Choosing an eCommerce Shopping Cart

Building an eCommerce enabled website requires selecting the software to manage the process of making online sales. The software is referred to as shopping cart software.

Shopping Cart Software allows site visitors to select one or more items for purchase and place these in a virtual basket. When they wish to finish shopping and pay for their chosen items, the customer is taken to an online checkout, where the software calculates a total for the order and adds any additional charge such as shipping and taxes. Finally, the software collects payment details securely and informs the customer that the transaction is complete.

A shopping cart is the nuts and bolts of running an eCommerce enabled website, and the choice of cart should be decided by a business’ requirements and online marketing strategy. This section will look at the factors influencing selecting a cart and each solution’s pros and cons.

Types of Shopping Cart

All-in-One vs Self Hosted

As mentioned in the previous section, Shopify is an all-in-one shopping cart solution, meaning that it is an easy-to-use solution managed and hosted by the company that created it. All you need to do to set up your store is sign up and configure the account. You will need to install and manage your shopping cart with all the complications for a hosted shopping cart.

Whilst hosting a shopping cart gives the merchant more flexibility and control, all-in-one solutions are better for most sellers. Major multi-national companies now use solutions like Shopify to manage their eCommerce businesses.

Free vs Paid

When setting up a shopping cart, an important choice is to buy a commercially available cart or use an open-source solution. Open-source software is developed by volunteers and is free to use. Open-source shopping carts such as Woo-Commerce provide a cheap way for businesses to start selling online and offer most of the functionality provided by comparable paid for solutions.

The obvious advantage of open-source carts is that they are free, making them attractive to small businesses and start-ups. However, whilst the software is free, the lack of support may mean that open-source solutions take longer to install and set up, and you are on your own if something goes wrong. That said, there is a vibrant community of developers and professional services companies around most open-source solutions, and help is never too far away.

For commercially available software, there will be an initial setup fee and an ongoing license fee. However, for this money, the software vendor should provide good documentation and telephone support level. Particularly useful when something goes wrong, and immediate help is needed.

The decision between free versus paid shopping cart will depend on requirements, timescale and technical expertise. Business with-in house technical expertise or with particular needs may want to investigate an open-source solution. However, if technical skills are in short supply, it may be best to opt for an all-in-one solution that will provide much-needed support.

Bespoke Vs. Off-the-Shelf

Off-the-shelf products are unlikely to fit all the requirements of every business exactly. For this reason, some companies choose to develop their own cart software to ensure that their needs are met. Do not approach this lightly, as software development can be a difficult and expensive process. Thing to consider when comtemplating a bespoke solution:

  • Cost. It is more expensive to develop a bespoke cart than use an off the shelf solution.
  • Timescale. Whereas an off the shelf cart can be set up in a few hours, building a bespoke cart may take months.
  • Support. If a bespoke cart breaks or if you need modifications, typically, only the original developer will be able to fix it. On the other hand, commercially available carts often offer high support levels and are used by a community of developers. The more people who use a cart, the more it will have been road-tested, and the bugs ironed out.

Off the shelf eCommerce platforms such as Magento and Shopify are powerful and configurable. A third option may be to develop more or more extensions for these platforms to customise them for your needs.

Stand-Alone vs ECommerce platforms

Whilst platforms such as Shopify and Magento started as shopping carts, their functionality has grown, both of their core offerings and through 3rd party apps, turning them into full-service eCommerce platforms. A whole ecosystem of companies has evolved to develop apps for these systems, including:

  • Channel integration. Integrate channels including Amazon and eBay.
  • Warehousing. Organise your warehouse.
  • Payments. Accept payment via multiple methods.
  • Couriers. Integrate with leading couriers.

If you are looking to grow, an extensible system is a good insurance policy for the future. However, if you are only ever selling a few products through your website, then a more straightforward solution may be more suitable.

Choosing your Shopping Cart

When choosing a shopping cart, many factors will influence the selection. As money and time are limited, the final decision will be a compromise. Factors to consider when choosing a cart include:

Number of Products

Small businesses may wish only to sell a few products, while larger online retailers may have thousands of stock products. A company offering a more sizable number of items (and making more sales) will require a robust cart that can cope with volume sales and has the functionality to allow these products to be organised, queried, and edited more effectively.

Nature of products

Most products will be suited to sale through an off-the-shelf cart with no modifications. However, some products will have specific requirements. For example, digitally delivered products such as software, documents and music will require functionality to allow secure file download. This functionality does not come as standard on all shopping carts. Some products will be difficult to sell through off the shelf carts. For example, products requiring a high degree of customisation, such as flowers with multiple options such as delivery time, card and message to specify, will require a bespoke cart.


Off the shelf shopping carts will vary widely in functionality. Before choosing a cart, make a list of the functionality needed and compare this to that present in the available shopping cart options.


The administration functionality of the cart should be straightforward to use and easy to configure. The backend of many carts is unnecessarily complicated. If something seems like it needs a PhD to run, it will make life difficult eventually.

Technical Expertise

Shopping carts require varying levels of technical expertise. Using a managed service requires little technical knowledge. On the other hand, a self-hosted cart will often require a developer to design and configure the front end (customer-facing) part of the site.


Shopping carts vary in cost from free (open-source carts such as Magento and Woo-commerce) to tens of thousands of pounds. Increasing the budget will enable a business to get a more closely fitted cart to their requirements.

Plugins, Integrations and Customisation

The more popular platforms such as Shopify and Magento have thousands of extensions available, allowing the system’s functionality to be extended without the need for bespoke development. Woo-commerce is itself an extension of the popular WordPress CMS platform.

If your business has particular requirements, you may need to get some tailored development work done on the platform. Carts will differ in how easy this is the achieve.

Shopping Cart Design

The front-end layout of a shopping cart is referred to as the template. Most carts will come supplied with several standard templates and by altering the code of the template the look and feel of the shop front can be changed to reflect a business’ branding. Popular carts such as Shopify and Magento have thousands of off-the-shelf templates available at a reasonable price (£50 – £200).

It is worth investing in an attractive website and not just sticking with the out of the box design. Having a slick design and a good user experience is one factor that makes one online business stand above the rest.



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