What is a Shopping Cart?
First, let me define a shopping cart or ecommerce website. In the most basic terms, a shopping cart is software that allows you to list your products on a web site and then automatically collect fees when a customer buys products from your website.
For example, lets say that you sell vitamins from your home, and now you want to start selling them on your website. First, you need shopping ecommerce software. You will also need to have a business bank account and a payment gateway, a service that allows you to automatically process credit cards on your web site.
Once you have the cart software set up on your website, you can add your vitamin products to the website using a web browser. The software allows you to add product images, descriptions, prices, shipping and tax rates, and so on. Once your cart is populated with all of your products, you can start selling them on the web.
Here’s how it works: A customer comes to your web site and adds products to her shopping cart. When she is ready to buy the products, she enters her shipping and credit card information in a form so you know where to ship the product and whom to charge it to. When the customer clicks the button to submit the order, the shopping cart uses your payment gateway (credit-card-processing service) to validate the credit card and then transfer the money from the customer’s credit card to your bank account. Then it’s up to you to ship the product.
You can also use a shopping cart to sell digital, or downloadable products such as electronic books, music, and software.
How Much Do Shopping Carts Cost?
As you might expect, shopping carts come in a wide range of prices, from free to thousands of dollars. Does that mean that the more you spend, the better cart you get? Not necessarily.
There are several free shopping carts that are very powerful and full of features; for example, OSCommerce and ZenCart. Both of these carts are completely free and offer most of the features you would expect in a modern shopping cart: unlimited products, connections to the major payment gateways, credit card payments, real-time shipping prices, discount customer groups, multi language, and more.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to free: free products lack good documentation and support. For example, there is no official support group that you can call when you need help. And there is no official user’s guide to explain how to use the software. You usually have to search through user forums to find answers to your questions.
Free shopping carts are probably not be the best choice if you are new to ecommerce and are trying to do everything yourself.
Fortunately, there are many commercial carts in the range of $100-500 that offer lots of features. The carts in this range usually have some kind of support system to help you with problems, and they usually have documentation to explain how to use their software. X-Cart and Ecommerce Templates are two carts between $150 – $200, and both are very powerful and relatively easy to use.
Should I Buy or Lease a Shopping Cart?
There are two basic models for online shopping carts:
- Pay a one time fee for the software and install it on your web server: This can be a daunting task unless you are comfortable working with Linux web servers and configuring web-based software. The good thing about this model is that you don’t have to pay monthly fees, and the software is usually much more customizable than leased shopping carts. If you have the skills to install the software on your server, or if you hire a website designer to install and configure your shopping cart, this method is more economical than leasing.
- Pay a monthly or yearly fee to lease the software: This model is easy to implement because you don’t need to install, configure, or maintain any software. If you are going to do it yourself and have little web experience, this is the easiest way to get started. The downside is that leased software is often hard to customize and many ecommerce sites need some customization. Furthermore, it can be very expensive when you add in the cost of leasing over many years.
What Shopping Cart Features Should I Look For?
Most shopping carts come with standard features like unlimited categories and products, web-based administration, easy-to-use product creation screens, and tax and shipping calculation. Unfortunately, not all carts include all the functions YOUR business will need to operate an online store.