An online shopping cart, or e-commerce shopping cart, is the software that allows customers to shop on a website. Online shopping cart systems typically include a full range of e-commerce capabilities, including store building, payment processing and customer management tools.
Unlike a physical shopping cart, an e-commerce shopping cart can involve a variety of components and can function differently depending on the system you use. Here are our top picks.
Some online shopping cart solutions are hosted, while others are licensed. The difference between these two options is the way they’re implemented and managed.
Hosted online shopping cart
A hosted online shopping cart is hosted by a third-party provider, which is responsible for the system backups, maintenance, upgrades and security of your software. With a hosted online shopping cart, you do not have to pay for your own web hosting or download and install the shopping cart software yourself.
Hosted online shopping carts can come in many forms, including full-service SaaS platforms and add-ons. A full-service SaaS platform is a hosted online shopping cart system that provides all of the tools you need to create and manage an online store in one place. These types of online shopping cart systems include everything from web building to payment processing to customer management. The particular functionality of a hosted all-inclusive online shopping cart software varies from provider to provider; however, these systems are generally offered on a subscription basis, with a specific monthly cost. Moreover, these online shopping cart systems are some of the easiest to use and most affordable, making them extremely popular in the e-commerce industry, especially with beginners.
Add-ons, on the other hand, are hosted online shopping cart solutions that integrate with an existing website. The add-on itself is developed and provided by a third party and then the merchant uses this connection to create e-commerce shopping cart functionality on its own website. Some of these add-ons are simple, only giving customers the ability to add items to their cart and processing online payments, whereas others are more complex, including additional inventory and product capabilities.
Licensed online shopping cart
Unlike a hosted online shopping cart, a licensed online shopping cart requires you to host the software yourself. This means that you have to acquire, download and install your online shopping cart software onto a web server, which also means you’re responsible for your own maintenance, updates and security. In comparison to hosted online shopping cart systems, licensed systems offer greater flexibility and customization capabilities; however, they also mean utilizing a developer or someone with the technical knowledge and skills to do so.
Like hosted carts, licensed e-commerce shopping carts can also come in a variety of different forms. There are licensed online shopping carts that serve as an all-in-one e-commerce solution, as well as those that simply integrate to add shopping cart functionality to an existing website.
Furthermore, licensed online shopping cart systems can be open-source, meaning they’re free to download and can be completely edited and modified as you see fit. Conversely, you can have paid licensed online shopping carts, where you pay a one-time or recurring fee for access to a company’s software. In this case, you would have similar flexibility to a free open-source platform, but you might receive additional benefits like updates and assistance directly from the company.
Let’s discuss what you should consider when finding the software that’s right for you.
Price is probably one of your top considerations in any and all business decisions you make — and this is no exception. The price for an online shopping cart system depends on a variety of factors. To start, you’ll probably pay a monthly fee for hosted online shopping cart software, as well as payment processing. Monthly fees for hosted online shopping carts can range from $10 per month to upwards of $200 per month. The more expensive platforms typically offer more capabilities. And while hosted add-ons are probably going to be less expensive on their own, you also have to consider the separate cost of your website and payment processing fees.
For licensed online shopping carts, you have the choice between free open-source solutions and their paid counterparts. A free open-source shopping cart may seem appealing; however, these online shopping cart systems can end up being more expensive than the hosted options. Although it is free to download the software, you’ll be responsible for paying for and setting up your own web hosting, as well as maintenance and any development. Because these platforms typically require you to work with a developer, costs can quickly rise, especially if you want significant customization.
Another important factor to think about when you’re looking into online shopping cart software is functionality. While most e-commerce shopping carts serve the same basic purpose, you’ll need to think more specifically about your particular needs. Do you need an all-inclusive software that allows you to build and manage your online store? Or, do you already have a business website and just want to add an online shopping cart feature?
Similarly, you’ll want to think about the extent of functionality you require. Do you need advanced SEO, reporting tools or email marketing capabilities? What kind of payment options do you want to offer your customers — and can this solution accommodate the processing you desire? Additionally, you’ll want to decide if you want a hosted or licensed solution. If you’re considering licensed online shopping cart systems, you’ll want to ask yourself if you have the developer resources to make the best use of them.
Moreover, you’ll want to not only consider ease of use. Depending on your experience level, you may want a simple, clean-cut software that’s known for its usability. On the other hand, if you have a technical background, you might be okay with the complexities of an open-source option.
If you’re going to be operating an e-commerce store, another important consideration to make is customization. Think about how you want your online store and shopping cart to look, what components you’ll need and if the software you choose is flexible and easily adjusted. Can you edit layouts, fonts, colors and design? In addition, you’ll want to see what kind of integration options the system offers; can you connect it with your other business apps and tools?
Once you’ve considered these factors and narrowed down your online shopping cart options, you might consider what kind of security the software offers, what kind of mobile access it has and if it caters toward your unique business or industry.
Perhaps one of the most well-known online shopping cart systems, Shopify offers four different service plans, ranging in price from $9 to $299 per month. Shopify allows you to create and customize your online store with its drag-and-drop builder, list and sell your products and, of course, gives customers the ability to browse and place orders. Shopify offers its own in-house payment processing, as well as a robust app store of over 1,200 integration possibilities.
