Step 3: Select An Open Source Shopping Cart
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 mini course, 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.
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.
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 these criteria that I can wholeheartedly recommend the following carts OSCMax, OpenCart and Magento.
OSCMax 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 and you’ll probably need a tiny bit of php knowledge to do this. Personally though, I think that the OSCMax base install is very feature rich already.
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.
If 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 quite a while, 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 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.
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.
Big Commerce 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 Big Commerce 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.
Click here to watch a full video tutorial on how to launch an online store using a fully hosted solution like BigCommerce.
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? BigCommerce or Volusion 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 Big Commerce 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 BigCommerce or Volusion. 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
Wide array of payment processors
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.
Coming Up Next
How to process credit cards online