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Shopping carts &  ecommerce software solutions guide

Choosing the best shopping cart solution for your launch into ecommerce is critical to the success of your online business. If you're wanting to learn more about this sometimes confusing world, this guide will explain the points you should consider before purchasing a cart.

If you're currently in the market for software or services and would like our recommendations, read our shopping cart software and services review.

Shopping cart software reviews

Shopping cart software reviews

Do you already know what you need from a cart? Which application should you buy? Read our reviews of some the best shopping cart software around!

What is a shopping cart? 

In a basic definition, it's a series of scripts that keep track of items a visitor picks to buy from your site until they proceed to the "checkout". 

A popular misconception is that shopping carts handle the whole financial transaction, but they only really act as a front end which passes information via a secure connection (another service) to a payment gateway - a separate service altogether. 

The payment gateway service then channels the requests and transfers throughout relevant financial networks, including the Internet merchant account with your bank. It then sends back confirmation or denial back to the shopping cart software. For further information on the "back-end" aspects of ecommerce; read our guide to payment gateways and merchant accounts.

The good news is that there are literally hundreds of shopping cart packages available. The bad news is the same as the good. Sometimes, too many choices make it very difficult to make a decision - especially when all companies claim to have the superior product. After having worked with or examined over a hundred different shopping cart applications over the years, I hope this article may make your life just a little bit easier!

Free or premium shopping carts?

It's very important before you begin reviewing software and services to be to be very specific in what you actually want the cart to be able to do. It may be that you really don't require all the bells and buzzers offered by high end packages - if this is the case, then a good package will cost around the $US250 - $300 mark; with some excellent, and in my opinion, crucial features included at the high end of that range. Some companies offer free shopping carts, but bear in mind that nothing in this world is truly free - read the fine print. 

Be careful not to limit yourself either - you may only want limited features initially, but what about in the future? Give yourself room to grow as having to change software mid-stream to a totally different package can be a real time-sucker.

Free ecommerce solutions

One of the best free ecommerce solutions around is Paypal, which integrates basic shopping cart functions with a payment gateway and merchant account - funds are paid to you via check or through direct deposit. Paypal is an excellent way to begin in ecommerce and is very widely accepted around the world. 

You only pay a small percentage of each sale and there are no monthly fees or setup costs, plus you receive free fraud protection - no chargeback fees to worry about. Paypal also offers web developers a wide variety of easy to use tools to assist with rapid implementation.

What other features do shopping carts have?

Shopping cart software has come a long way in recent years, and many packages are so advanced that they are in effect entire store fronts and can actually be your entire web site. Some integrated elements of benefit to your online business you may wish to consider include:

Suggest sell/cross selling functions

Just as in the physical world, impulse buying via the Internet is quite common. Some shopping carts will suggest another product to complement a customers current selection. If offered at a discount rate, this strategy proves quite successful.

Quantity discounts/coupons

Many shopping carts now allow for the calculation of discount rates based on the number of units a customer wishes to purchase. Coupon functions allow you to issue special offers as part of your marketing campaigns. Usually, prospective clients are given special codes that are matched against a particular item or overall discount rate. I strongly recommend using a shopping cart that supports coupons; it's such a powerful sales strategy.

Autoresponder and newsletter functions

If you follow up all your clients with regular email offers, you may want to consider shopping cart software that has integrated autoresponder and newsletter capabilities - this will streamline your operations and can be used for maintaining other contact lists as well. Why buy two pieces of software when you can get them rolled into one?

Affiliate modules 

One of the most effective, low cost ways to advertise your product is through an affiliate program. Your outlay is minimal if you only pay on performance; i.e. sales generated. An affiliate module can handle the signup process, provide statistics, streamline communications and keep track of payments to be made to affiliates.

Other features commonly incorporated into carts include inventory tracking, sales tax calculation, stationery creation/management, reviews and wish lists.

There's a number of questions you'll want to ask yourself when compiling a shopping cart wish list:

What kind of shopping cart does my hosting service support?

Shopping cart scripts are written in many different coding formats - PERL, PHP, ASP just to name a few. Be sure to check with your host before purchasing a program. If you opt for a remotely hosted service (explained in more detail below), then it won't matter what programming language the cart software is written in.

What is my budget?

It's easy to blow your budget on a turbo-charged shopping cart only to find that there were a number of other critical items you didn't factor in - like a payment gateway, or the fact that the cart software may be so complex that you need to hire somebody else to assist in implementation!

What kind of delivery mechanisms will I require?

If you are selling hard goods that need shipping, choice of cart is a little easier as this is a standard function. Many carts also offer customers the ability to calculate different shipping options and to get live quotes back from shipping companies. 

If you are trading in soft goods such as software and want to make delivery available online immediately, you'll need to carefully compare carts. 

As an example, some shopping carts that are capable of delivering goods online redirect customers to a static download page after a successful transaction. This isn't a good idea as the customer (and his/her friends) are able to return to the page to download again and again. A better equipped shopping cart will only provide customers with a temporary URL, that will be unique to that customer and may only be available for a few hours after purchase before it is deleted. 

