give you a good idea of what to look for in an online shopping cart, but that’s not the end of the decisions.
You will also need to decide on what type of cart you want to use:
- WordPress (Self-Hosted)
Each of these types of carts has their own pros and cons.
Most payment processors such as PayPal offer the ability to add buttons to your existing website that can allow people to buy products.
These are the most simplest of cart options, as they have virtually no features, everything else that you might want you will have to obtain yourself, either through coding or third party software.
This type of system is ideal for those who have a very small selection of products and don’t need advanced features, such as an author selling a digital e-book.
Payment gateways such as the following allow for buttons and basic checkouts:
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- PayPal buttons
- Stripe Checkout
- Google Checkout
A self-hosted cart is where you download the cart system and install it and set it up on your own web hosting. You will then integrate the cart with your site.
Self-hosted systems are ideal for those who have some technical knowhow and who want to control every aspect of their cart, as well as possibly add custom elements.
These types of systems can be free and open source, cost a one off fee or a monthly fee.
The benefits of self-hosted carts are:
- Usage of third party integrations
- No restrictions on bandwidth/space
- Often cheaper
- Having to setup and integrate the system
- Needing more technical knowledge
- Can be complex
- You need to resolve security
- Can have limited support
Some example self-hosted carts are:
- Zen Cart
If you’re a WordPress user, you may already know and understand the pros and cons of self-hosted systems. Rather than look to integrate a separate piece of software, you may want to find the best WordPress ecommerce plugins instead.
- Easy Digital Downloads
- WP eCommerce
By far the most popular and customizable of these is Woocommerce, which has hundreds of third party extensions, a wide community and a decent support system.
Easy Digital Downloads is also one to look at if you’re focusing more on digital products.
Hosted systems are carts that are not on your web hosting at all, instead the cart functionality is all held on the cart’s website.
This has several advantages:
- No technological knowhow needed
- Higher level of support
- Not complex to use
- They handle security
However it’s not all fun and games, as hosted solutions do have some cons:
- Limited by the cart suppliers terms
- Not customizable
- Can be costly both in monthly and transactional fees
If you want to take the headache out of setting up a store, and don’t mind the potential extra cost then hosted carts are a great solution. This is especially so if you don’t want to handle any of the technical side of things.
Some of the best hosted carts are:
If none of the carts out there offer you the features and flexibility that you need, then one option is to get a custom cart.
However, this is not an option to take lightly as it will cost thousands of dollars to get a working system in place, have ongoing development/security costs and generally is a headache all round.
This sort of option is really only viable for those who have deep pockets, a decent team around them, and the business that needs and warrants a custom solution.
For most small to medium sized businesses, a custom solution is overkill.
Finally, if you sell a small number of items or just want to avoid the hassle of setting up your own store, then you could always take advantage of existing marketplaces.
By selling your products on Amazon marketplace, Etsy, eBay and other online marketplaces you completely cut out the need for a cart system at all as the sites will handle that for you.
You may still need a website to drive traffic, but that’s it.
While this method allows you to wash your hands of most of the cart issues, it does have downsides:
- Can be costly in terms of fees per sale
- Still may need to handle shipping
- You’re bound by the marketplaces terms
- You limit your control over the sales process
There may even be more issues depending on the marketplace. For example if you sold a digital product on some of Envato’s marketplaces, you can’t even set your own price!
The Bottom Line
Choosing a cart for your ecommerce site is no easy task and you should weigh up all the pros and cons before you jump in.
It’s important to make sure that you know that the chosen cart will support you and your business for years to come, so that you can focus on making money rather than having to swap carts or have it customized.
At the end of the day, which cart you choose is dependent upon your own needs and wants, but hopefully this article has helped clarify how you should choose the best ecommerce cart for your needs.