A Beginner’s Guide to Ecommerce Shopping Carts

By / Jul 1, 2010 / Tools

Choosing a shopping cart can be complicated, leaving you bamboozled by an array of options. A web design agency could suggest Magento, but your friend’s son is adamant PayPal’s cart is the panacea you’ve been looking for. With so many choices, you need to work out which option will cater for the demands of your business today and tomorrow.

Picking any old shopping cart is easy, but finding the right one can be a herculean task. It’s not about finding the best; it’s about finding the one that’s best for you.


Magento is a free open source shopping cart with an impressive depth of features. For those looking for an enterprise grade ecommerce platform, it can be a serious option. It comes with multi-store as standard, flexible pricing functionality and a hierarchical administration and permissions system to support multiple users. With Magento Connect, it’s possible to install a host of quality modules to add additional functionality.


Magento’s additional functionality comes with a price: reduced usability. If you’re looking for the simplest shopping cart, and don’t need all the bells and whistles, you may find yourself feeling better satisfied with another option. Magento also requires more sophisticated programming skills than some competing carts. For smaller operations, the hosting requirements can be quite cumbersome.


The software is free and open source, existing since March 2000. In August 2008, it powered over 14,000 online shops. In June 2009, that number is closer to 12,000. While Oscommerce’s popularity may be in decline, that’s not to say it might not be the right solution for you.


Oscommerce is often criticised for having too complex code. This can make changes difficult and laborious. However, it has a strong community that provides free support and its extensive range of modules can help you to achieve an optimum solution.

Zen Cart


Zen Cart and Oscommerce share a lineage. Using Oscommerce’s code, Zen Cart became a standalone project. And, similar to its cousin, Zen Cart is free and open source. While Zen Cart and Oscommerce have many of the same advantages and disadvantages, Zen Cart has demonstrated better competence and direction.

PayPal Shopping Cart

While PayPal’s Shopping Cart is free, it comes with two main catches. Firstly, you have to process payments with PayPal (which is rarely the cheapest option.) Secondly, PayPal tries to encourage each of your customers to sign up for a PayPal account and could damage your conversion rate in the process.


If you want to have a PayPal payment option, you do not have to use PayPal’s shopping cart. Most leading shopping cart options come with a PayPal payment option, which is testament to its ubiquity.

PayPal’s cart is lacking in features and sophistication. Its true benefit comes in its ease of set up. All you need to do is copy and paste code which directs visitors off your website onto PayPal’s.

Google Checkout


Google Checkout is similar to PayPal in its simplicity and ease of set up. Code can simply be copied and pasted into your website, or you can integrate Google Checkout as a payment option into another cart.


PrestaShop is a free and open source shopping cart that is aimed primarily at small and medium sized businesses. While it was started in France, the project is fully supported in English as well. A key feature of PrestaShop is PrestaStore, a website selling themes and modules for website customization.


PrestaShop is lightweight and has clean code, giving it a key advantage over some of its competitors. The software also comes with a high degree of flexibility around pricing and back office administration requirements.

Despite that, PrestaShop is still seriously lacking in some areas. Firstly, there is a lack of templates and modules available compared to some of their competitors. And, secondly, support could improve too. With time and growth, both of these issues could improve.


Shopify is a hosted solution that is simple to set up. For those who do not want to manage their own hosting and security, Shopify will take care of that on your behalf. The cart comes with a good range of templates and designs can easily be customized. The shopping cart software has a strong feature set; you can also access modules and applications developed by others.


With shopify, you will always be tied to the company and their platform. Another disadvantage of Shopify relates to their pricing policy. Prices range from $24-$699 per month with a transaction fee of 0%-2%.

About the Author

Jeff Foster is a co-founder of WebBizIdeas, a web design company specializing in social network development and ecommerce web design.

  • http://www.akitaonrails.com AkitaOnRails

    You could mention Spree (http://spreecommerce.com/) which is a true full feature contender to any of those options.

  • http://www.rohicks.com Ryan O. Hicks

    Surprised you didn’t list Open Cart.

    Excellent and easy to use cart.

    Also uses a MVC(+L). Get feature, good small community that supports it, and is free.

    I”m currently designing with CsCart and it’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what my company uses … meh.

  • http://www.musings.it Federica Sibella

    Thanks a lot for your nice selection. It comes really at the right time since I was looking for a comparison in e-commerce solution for a client of mine. Cheers!

  • http://designbeep.com Arshad Cini

    Thanks for putting them together Jeff:)

  • http://nidenart.se Jocke

    I was just looking for a shopping cart solution, this helped alot. Thanks!

  • Ben

    Anyone used WP e-Commerce? How does it compare to the above? Advantages/disadvantages?

  • http://www.evontech.com/ Mitchell

    True, there are innumerable options for shopping carts that the web development companies give us. But when you’re looking for best web design company to design a great shopping cart for you, come to http://www.evontech.com/. They are experts in designing shopping carts and have a long list of happy clientele.

  • http://www.lagoworks.nl Jelmer

    Good list but I’m missing Virtuemart here. Not a small player in the market plus it is open source.
    Although it is an extension of Joomla! itself there are plenty Virtuemart extensions available.

  • Matt27

    good post.

    I am about to start work on a website that will be using magento to power it.

    Love the package. not looking forward to figuring out how i go about implementing my own site design into it though.
    (if anyone knows of any decent tutorials for designing for magento please let me know! haha)

  • Steve

    OpenCart should really be in that list.

