What Is an Online Shopping Cart?
An online shopping cart, or ecommerce shopping cart, is the software that allows customers to shop on a website. Online shopping cart systems also typically include a full range of ecommerce capabilities—from store building to payment processing to product-, order-, and customer-management tools. Popular online shopping cart systems are Shopify, 3dcart, Weebly, OpenCart, PrestaShop, and WooCommerce.
If you’re preparing to start an ecommerce business, the term “online shopping cart” has probably appeared frequently in your research. An online shopping cart, as the phrase suggests, facilitates a customer’s browsing and purchasing experience—making it an essential component of any ecommerce store.
However, unlike a physical shopping cart, an ecommerce shopping cart can involve a variety of components—and despite serving an overall purpose—can function differently depending on the online shopping cart system you use. As a prospective ecommerce business owner, you’ll need to know how online shopping carts work, plus the best options for your online store. In this guide, we’ll answer the question: “What is an online shopping cart?” and explain the different types of online shopping cart systems, as well as explore the best ecommerce shopping cart solutions for small businesses.
What Is an Online Shopping Cart?
Simply put, an online shopping cart is the software that allows customers to shop on a website. More specifically, an online shopping cart services multiple parts of the shopping experience—allowing customers to add products to their cart, directing them to checkout, and asking them to provide the information necessary to complete their purchase. The online shopping cart software then processes the purchase and transmits the appropriate information to the merchant so that the order can be fulfilled.
Although an online shopping cart is a specific piece of software operating on an ecommerce site, online shopping cart functionality is typically included as part of a full-service ecommerce platform—therefore, the terms “online shopping cart” and “ecommerce shopping cart” are often used more broadly to refer to any solution that allows you to build an online store where you list and sell products.
In this case, an ecommerce platform, also known as an online shopping cart system, would incorporate capabilities and tools outside of the actual cart process, such as store building, product management, order fulfillment, dashboard administration and reporting, marketing, integrations, and more.
Types of Online Shopping Cart Systems
Although all online shopping carts serve the purpose of managing a customer’s browsing and purchasing experience, there are two unique types of ecommerce shopping carts—differentiated by the way they’re implemented and managed.
Hosted Online Shopping Cart
A hosted online shopping cart, as the name suggests, 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, like Volusion, for example, 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 ecommerce 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 ecommerce shopping cart functionality on their 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. One example of this type of hosted ecommerce shopping cart is 2Checkout—whose service gives you the ability to add their online shopping cart to your existing website.
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, this also means utilizing a developer or someone with the technical knowledge and skills to be able to do so.
Like hosted carts, licensed ecommerce shopping carts can also come in a variety of different forms. There are licensed online shopping carts that serve as an all-in-one ecommerce solution, like Drupal Commerce, as well as those that simply integrate to add shopping cart functionality to an existing website, like WooCommerce.
Furthermore, you can have licensed online shopping cart systems that are open source, like OpenCart, 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, like X-Cart, 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.
What to Look for in an Ecommerce Shopping Cart
Now that we’ve explained the basics of online shopping cart systems and the different types that are available on the market, let’s discuss what you should consider when finding the software that’s right for your business.
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 extremely appealing; however, these online shopping cart systems often 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. What do you need your software to do? While most ecommerce 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—what other features might you need? 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 what the different online shopping cart systems can offer you, but also how easy they are to 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 ecommerce store, another important consideration to make is customization. How can the online shopping cart system be customized and can it be customized to meet your business needs? You’ll want to think about how you want your online store and shopping cart to look, what components you’ll need for each, 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’ll want to get even more specific with the questions you ask about any particular platform. For example, 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.
A great method for answering these questions is to visit the website of the particular ecommerce shopping cart software and look at their listed features and pricing information. If it’s a hosted software, you might have the option of a free trial. On the other hand, if you’re considering a free licensed online shopping cart, you might download it and see what the software looks like for yourself. Plus, you can research and read customer reviews to see how past and present users feel about their experience with that specific online shopping cart.
