Magento VS Zen Cart
If you’re considering using open source shopping cart software to create or migrate an existing online store, chances are you’re either a confident coder or are ready to hire a professional to develop your shop. In either case, you’ll want to consider two popular open source platforms: Magento and Zen Cart.
Launched a decade ago, Zen Cart is a PHP/MySQL platform that branched off from osCommerce. osCommerce was one of the first open source carts to hit the scene back in 2000 (check out our osCommerce and Zen Cart comparison here.) With more than 100,000 users under its belt, Zen Cart’s consistent performance, active forums, and comparatively easy to complete installation process make it a serious contender that has earned many loyal users. But some developers complain that while the software is a good candidate for code newbies, its less malleable PHP coding framework shows signs of aging.
Magento is totally customizable, elegant, flooded with features…and comes with a steep learning curve. A complex open cart solution, Magento has been used by more than 150,000 merchants since it launched more than five years ago and is a best fit for mid to large-size companies who can afford help to have their store launched and maintained. I highly recommend hiring a pro developer who has successfully worked with Magento before getting started, as well as a designer depending on your developer’s skill set.
Note that the following article compares Zen Cart to Magento CE, Magento’s free, open source option.
Don’t have time to read an entire article? Take a look at our top rated eCommerce solutions for a few quick recommendations. Every option we present here offers excellent customer support, superb web templates, and easy-to-use software, all for a reasonable price.
Otherwise, keep reading to learn how Magento and Zen Cart perform in our head-to-head comparison.
Table of Contents
Web-Hosted or Licensed:
Both Magento and Zen Cart are open source, self-hosted shopping carts that cost nothing to download or use.
Hardware and Software Requirements:
Since they’re both open source, downloadable platforms, you’ll need to find hosting for your Magento or Zen Cart store. Read details about Magento’s hosting requirements here and find Zen Cart’s guidelines here.
Both Magento CE and Zen Cart are open source shopping cart platforms that won’t cost a thing to download. But when planning how much to budget for your store’s creation and launch, keep in mind that you’ll need to pay for hosting, credit card processing, (possibly) a design template, security to ensure PCI compliance, and (possibly) a developer and designer. It’s easy to see how it can end up costing you as much or more to launch an ecommerce site with an open source cart like Magento or Zen Cart as opposed to a cloud-based option that includes hosting and charges by the month, like BigCommerce or Shopify.
Ease of Use:
Winner: Zen Cart
As I just mentioned above, open source shopping carts are different animals than web-based competitors such as Shopify that include hosting, templates, and security out of the box. Both Zen Cart and Magento require technical knowledge and at least mid-level coding competency to install and customize. If that’s not you then you’ll want to find a developer to get your shop up and running and train staff on how to add inventory, manage customers, fill orders, etc.
I found Zen Cart’s admin to be counterintuitive, with more drop downs than needed. Zen Cart’s template system for defining the look of your shop (its out of the box template is especially underwhelming, so customizing its PHP code is a must) makes sense after committing some time to it, but be ready to hunt and peck to find standard elements like product options and tax settings. That said, once your store is live you’ll probably have already mastered where the parts of Zen Cart’s admin that are relevant to you live (aka adding products and managing orders) and can ignore admin tabs like “index listing,” “default page status,” and “option value manager.”
You’ll want to know that some developers describe Zen Cart’s code as sloppy and that its occasional software updates can result in lost design and integration customizations. But overall its PHP-based code should make it simpler for you to get going quickly, at least compared to Magento.
Magento’s complex code is notoriously tough to master, and its short stack of support tools make partnering with an experienced pro crucial, especially if you’re forking over cash before you’re able to start earning it back by completing sales. Magento’s backend isn’t much more streamlined than Zen Cart’s, with confusing system settings and admin pages that aren’t always where you expect them to be. Plan to spend time learning how to add orders and maintain your store.
Overall, I found Magento to offer a better developed, more robust set of features that are crucial for creating successful online stores. For example, only Magento is optimized for smart phones and tablets, which is a must for reducing abandoned carts, especially since so many of us are browsing and buying on mobile devices. Also, Magento arrives with stronger basic SEO tools. Plus, I like that it can support more than one store from a single admin–that’s a less common feature across the board in web-based, downloadable, or open source shopping carts.
Zen Cart does present some features you won’t find after downloading Magento, including gift certificates and a (dated) WYSIWYG tool. But Magento’s product comparison feature, coupon system (Zen Cart offers light coupon functionality), wishlists, and uber important one page checkout are more examples of extras that make it soar beyond Zen Cart in the features department.
For more details about the feature sets of both carts, check out our complete Magento review here and Zen Cart review here. If you’re confused or overwhelmed by your options and would like help sifting through shopping cart software we’re here to help. Check out Merchant Maverick’s consulting services.
There’s no doubt that both Magento and Zen Cart can produce fully functional shops, but getting there is probably going to mean working through a thick pile of customizations or buying a theme. It’s another reason to work with a pro if you’re not confident nipping and tucking code.