  • Marie

    You forgot about Ubercart, which is also free and open source.

  • http://www.jordanwalker.net Jordan Walker

    That is good look at the various shopping carts.

  • http://www.goldenpanda.in/ Ankit Bathija

    Hey, I think you should also include OpenCart, its a wonderful option and far better than ZenCart & osCommerce!

    • Ankit Bathija

      I am sorry – my mistake! OpenCart is no better than ZenCart & osCommerce, it is even worst.

      • http://www.ankitbathija.com/ Ankit Bathija

        That isn’t me! Why are you using my name!!!

    • Matt

      Agreed! It’s come a long way since the beta version I started using for an online store over a year ago, and even that has worked very nicely for my needs.

  • http://[email protected] Rob Erskine

    I should stumbled upon shopenvy.com. I haven’t used it yet but it looks super sophisticated. They offer printing on a multitude of mediums. Happy shopping

  • Gauner

    Hey, i’m searching for a very small and light shop solution which is easy to install and easy to style. got any one a tip for me?

  • http://www.webdesignervimal.com/teaser Vimal

    Nice read. Thank you :)

  • Fries

    Prestashop having a clean code ? It’s a joke ?
    Many things are mixed. You can’t really modify the templates without touching the core files.
    It uses the old old smarty template engine. And for the end, if you want any module (payment for example), you must pay !

  • http://readylocal.com Ann

    Like Ankit, I agree with including OpenCart on the list. Its a free lightweight solution to Magento and its a great alternative to PrestaShop. Much like Presta though, its lacking in modules and templates, but I think its growing.

    Thanks for compiling this list though. We need more of these!

  • http://knowledgecity.com Jae Xavier

    magento is awesome.

  • http://www.seanrice.net Sean Rice

    Hey! I’ve used ZenCart for my clients, and I have to say that by and large you can do anything you want with it so long as you are willing to work “under the hood”. Though, I can also say that the admin part of it could really use a UI redesign. Alas, it’s a solid solution for myself and my clients and the support base is quite helpful!

  • Joolz

    +1 for opencart. better than all these imo

  • http://123webdesigns.co.uk Goodwin

    Anyone have any views on the e-Commerce module for WordPress, it seems to be a popular choice at the moment.

  • alex

    Trying to install magento at the moment (still didn’t succeed..)…

    Was using oscommerce for years, but to say it in one word: it is: Crappppp
    Do NOT use oscommerce, i’m begging you, the code architecture is terrible to extend and upgrade… to install a module you have to core hack (!?!?!?!!!!) the system files…

    I hope magento is better…
    btw… opencart looks nice, but there was a security issue last year (search csrf opencart on google) wich the owner refused (!?!) to correct (mailing “you’re only wasting my time” to the guy who discovered the bug).. soooo i don’t know…

    wellwell, lets hope magento works.. (especially cause i love mvc frameworks like zend… =D ).

  • http://www.tomatocart.com/ Angela

    Nice post. What about TomatoCart? It is a good choice for ecommerce beginner. It is free, easy to control and user-friendly.

  • Clervius

    Haven’t done an eCommerce site yet.. but I know it’s coming. Is this easier?

  • http://www.houghtonlaird.com Barbara

    Great list. Does anyone have any thoughts on the Joomla ecommerce modules?

  • http://clifference.com Cliff

    No X-cart?

  • http://www.quicklinklist.com/ Alex

    Good article. Magento can be recommended for larger projects, as it’s rather ressource hungry and complex, offering loads of possibilities, which is outstanding if you need them and a nightmare if you don’t.

    For smaller projects i would recommend ZenCart over the other alternatives shown in the article. ZenCart is relatively easy to set up and has an active and helpful community, which is a huge advantage if you encounter problems with your installation.

  • http://www.vunkyblog.net Vunky

    Oscommerce is slowly dying and should be replaced :)

    I agree with your remark on the conversion issue with PayPal. The problem for most European countries is that PayPal is the only affordable payment processor available. If you have a european version of authorize.net it would be a blast!

  • http://www.borderxer.co.uk Web Design Bradford

    Yeh, probably got all the right ones for beginners there. Magneto is my personal favourite.

  • Jay

    I would agree, OS commerce is AWFUL!!
    Volusion is nice, but a bit pricey.

  • http://www.bigtunainteractive.com BigTuna Interactive

    I’m a big fan of Shopify. You have full reign with the code, and its ruby on rails environment (vision) is really easy to learn.

  • http://www.designspeech.com/ designspeech


    Anyone have any views on the e-Commerce module for WordPress, it seems to be a popular choice at the moment.

  • http://www.webdesigners-hub.com Vijendra Mishra

    Nice Roundup … i personally use magneto … gr8 cart…

  • http://www.born4digital.com Bournemouth Web Designer

    Great article, looks like you have all the main ones, i also quite like WP e-commerce which integrates well with WP (obviously – the clue is in the name) that doesn’t look like its in the list – thanks for sharing, great stuff

  • http://hmmm.stevencaddy.com/ Steven Caddy

    I can’t recommend FastSpring enough after having dealt with them. The components are simple and flexible. They cost a bit more per transaction than most, but they will literally build the integration point for you (within a week or two) for no extra cost.

    Their support people are fast and helpful too. By deciding not to get paid until you do, the whole model is setup to help you sell more stuff more quickly and easily. Digital fulfillment is built-in, unlike Shopify and some others.

    Having the cart and the payment gateway dealt with by the same provider makes things a lot simpler.