Hot Topics:

Build Your Own Online Store, Part 2

Choose your shopping cart software.

If you’re ready to kick the eBay habit and carry your business to the next level, you will need a shopping cart for storefront and administration purposes now that you have your niche in place, and want to build your own online store.

“A shopping cart is a software platform that allows merchants to easily present and sell their products online,” says Chris Eckland, product manager of shopping cart software Auctiva Commerce.

Just like a grocery cart, it keeps track of the consumers’ chosen products while they continue browsing the site. It also tracks and calculates cost, taxes, shipping and discounts. When the consumer is ready to checkout, the virtual shopping cart carries the items to the payment processor, or the “checker,” so to speak.

If you are searching for a cart for your new website, there are a number of factors to consider before you commit. Here’s a checklist to use as you shop for the cart that best fits your business needs.

Should you go with hosted or licensed software?

Unless you are tech-savvy, Eckland advises merchants start with fully hosted software. This removes one of the larger challenges

You have two choices to begin with when searching for the right shopping cart now that you want to build your own online store.

“It can be fully hosted and managed by a third party, or could be software that is licensed and installed on a hosting environment by the merchant,” Eckland says.

Unless you are tech-savvy, Eckland advises merchants start with fully hosted software.

“This removes one of the larger challenges, which is the setup, configuration and ongoing maintenance of the shopping cart code base,” he adds.

Remotely hosted applications require regular maintenance fees, but are beneficial because they are quick to set up and you can often customize them to your specifications. They also save you bandwidth charges because they are hosted on the provider’s server.

Licensed applications are downloaded on your Web server with a one-time purchase fee. Choosing this route allows you to have more control over your features, but may be less useful if Web coding and design are not your forte, unless you want to pay the cart company to help you.

Take note of the language the cart uses—ASP, PERL, PHP, etc.—and check with your Web host to make sure it’s compatible. Another thing to consider with a licensed cart is provision of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), an encrypted security service that may cost a monthly fee.

A range of prices

Many Web hosts and payment providers offer packages that include shopping carts, or you can opt for free or purchasable individual shopping cart applications.

Shopify and GoEmerchant are among the most popular hosted cart applications. They have different pricing plans that range between about $20 and $180 a month, based on your business needs.

TopTenReviews.com ranks X-Cart first among licensed applications, and among the top-10 cart applications, overall. It has a $195 price tag aimed for small businesses or you can pay $395 for added features. In addition to TopTenReviews.com, other review sites applaud U.K.’s Actinic.com, 1ShoppingCart.com, VPASP.com and WebMasterCart.com.

There are also free options out there, but be sure to commit to something that allows affordable feature add-ons later, should your needs change. To begin your search for free options, check out osCommerce.com, PayPal or GetShopped.org for a WordPress cart.

Finding the right fit

Shopping cart applications have developed such that their features make them virtually the whole online store themselves. When looking at cart options, note what they offer at their most basic level and which features are available as add-ons.

“eBay provides traffic which [sellers] will need to replace should they decide to go it on their own. The marketing tools shopping carts provide can really help”

Annie Howes has been managing her craft supply website since 2007 using Yahoo, but recently decided to switch platforms because she wanted better cart features. She’s been designing her site’s pages through Dreamweaver and adding Yahoo’s cart plugin, but couldn’t add extra cart features without first learning Yahoo’s proprietary language. Because of this, she is making the switch to 3dcart.

“Once the website is built, it will be easier for me to modify, add or remove items from my shop,” Howes says.

Eckland adds that merchants should find a cart that is flexible for accounting, shipping and payment provider options, and that has robust inventory and marketing tools.

“eBay provides traffic which they will need to replace should they decide to go it on their own,” he says. “The marketing tools shopping carts provide can really help with replacing the buyer traffic that eBay used to provide.”

Here is a list of features to consider:

  • Search feature
  • Sales tax calculations
  • Quantity adjustments
  • Shipping options and calculations
  • Discounts and coupon codes
  • Related products or cross-selling suggestions
  • Automatic purchase confirmation emails
  • Inventory tracking
  • Email or newsletter marketing
  • Ability to import, export or synchronize inventory with other sites
  • Personalized customer wish lists
  • Integration with shipping manager (e.g., ShipStation)
  • Integration with accounting software (e.g., QuickBooks)

Explore your options

As you compare different cart options, review the demos they often provide and take note of your first impressions

An important aspect of a good shopping cart is its first impression and ease of use. Shopify.com is an example of clean design that is easy for both merchants and consumers.

Sarah Sewell, owner of The Papery Nook, recently expanded her Etsy shop to its own domain using Shopify.

“I [chose] Shopify for my website strictly because it had a user-friendly shopping cart feature,” she says.

As you compare different cart options, review the demos they often provide and take note of your first impressions. How comfortable are you with it as a shopper? How manageable is it as a merchant? Do you like the way it sits on the Web page, and does it fit with your company’s style?

Make sure your payments and cart get along

A shopping cart is not the same thing as the payment gateway service—or the “checker” of online stores—but you can find cart applications that include payment services. The key is to make sure the cart and payment services are compatible.

“Check with your bank first to see which platform or services they support,” Howes says.

Know which features you want in a cart and the fees associated with them, she adds. Then find shopping carts that support the same platforms.

Customers like choices for payment, be it credit cards, money orders, echecks or third-party payers

Customers like choices for payment, be it credit cards, money orders, echecks or third-party payers. If you’ve been selling on eBay, you already have a PayPal account and may want to integrate that service into your payment options.

“Even though I am a fan of PayPal, it is important that my clients have options,” Sewell notes. “Using a site like Shopify allows my clients to checkout easily and pay however they choose.”

Plus, it all happens on one screen, instead of being transferred to a couple different places, she adds.

Whatever you decide to offer as forms of payment, just make sure the cart and payment processor get along as you build your own online store.

Check out carts’ customer support

As you narrow your search down to your favorite choices, consider giving customer service a call. Ask questions about the product and find out the hours at which you can get ahold of the help staff.

How easy is it to contact someone? How friendly and helpful was the representative you talked to? This will give you an indication of how it will be to work with companies in the future.

Read the fine print and take your time

“Every merchant has slightly different needs, and they can only really assess a cart by trying it out”

Another thing to look at carefully when you’ve narrowed your search is the fine print. Are there hidden fees for technical assistance? Does the hosted cart charge a commission for each sale? Does the host collect data on your clients?

These are important questions to ask, especially if the cart application is free.

As you’re going through your options, don’t rush into the first shopping cart you find. Get familiar with what’s available and find out what similar business owners are using.

“Most shopping carts offer a free trial so the merchant can kick the tires, so to speak, before committing to a cart,” Eckland says. “I would highly recommend all merchants do this, as every merchant has slightly different needs, and they can only really assess a cart by trying it out.”

Please share with us which cart you use and why you like it. In our next installment of this series, we’ll look at choosing the right name for your store and registering your domain.

About the author

Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown is a freelance writer who writes about e-commerce and small businesses. She recently graduated from Chico State with a journalism degree and is also a budding online entrepreneur, having launched two Web businesses and her own line of handmade products. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.



Newsletter Signup

Subscribe!