Online Stores vs. Shopping Cart Software

When we think of shopping carts, many tend to imagine a traditional shopping cart with that awkward front wheel pushing us to the right side of the aisle. Thankfully, online shopping carts are not as rigorous, but metaphorically are used to collect items from the retail store, and then pay for them at the cash register. Online shopping carts are essentially the same experience in a digital format.

The eCommerce shopping cart in its very basic form is an online store you create where you can sell a single item or multiple products: from clothing to electronics to tickets to anything. However, to create a functional system for your buyers, you need a framework, whereby you can present products, prices, establish a cart for multiple purchases, accept payments, apply taxes, coordinate inventory with vendors, calculate shipping and delivery and apply discounts. This framework is the shopping cart. A good shopping cart can support many of these functions. A great shopping cart does this, and makes this process easy for you and intuitive for your customer, especially when you start to scale bigger.

The first thing you should know is that there are two types of shopping carts: Hosted Shopping Carts and Shopping Cart Software.

Hosted Shopping Carts (a.k.a. eCommerce Stores): This is the most common form of owning a shopping cart. A hosted shopping cart is basically a shopping cart hosted on a vendor's site. For a monthly subscription, you rent the store from which you display your products. The eCommerce service takes care of many of the aspects mentioned above. The store also provides multiple templates for how you want to display your items. But in exchange for this ease to use, one stop shop, you are within the realm of only what they currently provide. Notwithstanding, many eCommerce stores are in fact far from being constrained, having a breadth of functionality and shopping cart features. eCommerce stores tend to be plenty for newbies or even experts that just want to test the waters with a new niche!

Shopping Cart Software: Rather than a hosted place to display your products, shopping cart software is software where you own the store (and the code, too). You can build it and host it wherever you want – ah, freedom! You are not limited by design, display or functionality. There are plenty of pre-assembled templates, where no technical programming is required. This doesn't mean even “grandma” can jump in. But someone with limited technical knowledge or a self-starter that doesn't mind a little tinkering can achieve success. Most of the time, small companies, and smart entrepreneurs typically hire this out using Upwork or Fiverr.

 In its simplest terms:

With Hosted Shopping Carts, you rent the house.

With Shopping Cart Software, you own the house.

But just like real estate, there are positives and negatives to both choices, and no one solution is best.

The optimal place to start is you. Here are some points to think about.

What are your store goals? Making money is nice, but you may want to start defining your goals by looking at your core customer. Think about your customer's needs or maybe even their frustrations, and how you can improve upon that. But careful, avoid what you think is best. Be critical to distinguish between what is nice to have vs. your customer's genuine needs. While we may think we are right, success follows the customer.

How much skills do you have? Do you have some meager technical skills (more than knowing how to turn on the computer)? For many shopping carts, you don’t need to know how to program, and you can always Fiverr a difficult task. But you have to be comfortable downloading “stuff.” However, if your best friend is the customer service agent, stick with an eCommerce store.

Time… your time is very valuable: We often don't think about it because we are caught up in being ultra-productive. For the one thing you do, there is another thing you don't do. Over-designing a shopping cart for a smaller audience may drag your time down, but getting a cheap looking online store could also dissuade customers. Keep a balance of time and maybe even a reasonable time limit to keep you in check. This is why we created rankings in the first place, so you can easily shorten the research.

The Cost Component: Many make the mistake of looking at up front cost. This is actually a vision or “big picture” question. While people tend to judge a meager monthly $30 – $70 eCommerce fee far cheaper than a $200 or even $1500 shopping cart fee, the true costs can me much different. Let’s look at the cost of a year’s time frame.

Choices                                                                         Time frame: 1 year

Most popular eCommerce Store                   $30 x 12 = $360/year for basic

Most meager Shopping Cart                           $199 one time

Of course, the better shopping carts are more expensive, but so are the better packages of popular eCommerce stores. So unless you just starting out or have a small web audience (which eCommerce stores are great for), costs should be less of a factor than you think. It comes back to what you want to accomplish. The smart money is on the value you want to create and ultimately build for your site.

Cost wise, shopping cart software tends to be better if you expect to have growing site years down the road.

Features and updates: This again is big picture thinking. Too many other writers will list reasons of Shopping Carts over eCommerce Stores or eCommerce Stores over Shopping Carts. The truth is that both approaches are at a point where you can setup the basics and achieve decent functionality. Both are constantly improving their services to be better, so as long as you go with a well-experienced vendor, you find a Shopping Cart Software or eCommerce Store that have the features you want. And this is primarily why we write independent review articles on Shopping Carts and eCommerce Stores. So, don't feel you are going to be short one basic feature or another – most of them have what you are looking for.

Flexibility vs Simplicity: I think this is one of the core difference when comparing Shopping Carts and hosted eCommerce store. eCommerce stores were initially targeted to those new to eCommerce, who wanted something simple to setup, while Shopping Carts were initially targeted to those familiar with eCommerce that wanted to do something on a more corporate scale. Today, both are emerging to meet growing demands from customers with less technical skill and customers of great technical skill.  However, it doesn’t mean significant differences and advantages don’t exist.

The eCommerce Store world: The pitch for eCommerce Store is simplicity. You can go to one place and have all the tools you need that are available within their platform. A big advantage is that you have full 24/7 support, and hosting is also included in your monthly subscription. The most popular tend to be Shopify, Weebly,, and BigCommerce.

The Shopping Cart Software world: Many shopping cart vendors offer their themes based on WooCommerce (WordPress’ version of an eCommerce store), Drupal, Magento or other work in concert as “extensions” of these platforms like venoms Magento Extensions, while some other shopping carts create their own proprietary platforms like Dokan, CS-Cart, Yith, and X-Cart . This provides flexibility to design a better shopping experience for your customers. But keep in mind that proprietary shopping carts are created from different programming languages (Drupal, HTML, WordPress, ASP, PHP). Once you go in one direction, it is hard to accommodate for another language.

Below is a great breakdown of Shopping Carts and eCommerce Store from showing a breakdown of the larger participants, but remember bigger doesn't mean better or even safer, as we'll learn in the next section.

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Security: After big companies like Visa, MasterCard and many large governments have been hacked, it is easy to believe that your shopping cart or eCommerce store could be in danger. And it true, there could always be a danger to this digital world. So how can you minimize this risk?

Most shopping carts and eCommerce provide a strong level of security. One may be slightly better than another, but Shopping Carts and eCommerce platforms take it seriously and are just as concerned about security as you are. A break in security not only mean potential trouble for their servers, but a loss of customers and customers are more difficult than servers to get back once they are lost. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Are there nightly backups, and how easily it is to be replaced and get back up?
  • Do the payment gateways are secure and compliant according to PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard)? If you are unsure, Visa and MasterCard keep lists of payment gateways and processors that are with PCI and meet their compliant secure.
  • Are there redundant servers, so if one server goes down in one location, will another come back up? How much time would that take?
  • Besides payments, what other risks would my customers be exposed to from using my Shopping Cart Software or eCommerce store?
  • What are other security measures there? Ask them before purchasing…

These are just some of the criteria you should look at before deciding on a Hosted Shopping Cart or Shopping Cart Software. So please, you are welcome to look around our site and read some of our reviews, and discover which shopping cart which works best for you.

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