While you can tweak the headers, colors, fonts, and other basic design elements with Zen Cart’s out of the box theme, I advise starting with a completely different skin since its default option is, to be diplomatic, very dated. Have a look at more Zen Cart free themes to get a feel for what’s out there. Or, you can hire a designer to execute a custom look that’s totally unique, which is what I recommend.
In comparison, Magento has been used to produce what, in my opinion, are more elegant stores (browse some Magento live stores here and Zen Cart live stores here to compare.) This minimal free Modern Theme for Magento is miles above the skin that comes standard with Zen Cart in looks and usability. Plus, Magento’s template system streamlines customizing skins. Check out other more Magento templates here.
Integrations and Add-Ons:
Magento arrives with several useful features out of the box, but you’ll want to browse its hundreds of free and fee-based integrations as well. Check out its full plug-in list here by choosing “Community” under “Platform” on the left side of the screen. Extras are sortable by rating, relevance, and price.
In contrast to Magento, which arrives with many more features after it’s downloaded, plan to rely on Zen Cart’s plugins to fill out your store’s feature set. Zen Cart offers merchants a huge database of more than 1,500 integrations, including admin tools ranging from bulk order plugins to advanced login features, language packages, social media and marketing extras, and pricing tools. A word of warning: We found reports claiming that some Zen Cart plugins are a bear to customize and are not compatible with new versions.
I like that Magento’s app store lets users leave feedback about plugins and that each integration earns a “popularity score.” Those factors should by no means be the only reason you decide to use an add-on, but at least the scores give a frame of reference. Overall, I found Magento’s integrations to be more curated, reliable, and useful.
While it’s not compatible with quite as many gateways as some cloud-based shopping cart platforms, Magento integrates with a wide range of gateways and third-party processors including PayPal.
Zen Cart integrates with plenty of processors as well, including Dwolla and Braintree, and supports plug-ins for many more gateways. Also, as I mentioned above Zen Cart supports gift certificates out of the box while Magento does not. However, Magento does support one-page checkout and guest checkout (both of which in my opinion are essentials that online shoppers have come to expect) while Zen Cart does not.
Customer Service and Technical Support:
Winner: Zen Cart
Magento CE users rely on its active, almost two million member forum when questions come up before and after stores are live, so bookmark the page for reference. Overall, I did not have positive interactions with Magento support–answers to questions I sent staff via email or Facebook were never answered. Also, users report that Magento’s documentation is thin, but it does continue to grow.
To contrast, Zen Cart offers several additional tools for help that go beyond its 135,000 member forum, including tutorials and FAQs, YouTube videos, and a wiki covering the installation process and upgrades. Or if you prefer holding a reference guide in your hands you can also order Zen Cart’s user manual.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
Winner: Zen Cart
Merchants and developers have plenty to complain about with both Magento and Zen Cart. After hours of research and time spent culling user feedback, we were able to identify the following common negative trends about each cart.
A classic complaint about Magento is that it’s slow and clunky. Another common gripe focuses on the Magento customer support department and documentation, with are basically nonexistent in its CS edition with the exception of a well-used forum. Other Magento users aren’t happy that developer fees, security, hosting, and processing fees make it an expensive option, leveling out the benefits of that free download pretty quickly.
Zen Cart users frequently complain about its outdated admin design, lagging marketing and SEO features, and anything but seamless version upgrades that can result in lost data. Also, some say that the cart is glitchy, miss good options for mobile integrations, and want the ability to offer customers one-page checkout. Overall, we found more negatives about the better-known and harder to learn Magento.
If you want to search for other complaints about Magento or Zen Cart, be sure to google Magento/Zen Cart reviews, Magento/Zen Cart complaints, Magento/Zen Cart comments, Magento/Zen Cart scam, Magento/Zen Cart testimonials, etc.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
We collected assorted positive reports about Zen Cart, ranging from kudos for its solid uptime record, great support resources, and broad set of add-ons. Other Zen Cart merchants attest to its customizable admin and international reach.
But we found more users singing the praises of Magento, with many programmers building totally unique, successful stores that are scalable, especially for medium and large size e-tailers. Magento users like its meaty feature list, which rivals some fee-based hosted competitors, and are happy that it comes with various coupon and promotions options and can support mobile sales and multiple stores.
Zen Cart gives merchants the ability to engage with a lively user community that aims to continually improve its functionality. It’s also fast, lighter, and simpler to navigate than Magento and can take less time to master. But since it began ten years ago, some smarter, leaner open source competitors like Spree Commerce and PrestaShop have challenged Zen Cart’s comparatively dated admin and lagging marketing, mobile, and SEO integrations.
Magento is a workhorse that can create powerful, beautiful stores, but it requires a real commitment. It will likely take some cold hard cash and the right development team to roll out a successful store, but Magento’s ability to scale enough to support businesses that are household names is an appealing plus: The Harper’s Bazaar and Fiji Water web stores are both powered by Magento. I also found it to be loaded with several of the very features cloud-based carts charge money to use. Compared to Zen Cart, Magento is a battle tested and more impressive piece of software–if you can afford it.
Ready to take both ecommerce shopping carts for a test drive? Download Magento here and Zen Cart here to see if either option is the right fit for your business. Also, check out our full Magento and Zen Cart reviews for the full lowdown.