Best Online Shopping Cart Systems for Small Businesses
Taking into consideration everything we’ve explored about online shopping cart software and what to think about when choosing one, let’s dive deeper and discuss a few of the top ecommerce shopping cart solutions. Based on our research, these are some of the best online shopping cart systems—including both hosted and licensed—for small businesses:
Best Hosted Online Shopping Carts
To begin, Shopify and 3dcart are both popular, highly reviewed all-inclusive ecommerce platforms known for their usability and robust feature sets. These software options can service a wide variety of business owners and are easily scalable. For smaller business owners, Weebly might be a more suitable online shopping cart system—as it’s first and foremost a website builder—but offers online selling capabilities, as well.
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. On the whole, Shopify allows you to create and customize your online store with their drag-and-drop builder, list and sell your products, and of course, gives customers the ability to browse and place orders. Shopify offers their own in-house payment processing, as well as a robust app store of over 1,200 integration possibilities.
Overall, Shopify is known for their 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. For larger or quickly growing businesses, on the other hand, you may consider going with one of the higher-level Shopify plans.
In many ways, 3dcart is extremely similar to Shopify. 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 their website. The 3dcart plans range in price from $19 to $229 per month.
There are a few features, however, 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 their 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.
This being said, 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. Moreover, for businesses looking for affordability, 3dcart’s $19 plan is going to be one of the cheapest plans you’ll find, with the most functionality.
It’s also worth noting that 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 their themes and customizing it using a drag-and-drop builder. Weebly provides web hosting, SSL security, and allows you to manage your website from their mobile app. You can also add photos, videos, and integrate with third-party tools. If you choose to do so, you can operate your Weebly website with one of their completely free accounts.
If you want to bring ecommerce shopping cart functionality to your Weebly website, you can choose one of their paid plans which range from $12 to $38 per month. With these plans, you’ll receive online shopping cart capabilities, as well as be able to accept payments. In this way, Weebly is similar to competitor website builders, particularly Wix and Squarespace. Weebly, however, offers the cheapest ecommerce plan out of the three, and is probably the most appealing for smaller businesses, especially those just starting out in ecommerce.
Finally, we should mention that although you can sell digital products with all of these ecommerce solutions, you might also consider a more specialized platform like Selz or Sellfy, if your business will be more focused on digital goods.
Best Licensed Online Shopping Carts
OpenCart and PrestaShop are both free, open source solutions that allow you to operate the whole of your ecommerce operations—but are still relatively approachable for small business owners. WooCommerce is a licensed plug-in that gives you the ability to add an online shopping cart to your WordPress site—in fact, it’s one of the most popular ecommerce solutions around the world.
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 to your server. Although you can find your own web hosting, OpenCart also gives you the opportunity to work with their 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. This being said, 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 ecommerce store. Also like OpenCart, PrestaShop gives you the option to find your own web hosting or work with their hosting partner. Additionally, PrestaShop includes over 600 built-in features with their 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 they’re 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.
Therefore, if you want a flexible, yet robust ecommerce shopping cart solution, PrestaShop might be worth considering. Keep in mind, though, that like OpenCart, 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. In fact, even though WooCommerce is a shopping cart plug-in, it also gives you many of the advanced capabilities of a full-service ecommerce 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 their 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, compared to other solutions, it can more easily be used without developer assistance.
However, you should 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. Nevertheless, if your business already uses WordPress, WooCommerce is fairly simple and cost-effective way to try your hand at ecommerce.
Choosing the Right Online Shopping Cart for Your Business
At the end of the day, the first step in choosing the right online shopping cart for your business is to research and understand all of the different options that are available to you. As we’ve discussed, there are many types of solutions—from hosted all-in-one shopping cart systems to free, licensed plug-ins. The type of online shopping cart that’s best for you will depend on your specific business needs—and budget.
For businesses just starting out, hosted online shopping cart systems are probably going to be the most user-friendly and affordable, and will allow you to start selling online quickly and easily. Yet, if you have technical knowledge or are willing to invest in a developer, you might consider some of the licensed open source solutions. These online shopping carts will certainly give you the most flexibility as well as the ability to truly customize your ecommerce website to your business.
As you explore the ecommerce shopping cart offerings that are out there, you’ll want to think expressly about the kind of online store you’ll be running, what your goals are, and what your plans are for potential growth. By digging deep into the details of what your store will entail, you’ll more easily be able to compare your options and ultimately decide which online shopping cart will best serve your business.