Zen Cart Review
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- Date Established
- Free to download
- Highly customizable
- Strong user community
- Difficult to use
- Outdated UI
- No customer support
Zen Cart is an open source eCommerce shopping cart software for the web-savvy. The software, based on PHP/MySQL, is fully customizable and completely free to download.
You can trace Zen Cart’s ancestry back to osCommerce; in fact, it used to be a part of osCommerce. The two companies split in 2003 when Zen Cart wanted to make some major architectural changes to the software. Most of the new development is now done by volunteers who are dedicated to maintaining the project.
Because Zen Cart is open source and community-focused, those who don’t have much tech experience may encounter difficulties with the platform. Support consists mostly of self-help options, and Zen Cart is far from the most intuitive platform. For those merchants, I would instead suggest a cloud-based option like Shopify or Zoey Commerce.
On the other hand, some merchants revel in the complete customizability that open source software provides. If this is you, keep reading for a full review of Zen Cart.
Table of Contents
As open source software, Zen Cart is completely free to download and use. Zen Cart comes with a GPL2 license, which guarantees that the software will always be free and that anyone can modify it as they please.
That does not mean, however, that there is no expense to using Zen Cart. You will have to pay for web hosting and a domain name, as well as an SSL certificate. If you have limited web experience, you may also have to budget for a web developer and designer to help you customize your store for your business. Additional expenses come in the form of add-ons and third-party templates.
Cloud-Based Or Locally Installed
You can download Zen Cart and install it yourself on your server, or you can have it hosted on a hosting platform. Because Zen Cart is a fairly popular option that’s been around for a long time, many web hosts provide quick Zen Cart installation options.
When you’re choosing between web hosts, make sure to pick one that performs regular updates and backups.
Specific Size Of Business
Zen Cart is best for merchants who have access to tech support. In most cases, this will mean that Zen Cart fits mid-size to larger businesses; however, it is also a feasible option for the lone ranger with loads of web knowledge.
Hardware & Operating System Requirements
The following is a list of Zen Cart’s system requirements for the newest version of the software (v1.5.5f). View the full list of system requirements for all other versions.
- PHP 5.6 through 7.1
- Apache 2.4 or 2.2
- MySQL 5.1 to 5.7 or MariaDB 10.1
In every case, you should make sure that you are using the latest PCI Compliant version.
If you’ve chosen to partner with a hosting platform, you’ll just need an up-to-date web browser and a secure internet connection.
Ease Of Use
Zen Cart does not offer a free trial of their product, mostly because their product is already free. In order to try out Zen Cart, you’ll have to download it and install it on your server, which is, I’ll admit, totally a pain.
In fact, for me, setting up Zen Cart was an impossibility. I belong to the camp that needs a lot of help setting up an online platform (that’s why I like SaaS solutions so much). I tried to download and install Zen Cart. Nothing made sense.
And so, I managed to get my hands on a hosted demo of Zen Cart.
Here’s what I found upon logging into my admin.
I quickly discovered that navigation in Zen Cart is not exactly intuitive. At least at the beginning, you’ll have to spend a lot of time sifting through drop-down tabs.
Just take a look at that drop down! There are so many options on just one tab!
In part, I’m happy to find so many options, because it tends to mean more functionality. On the other hand, I’m annoyed that it’s so difficult to find the pages that are normally easily available.
As I always do, I first went to add a product.
Entering information was easy enough, though I did notice that a few features were missing (adding attributes, for example). I was also confused about how to save my new product. It turns out that you have to click “Preview,” which will take you to this screen.
From here, you click “Insert” in order to save your product.
As I mentioned before, the “Add a product” page was missing a few features, namely, the product attributes.
After a few minutes of hunting, I uncovered the “Attribute controller,” which let me add attributes to each individual product. In my opinion, this function should be available on the product page. It’s annoying to have to navigate to a different page to continue entering product information.
In short, Zen Cart is not the most intuitive shopping cart (and can be downright frustrating at times), but after a bit of a learning curve, it should operate just fine.
Features are listed on this Wiki page. Basically, Zen Cart follows a core+extensions model. It comes with enough features to get you rolling. From there, you need to add integrations in order to make your site perform exactly as you choose.
- Switch Between Templates: You can easily change the look of your site without having to re-do all of your content.
- Easy Site Editing: Use Zen Cart’s WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) page editor to easily update your site’s content.
- Create HTML-Style Emails: Draft and design emails in HTML format from your admin.
- Discounts & Coupons: List discounts or coupons by percentage or a fixed amount. Or, you can list products under a new sale price. Set discounts to apply to select categories or products. Choose to include or exclude product attributes in your discounts and choose to include or exclude discounts from a special.
- Gift Certificates: Expand your customer base by letting your customers give store credit to their friends.
- Featured Products: Choose products to appear on your home page.
- Call For Price For B2B: Hide your product prices for B2B selling.
- Quantity Discounts For B2B: Set different prices for different quantities.
- Restrict Site Access: Also for B2B selling. You can choose to only allow confirmed customers to access your store, or you can let customers browse but not purchase.
- Customer Group Pricing: Change your prices based on who’s browsing.
- Newsletters & Product Notification: Set up an email campaign. Notify customers when products are back in stock.
- Organize By Category: List the same product under multiple categories.
- Multiple Product Images: You can set your larger images to be featured as popups.
- Minimum & Maximum Orders: Set a minimum and maximum amount for each product.
- Attributes: List attributes (product options) for your products. Have those attributes appear as drop-downs, checkboxes, or radio buttons. Set different prices for different attributes.
