Shopping carts are written in a variety of different programming languages. Some of them provide full access to the “source code”, thus allowing experienced programmers to make modifications to the system features, some others don’t. Some shopping carts run on Windows Web servers, some on Unix, others on both. In most cases, you can place the shopping cart on your Web server simply by transferring its files there using any FTP software, where FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol.
Licensed vs. Hosted Shopping Carts
Shopping cart software can be generally categorized into two main categories.
- Licensed software: The software is downloaded and then installed on a Web server. This is most often associated with a one-time fee, although there are many free products available as well. The main advantages of this option are that the merchant owns a license and therefore can host it on any Web server that meets the server requirements, and that the source code can often be accessed and edited to customize the application.
- Hosted service: The software is never downloaded, but rather is provided by a hosted service provider and is generally paid for on a monthly/annual basis; also known as the application service provider (ASP) software model. Some of these services also charge a percentage of sales in addition to the monthly fee. This model often has predefined templates that a user can choose from to customize their look and feel. Predefined templates limit how much users can modify or customize the software with the advantage of having the vendor continuously keep the software up to date for security patches as well as adding new features.
Basic (PayPal, Google Checkout) vs. full-featured shopping cart
When you’re making a decision on how to allow customers that visit your Web site to purchase products or services from it, the first thing to decide is whether you want:
- A simple way for them to purchase a product/service
- A comprehensive e-commerce system that allows you to manage your catalog, discounts, process orders, etc.
Basic shopping carts
In the first scenario, what you need is a basic shopping cart, and there are several good, free options for you. Remember, these basic shopping carts simply allow you to place a link on your Web site that will let your customers purchase that product or service. Things like managing discounts, specials, promotions, product options, etc. will not be available. You will also have limited or no control on shipping options, making multiple payment options available, etc.
Among these basic shopping carts, there are the free ones provided by Google and PayPal.
Full-featured shopping carts
Most merchants need more than just an “add to cart” button. For them, there is a vast array of options in the market today. These advanced shopping carts are not just a “shopping cart”, but rather full-featured eCommerce applications that handle everything from the storefront catalog to sophisticated store management tools.
As you will see in the next section, the first major decision to make is between a hosted and a licensed shopping cart: do you prefer subscribing to a service, or buying a one-time license and host the shopping cart software on your Web site? There are pros and cons to both approaches, and they are discussed below.