October 17, 2008
Choosing shopping cart software can turn into a tough job due to the large number of e-commerce solutions available on the market. Overall, it’s almost impossible to say which product is the best one since their feature richness, pricing, flexibility and the range of extra services vary to a great extent.
Therefore, buying the right product which fits into your goals can save a lot of time and effort, while a mistake may turn into extra costs, additional months of work or even cause starting the whole project from scratch.
There are several key factors which should be considered while picking the right solution. In this article, I’ll try to outline the most important steps that definitely should not be missed. The tactics described below may be varied according to your goals, however, following this advice will be useful in the decision-making process as a whole.
Key groups of factors
Who you are
In my opinion, the first thing you should ask is the role he’s going to play in the online store functioning process. The key factor of this role (at least for small and medium businesses) is the level of a person’s technical knowledge.
In most cases, technology is an issue for store owners, managers and administrators. Since each store needs its own unique design, functionality and storefront design along with the initial setup and server administration, you should clearly understand how these services could be purchased and what the manufacturer has to offer. Another important issue for this target group is the ease of administration and usage of basic functions.
Another group of users are web developers and designers who are technically skilled and usually maintain the store by themselves or develop e-commerce solutions for their clients (which usually involves complex code changes and development of extra functionality). For these people, the most important factors are: the quality of code, the ease of customization and add-ons implementation and flexibility of storefront design.
Types of shopping carts
All shopping cart solutions can be divided into two large groups: hosted and distributed.
Hosted carts are usually provided in the same manner as hosting services, which means that a customer has several predefined plans/packages (varying in number of products, monthly bandwidth, number of features, etc) to choose from. The pricing structure is also based on regular (monthly or yearly) fees. A hosting platform is provided directly from the manufacturer and the cart is usually activated without any actions needed from a client.
Hosted shopping carts are managed through the administration area which provides the interface to manage product catalog (add, remove items and edit their properties), define and change prices and so on. The storefront design can usually be altered by modifying templates, however, the access to the source code for hosted solutions is usually limited and it’s not always possible to modify the functionality.
Distributed solutions are sold at a fixed price (one-time fee for a lifetime license) as a software package which should installed on any compatible server chosen by a customer. After the initial setup, the store can also be managed using the administration area.
Usually such products come with source code and thus can be modified or extended to suit your needs. However, such modifications require good technical and programming knowledge (or working with those that have those skills).
Overall, hosted carts are often preferable for store owners as more easy to use and administer while web programmers, designers and developers mostly choose distributed solutions due to their flexibility.
While most shopping cart features can often be used right out of the box, it’s important to note that in most cases online stores require some additional professional services.
For example, e-commerce software may come with a number of pre-installed design templates, but a serious store owner would usually have its own unique store look or integrating it’s existing design into the storefront. Also, since it’s impossible for an ecommerce product containing each and every possible feature or working the way which is totally suitable for everyone, a shopping cart manufacturer providing custom programming service is a good option in case you’re planning to implement some extended functionality.
Another option worth checking is whether it’s possible to get a fully-compatible hosting solution (since shopping carts usually have significant server-side requirements due to their complexity) and technical support (in case you need consultations or assistance in problem resolution).
Integration with external systems
Ecommerce software should not be treated as a standalone product, but rather as a solid ground for interaction between various components.
Not all operations are performed within the shopping cart engine. Most often, external services are used for payment processing, real-time shipping rates calculation, order processing systems, affiliate and statistics software, product directories and so on.
Thus, the richness of integration allows store owners to have a wider choice of services for their online business.
Technical support, forum & third-party solutions
Responsive technical support is another key factor which ensures that you’re not left alone with your problems and, in case the assistance is needed, you can be sure to receive a thoughtful response or a solution in a reasonable amount of time.
Support schemes from different companies may vary in type and costs. For shopping cart vendors, technical support is often on a pay-per-incident basis, or yearly/monthly flat-fee contract. Free technical support for ecommerce solutions is quite rare and may not always be effective or timely.
Forum activity is also a good indicator since it can be a good, free source of knowledge and assistance from experience software users.
In addition, it is advisable to check if third-party vendors offer modules or services related to a chosen e-commerce product to ensure that you will have a decent choice of extra solutions.
Tips and advice for research
First of all, before proceeding with the actual product research, I’d advise that you collect the list of key features which are necessary for your upcoming online store. Such a checklist will allow you to ensure that all (or most) of them are present while examining features lists for chosen candidates.
Looking in search engines using relevant queries
Next, you may proceed with picking products for comparison. To find the most popular solutions, start searching in Google/Yahoo/MSN using relevant search phrases characterizing the product, like “shopping cart software”, “ecommerce solution”, “online store builder” etc.
For each query, pick products from top ten or top twenty search results. Visit their websites, compare product features and services presented there, pricing and any other information that you may consider relevant.
Looking for reviews and comments on forums and directories
For each product in your list, you would surely be interested to know what others have to say. In this case, independent sources provide valuable additions to official information from software vendors.
Most likely, product profiles along with customer reviews can be found on large script and software libraries like HotScripts, Freshmeat and Download.com. Also, check out some comparison sites, for example, Epinions and Shopping Cart Reviews. Also, you may search through archives or start a new thread with your questions at popular IT forums, like SitePoint or WebmasterWorld.
Contacting sales department with your questions
Finally, I’m sure that for your short list of solutions, some questions may still remain. This is a good reason to contact a vendor’s sales team to find out their responses. Do not hesitate to do it, since the quality of feedback and attention to you as a potential client is worth checking before you actually proceed with the purchase.
Choosing shopping cart software may not seem easy since it involves significant effort from a serious customer. However, the rewards for the effort is obvious: you get a product which fits into your goals and allows you to concentrate on sales and marketing without worrying about the technical side. Moreover, as a client, you get to know the software vendor before buying a product and ensure that the technical side can be handled without a problem. Good luck in your research!
About the author:
Michael Gunin is a Marketing analyst of Qualiteam Software, the maker of two PHP shopping carts, X-Cart and LiteCommerce. Both of these solutions come with an open source code and can be used both as ready out-of-the-box shopping cart solutions and powerful shopping cart engines for a customized web shop. Qualiteam also provides the whole range of extra services, including (but not limited to): shopping cart hosting, e-commerce web site design, custom development, installation services & 24/7 technical support.