What is Shopping Cart Software?
Shopping cart software (which you may hear referred to as an eCommerce solution or platform) is a software service that allows merchants to sell products online. Shopping cart software essentially allows you to build an online store.
eCommmerce platforms take a variety of forms. Typically, they either allow you to build an entire website from the ground up, or they let you add a “Store” tab to your pre-existing site.
Either way, basic functions work more or less the same. You can add product information, images, prices, and shipping and tax information to your admin panel. Every product you add will appear in your storefront.
Customers will then to able to browse your website, select the products they like, and complete checkout without ever leaving your domain.
SaaS VS Open Source
As you look for the software you’ll use to build your online store, you will likely run into two terms: SaaS and open source. These terms refer to the way software is distributed and tend to have a direct correlation with the difficulty of operating a software.
The term “SaaS” stands for “Software as a Service.” SaaS solutions are all-in-one software solutions that are typically billed as monthly subscriptions. Signing up for an SaaS eCommerce solution will give you access to technical support, reliable web hosting, site maintenance and security, and web design tools, in addition to the shopping cart software itself.
SaaS solutions are typically easy to use and are geared toward merchants that don’t have much technical expertise. Three of our favorite SaaS solutions are Shopify, LemonStand, and Zoey. Take a look at our reviews to learn more.
While many merchants love SaaS solutions (and we tend to prefer them), some merchants may resent the monthly billing model and the limited customizability associated with SaaS solutions.
These merchants should look into open source solutions.
Open source solutions are downloadable software programs that are free to implement and use. Sellers are responsible for finding their own hosting, paying for site security, and getting everything online and working smoothly. If this is your very first time building a website — and you don’t want to hire a designer — open source is probably not the best solution for you. Support is all self-help, and without any previous experience, just getting your software up and running can be tricky.
However, if you want a fully-customizable site, open source is the best way to go. Take a look at Magento and WooCommerce, two of our top-rated open source eCommerce solutions.
Common Features to Look For In An eCommerce Platform
It can be a challenge to determine which features you’ll need from your eCommerce solution before you really begin selling. Every shopping cart comes with a different feature set, but they tend to be similar in the categories of features they offer.
Here are a few things you should look for as you seek out an eCommerce platform:
Ease of Use: The world’s best software is useless if you don’t know how to use it. Sign up for free trials of each platform you’re considering and test it out to make sure the admin panel makes sense to you.
Unlimited Products, Bandwidth, and Storage: Not every platform will offer unlimited everything, but it sure is nice to not have to worry about exceeding your plan’s limits.
Complex Discount Features: Look for software that lets you create flat rate and percentage discounts. You should be able to apply those discounts to your whole store or a specific category or product. Also look for software that lets you place limits on the number of times customers can use your coupon.
Email Marketing Features: Most platforms let you create and send emails from your admin panel. You’ll likely need to integrate with a CRM (Customer Relation Management) software like MailChimp or Constant Contact to create more complex email campaigns.
Inventory Management Features: Nothing disappoints a customer more than out-of-stock products. Make sure your inventory stays up-to-date with built-in inventory management features. Set low stock notifications and set products to display an “Out of Stock” notification when they are unavailable.
Shipping Options: Look for the ability to integrate your platform with shipping carriers (USPS, UPS, FedEx). This will allow you to automatically calculate real-time shipping rates.
Tax Calculator: A built-in tax calculator helps you ensure that you’re collecting the correct sales tax rate from every customer.
International Language and Currency Support: These features will allow you to sell across borders.
Reporting Tools: Check for reporting tools related to your site’s traffic, conversion rates, order totals, overall sales, and more.
SEO Tools: You should be able to add metadata to your products and pages. Look for the ability to write custom URLs and create a .xml sitemap as well.
Do I Need to Use Integrations?
In short: Yes.
While SaaS solutions like Shopify do an excellent job providing the tools that most beginning merchants need, no shopping cart will come with every feature you’re looking for already built-in. You’ll very likely need to use an external shipping, email marketing, or accounting program, and you’ll want to make sure that software easily connects with your eCommerce platform.
As you shop for an eCommerce solution, look for a platform that offers a large app marketplace, complete with the most popular integrations.
How Much Will It Cost?
The price of running your eCommerce solution will vary depending on your business’s size and needs.
An SaaS platform can cost anywhere from $10/month to $300/month, depending on the features you’d like to access and the number of products you plan on listing. Additional expenses include costs related to integrations and customer service.
Open source platforms may be free to download, but they are not free to operate. You’ll have to pay for web hosting, a domain name, site security, and any add-ons that your site may need. In addition, you’ll likely need to hire a web developer to help you through a rough patch. Costs for open source businesses range widely.
Try Before You Buy
Choosing an eCommerce platform is a big commitment. Fortunately, most SaaS services provide free two-week trials of their platforms. In most cases, you’ll only need to enter your name, email address, and phone number to access those trials.
Always, always test out prospective software before you put any money into the platform. Make sure you’re comfortable with basic functions. You should also take the time to test out your vendor’s technical support options to make sure you’ll be able to find answers to all of your future questions.
Once you’ve thoroughly vetted your platform (and read our full review of it, of course), you can sign up for a plan worry-free.
Good luck, and happy shopping!