Another strategy employed by some carts for soft goods online delivery is to use a static URL for downloading, but scripting is implemented to ensure the visitor to the page has come via the shopping cart after a successful transaction has occurred.

Yet another soft goods delivery means used by carts is that the software is attached to an email sent to the customer after a successful transaction. This may be suitable for very small files, but I don't think many ISP's would appreciate you sending 20 megabyte attachments to a customers inbox - in fact, it would not be possible in many instances.

Where will my business be in 6 months time?

Does the package allow for scalability? While you may not require bells and buzzers now, as your business grows you may find that your needs change. The better shopping carts are in a modular format which allow for scalability with minimum downtime. Be sure to check the prices of modules you may need in the future. It isn't uncommon for companies is to offer the base model for next to nothing and then to charge like wounded bulls for any upgrades.

Is the cart software compatible with my payment gateway?

There are dozens of different payment gateways which plug into various shopping cart packages - but perhaps not yours! Before purchasing your cart, also review gateway services supported by the software (and also make sure that the payment gateway is compatible with the Internet merchant account you have with your bank). It can be a bit of a challenge getting the cart you want to talk to the gateway service you want and also to your bank! Read our guide to payment gateways and merchant accounts.

What kind of payments are supported by the cart?

Credit card transactions are now a normal part of our online world. If your shopping cart software does not support credit card transactions or if you have not enabled credit card processing, you're in trouble - you may as well just close up shop! 

There are still some customers who will refuse to use a credit card over the Internet, so you will need to be able to offer other forms of payment - e.g. money orders, echecks etc.

What about disaster planning?

A good shopping cart application will have excellent support for backing up files and allowing for export into a variety of formats. Flexible exporting functions will also be of value in the future should you need to change carts and wish to import existing data into a new application.

What level of support will I need and receive?

All shopping cart providers will tell you that their software is simple to install and configure. Few will be actually correct in making that statement. If you don't have the technical expertise to configure your shopping cart, get quotes from the company or a third party contractor to undertake this work for you.

Test out the support system by sending a query to the sales department - if they don't respond quickly this is usually a good indicator that after sales support will be even worse! 

Also, read the fine print before parting with your hard earned cash - you may find that technical support will be charged out per incident.

Some shopping cart software companies also offer user forums as part of their service. This is an excellent bonus. If you are having problems with setting up your scripts, no doubt someone else has experienced the same issues and may be willing to help you out.

Be sure to review the company's "bug" policy; i.e. if a error in the software is fixed and an updated version is released, will you be entitled to recieve that upgrade or patch at no cost. 

While I am all for supporting the solo programmers, a shopping cart is so crucial that it may not be wise to purchase a product from a one-man operation as customer support may not be efficient.

Shopping cart software reviews

Shopping cart software reviews

Do you already know what you need from a cart? Which application should you buy? Read our reviews of some the best shopping cart software around!

Remotely or locally hosted shopping cart?

Some shopping cart programs can be purchased as stand alone programs or as pay per month services hosted on another companies' server. Remotely hosted options usually allow for extensive customization of pages to fit in with your sites look and feel. 

Remote hosting advantages 

Fast implementation, secure connection supplied, monitoring of service and usually many other features are offered as part of the service. Because the cart is actually hosted on another server, you can also save on bandwidth charges - especially if your products are soft goods and delivered online.

Some remotely hosted shopping carts are in effect total marketing solutions, containing options to run affiliate programs and the ability to send sequential pre-defined messages to clients and leads. Some of these services are excellent for people 'testing the water' as they also include gateway services and even an Internet merchant account! 

If you are looking for features without needing to spending thousands of dollars up front, remotely hosted may be the way to go. Plan on spending at least US$60 per month for these kinds of services. Compare prices carefully - I have seen one company charge US$200 a month for the same service provided by another for $US59 per month. Remember, this added recurring expense will need to be taken into account when establishing a price level for your products and services.

Remote hosting disadvantages 

What happens if the company goes belly up overnight? Remote hosting also tends to give you less control over how cart pages display. If you are going to use a remotely hosted service, check the company history carefully. Some operators have also been known to 'harvest' your client databases for spamming purposes.

View some reviews of remotely hosted shopping carts.

Local hosting advantages
Total control over the software, no ongoing fees.

Local hosting disadvantages

Time spent in installation, configuration and maintenance, greater initial outlay, requires SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to be enabled on your site which usually incurs an extra charge per month.

View some reviews of locally hosted shopping carts

As you can see, there is a lot to consider before purchasing shopping cart software or services. It is very important to remember that the shopping cart is only one part of your ecommerce arsenal. Without an effective payment gateway and Internet merchant account (sometimes these are combined), the cart is useless.

Don't rush your decision to purchase based on marketing hype - the future of your business is at stake!

If you would like to view some of our ecommerce/shopping cart solutions recommendations based on many hours of research, check out our shopping cart software and services review.

Further learning resources

Merchant accounts, payment gateways and third party credit card processors 

Basic ecommerce site development and design - Part 1 

Basic ecommerce site development and design - Part 2 

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources

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