Overall, Shopify is known for its approachable platform, easy customization and general usability for beginners to advanced web users alike. This being said, selling on Shopify is a great option for businesses of all sizes, across all industries. For smaller businesses just starting out, the Basic Shopify plan ($29 per month) will probably fulfill most of your needs. Larger or quickly-growing businesses may consider going with one of the higher-level Shopify plans.
Like Shopify, 3dcart offers four different online shopping cart plan offerings — each of which gives you the ability to set up and manage your online store. Plus, 3dcart has over 200 built-in features, according to its website. The 3dcart plans range in price from $19 to $229 per month.
There are a few features that set 3dcart apart from Shopify as an online shopping cart solution. First, 3dcart offers more payment processing options, allowing you to integrate with over 100 different processors without charging transaction fees. Additionally, 3dcart includes a personalized domain with all of its plans, as well as offers multiple built-in shopping cart checkout options. However, while Shopify’s site builder is mainly drag-and-drop based, 3dcart requires you to edit your online store with HTML or CSS.
3dcart is a great Shopify alternative to consider and generally a worthy online shopping cart system for small businesses. If you’re looking for more customization and built-in features, can edit in HTML or CSS and would prefer less of a reliance on add-ons, 3dcart might be the right solution for you. For businesses looking for affordability, 3dcart’s $19 plan is one of the cheapest plans you’ll find, with the most functionality.
Both 3dcart and Shopify can serve as hosted online shopping cart add-ons — giving you the ability to add shopping cart functionality to your existing website.
Unlike 3dcart and Shopify, Weebly is first and foremost a website builder. With Weebly, you can build your business website, choosing one of its themes and customizing it using a drag-and-drop builder. Weebly provides web hosting, SSL security and website management from its mobile app. You can also add photos and videos and integrate with third-party tools. If you choose to do so, you can operate your Weebly website with one of its completely free accounts.
If you want to bring e-commerce shopping cart functionality to your Weebly website, you can choose one of its paid plans which range from $12 to $38 per month. With these plans, you’ll receive online shopping cart capabilities, as well as the ability to accept payments. In this way, Weebly is similar to competitor website builders, particularly Wix and Squarespace. Weebly, however, offers the cheapest e-commerce plan out of the three and is probably the most appealing for smaller businesses, especially those just starting out in e-commerce.
Although you can sell digital products with all of these e-commerce solutions, you might also consider a more specialized platform like Selz or Sellfy, if your business will be more focused on digital goods.
Of all the free, open-source online shopping cart systems, OpenCart is perhaps one of the most user-friendly for those with limited technical knowledge. To use OpenCart as a licensed solution, you must download it and install it on your server. Although you can find your own web hosting, OpenCart also gives you the opportunity to work with its hosting partner to host your online store.
Overall, OpenCart offers significant out-of-the-box functionality, including unlimited products; customer-, product- and order-management tools and built-in SEO. Additionally, OpenCart gives you the ability to connect to over 13,000 modules (including credit card processors) and themes to customize and grow your store. If you’re interested in the flexibility that an open-source shopping cart solution can offer, OpenCart will probably be one of your best options. Although you probably will need some developer assistance to work with and use OpenCart to the fullest extent, it seems to be one of the most user-friendly and accessible options, even when compared to more popular open-source online shopping carts, like Magento.
Similarly to OpenCart, PrestaShop is an open-source licensed online shopping cart that you can download and install to create your e-commerce store. PrestaShop gives you the option to find your own web hosting or work with its hosting partner. Additionally, PrestaShop includes over 600 built-in features with its software, all of which can be customized to accommodate your specific business using the open-source code.
Despite the number of included features and open-source nature of this platform, PrestaShop is pretty highly reviewed and known for being user-friendly, with a clean and intuitive dashboard. Plus, since it’s based in Europe, PrestaShop equips businesses with the ability to sell internationally — allowing you to present your store in multiple languages and currencies, as well as adjust your checkout for international taxes and shipping.
If you want a flexible, yet robust e-commerce shopping cart solution, PrestaShop might be worth considering. Keep in mind that PrestaShop is an open-source solution, which means you’ll probably need a developer to make the most out of this software.
Although WooCommerce is a licensed online shopping cart, it’s different from software like OpenCart and PrestaShop in that it’s a plug-in. WooCommerce is used to add shopping cart functionality to an existing website, more specifically, an existing WordPress website. The WooCommerce plug-in is free to download and is also open-source, meaning you can edit and customize it to your specific needs.
When you add WooCommerce to a WordPress site, you receive shopping cart functionality — including the ability to list products, customize checkouts, accept payments and manage orders. Even though WooCommerce is a shopping cart plug-in, it also gives you many of the advanced capabilities of a full-service e-commerce solution. With WooCommerce, you can create discounts and coupons, track your stock levels, customize email templates to use for customer notifications and view reporting analytics. You also have the ability to add to your WooCommerce functionality with any of its 400+ extensions.
As one of the most-used online shopping cart solutions out there, WooCommerce is a great option for businesses looking to get started selling online. Although WooCommerce is open-source, it can more easily be used without developer assistance compared to other solutions.
Remember that in order to use WooCommerce you have to have a WordPress website — which means that you’ll need to set up the hosting, security and overall design of that site before implementing this plug-in. If your business already uses WordPress, WooCommerce is a fairly simple and cost-effective way to try your hand at e-commerce.
A version of this article was first published on Fundera, a subsidiary of NerdWallet.