- Image/Color Swatches For Attributes: Show customers what all of those different product attributes look like.
- Digital Products: Sell downloadable products.
- Custom Text Features: Let customers enter their own custom text for monogrammed products. Charge per word or per letter.
- Shipping Options: Enter your own shipping options or integrate with major carriers (like USPS or UPS) for real-time shipping rates.
- Shipping Estimator: Give customers a good idea of shipping costs before checkout.
SEO & International Features
- SEO Tools: List meta tags, keywords, and descriptions for your products.
- International Selling: Use Zen Cart’s multilingual, multi-currency capabilities to sell across borders.
Zen Cart is not known for being an aesthetically pleasing shopping cart solution in its admin or its storefront.
This is what the maintenance mode on my demo storefront looks like:
As you can see, Zen Cart’s default design is far from modern.
Fortunately, because Zen Cart is open source, you do have the ability to customize that template. Or, you can choose to download and implement one of the many template packages the Zen Cart community has made available for free. Also, you can use template alterations or buttons and graphics downloads to change minor aspects of your design.
Finally, if customizing your website is beyond your grasp, there are lots of third-party developers and web designers out there who would love your business.
Integrations & Add-Ons
Zen Cart comes with all of the basics out-of-the-box. For advanced functionality, you’ll need to take a look in the community’s collection of extensions. These are broken down by category.
- Admin Tools
- Buttons and Graphics
- Language Packs
- Marketing Tools
- Other Modules (Miscellaneous Plugins)
- Payment Modules
- Pricing Tools
- Privacy and Conditions Statements
- Product Types
- Shipping Modules
- Template Alterations
- Template Packages – Responsive Design and Legacy
- Troubleshooting Tools
- Geographic Zones
Note: You should be wary as you go about installing these extensions. Zen Cart warns its users that add-ons can affect PCI compliance. Make sure that your site is secure with every add-on you install.
Zen Cart is already partnered with the following payment processors:
- Payeezy (Powered by First Data)
- PayPal Business Account
- PayPal Express Checkout
You can read more about these payment processors on Zen Cart’s website.
Alternatively, you could choose to use one of the numerous payment modules available. Using these community-built modules, you can integrate with many other popular payment gateways.
Customer Service & Support
As I said before, Zen Cart is maintained by a community of developers who are invested in the project. Personal support is not available in any form: not by phone, not by email, and not by web ticket.
Zen Cart takes a Home Depot approach to support: “You can do it; we can help.” They provide a whole host of resources that you can use to resolve your questions and concerns. Here’s what they have available:
- Forums: Zen Cart’s forums are very active with advice and downloads.
- Zen Cart Wiki: Find step by step instructions for operations like installation, customization, upgrades, security updates.
- Tutorials & FAQs: Find answers to the most common questions.
- Facebook: Zen Cart primarily posts product updates on their Facebook page. Other than that, it isn’t much help,
- Youtube Tutorials: Youtube has a good-sized list of third-party tutorial videos.
The only way you’ll receive personal support is by hiring a third-party Zen Cart developer to handle technical concerns for you.
Negatives Reviews & Complaints
There are very few customer reviews of Zen Cart. Most of the reviews I was able to find were from other third-party review sites like this one. So, the following list is a compilation of those reviews, mixed with my own perception of the platform:
- Learning Curve: It takes a while to get the hang of Zen Cart, and I’m not just talking about coding here. It may take you a bit just to learn to navigate the admin.
- Issues With Upgrades: While it’s great that Zen Cart regularly releases upgrades, merchants often have difficulties with those updates. Zen Cart platforms have the tendency to lose their customizations during upgrades.
- Have To Manage Multiple Plugins: Chances are good that you’ll be running multiple extensions on your site at all times. It can be difficult to ensure that those plugins get along with each other.
- Lacking SEO: While Zen Cart comes with a few SEO tools out-of-the-box, they are far from extensive. However, you are able to add-on SEO tools (like a sitemap XML and additional meta tags) when you download modules from Zen Cart’s list of Marketing Tools.
Positive Reviews & Testimonials
There are still lots of good things to be said about Zen Cart. Here are a few:
- Free: Doesn’t get much better than that. Zen Cart is (and will always be) free to download and use.
- Customizable: Because Zen Cart is open source, developers are able to change whatever aspects of the software they choose. You can hire developers to do that work for you, or you can take advantage of other developers’ work by downloading available modules.
- Community: The Zen Cart community has been around for over a decade and is still going strong. You can benefit from an active forum and current modules.
- International Options: Zen cart has great multi-currency and multilingual features for selling internationally. You’re just left with figuring out the complex shipping and taxes.
You are responsible for maintaining the security of your website. It’s up to you to find a reliable server and purchase an SSL certificate. One way to ensure your site complies with PCI standards is by using a payment gateway (such as PayPal or Authorize.Net) that never stores credit card information on your site.
Zen Cart has its perks. It’s a free platform that is 100% customizable, and it’s surrounded by a great community of developers. It could be a decent choice for a mid-sized business with access to an IT team.
However, I think that there are better options out there. Zen Cart’s outdated user interface and themes give me pause, and I am discouraged by the number of modules I would potentially have to install to fill out my platform. Additionally, the lack of support and usability suggests that Zen Cart is not the best option for most merchants.
I would instead recommend that you take a look at Magento Community Edition. It’s a free, open source, community-based platform that’s a bit more current than Zen Cart.
But, if Zen Cart sounds like what you’ve been looking for, click the link below to find out how to download your platform for free.