When it comes to choosing shopping cart software for your business, a lack of options is not an issue. There are hundreds of platforms available today, many of which offer specialized business features for different online industries.
An abundance of choice is a good thing, as it means you'll be able to find something out there that works for you. However, it can also be overwhelming to compare all these options. Business owners are already under pressure, and nobody wants to have second thoughts about the vital piece of software that runs their website and online store. That's your central hub in the online world, and it needs to work!
Because there are so many shopping carts to choose from — ranging from small cart plugins to full-featured e-commerce platforms — we've developed a guide to help you narrow down your options. By knowing what your business needs and the features to look for to meet them, you'll be able to make an informed decision when choosing shopping cart software.
Planning for the Platform Evaluation Process
Establish Your Business's Needs
Start by compiling a list of the types of features you'll need for your business. Some industries have different requirements from others. For example, a website for a hardware store could require dozens of categories and subcategories to keep products organized. It would also need plenty of space for product variants, including multiple variant options for the same product, such as bulk wire sold by length, gauge and material. If your industry operates in such a way, you’ll need a platform that supports unlimited categories, lets you nest them appropriately into subcategories, and allows you to create unlimited variants for each product.
You must also account for your business's size and rate of growth. A small business shouldn’t start with a platform that's too large to handle (and might require a dedicated developer to keep it going), just as a large business shouldn’t constrain itself by the limits of its software.
Growing businesses also need to consider the future to ensure that the software they choose today will still work as the business and its inventory grow. While some e-commerce platforms target a specific business size and others can only scale up to a certain level, there are some that will work with any business size and can scale up as needed. Keep your business goals in mind when reflecting on the level of scalability you'll need.
Additionally, it's important to understand all the "technical" infrastructure needs of your business before you try to choose a shopping cart platform, because some platforms place limitations that can prevent you from launching your online store, and your business will suffer while you try to fix the problem. Don't pick a platform and try to work around its limitations: Pick one that won't limit you.
Write Down Your Nice-to-Have Features
Now, in addition to the essential needs of your business, think about the features you'd love your e-commerce website to have. If you need inspiration, look at popular online stores and marketplaces that belong to big brands. For example, maybe you want your store to have product reviews with star ratings like you see on Amazon, or maybe you love the idea of letting customers enlarge the images on your product pages. Product Q&A sections, customer wish lists, saved carts, and gift certificates are other popular features that can give you an edge.
For additional insights, look at your strongest competitors’ websites and make a note of the features that stand out to you. Your goal isn't to copy their websites but rather to familiarize yourself with the features that make for a great online store in your industry. Your target customers may expect many of these features.
Know Your Budget and Time Frame
How much time and money can you spend to get your website off the ground, and how much time can you devote every month to keeping it running? Your budget comes into play when choosing a shopping cart platform, deciding whether you need custom design or development, and determining whether you'll need staff members to handle the technical details.
Time and money have a complicated relationship when it comes to e-commerce, which is why you should always take both into account. Of course, it's possible to set up a great online store quickly and at a low cost, but trying to work too quickly and too cheaply can cost you much more later on. Prepare your budget so you can make a smart decision and never choose software solely based on price. "Free" software is never truly free, and if you're not careful, you could end up paying much more than expected on the web hosting and support needed to make that “free” software work. Knowing your budget, the cost of building an online store and being prepared to spend if needed can protect you from surprise expenses later.
Gather Your Notes and Start Shopping
With your list of requirements beside you, start looking at any shopping cart platforms that have caught your interest. If you don't know where to start, think about your merchant account and Payment Processor — PayJunction users need to ensure they choose a PayJunction-compatible shopping cart. This still leaves you with a list of over 80 possible shopping cart solutions!
Evaluating E-Commerce Platform Features
Your list of needed features will come in handy as you compare shopping cart software side by side. In addition to anything specific you're looking for, also compare the following:
Disk Space and Product Limits
Does the platform put a cap on the amount of storage space you can use or the number of products you can sell? Also check for limits on the number of images you can attach to a product.
Bandwidth is used whenever a visitor goes to your site, with higher-quality images and video using bandwidth more per visitor. Some e-commerce platforms limit your bandwidth, which can result in overage fees during high-traffic days, or even bigger problems like your site going offline completely. You can't just assume you'll have low traffic, especially if your marketing starts to pay off — and you have to prepare for the unexpected, as well. Popular sites like Reddit and Digg are known for sending large amounts of surprise traffic to websites, so if customers share links to your online store, you could get a large influx of traffic at any time.
Categories and Store Navigation
This feature ties into the needs of your industry regarding product categorization, as well as navigational and SEO benefits. For example, a platform that displays "breadcrumb" category navigation helps customers and also provides a search engine boost.
Depth and Breadth of Features
Does the shopping cart software offer product reviews, Q&As, wish lists, or any of the other features you want for your store? Look for all the features from your list as well as other excellent e-commerce tools like email marketing features, built-in coupon and promotion creators and embeddable “buy” button widgets.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is crucial for successful e-commerce, and while much of SEO is tied to the content you write on your website, a great deal of it revolves around website structure that can be built into your shopping cart software. An SEO-friendly e-commerce solution should include human-readable URLs, customizable title tags and metadata, and shortcuts like an auto-generated XML sitemap.
Apps and Associated Costs
Most platforms offer additional customization and features through apps, which can be great for expanding the capabilities of your store. Many of these apps come at a price, though, so keep note of potential costs. Some e-commerce software relies more heavily on apps than others, which may mean there are features in the core of the software itself, creating better value for your money.
Integrations allow you to connect your favorite software, like QuickBooks, MailChimp, Avalara or other business tools, directly to your online store. Some platforms also integrate with marketplaces like Amazon and eBay for multichannel selling. The benefit of integration is that you can control multiple parts of your business from the same administration dashboard.
Store Design and Themes
Many platforms provide a selection of store templates you can install to instantly design your website. The look and feel of your site is important for your brand, so the ability to customize premade themes is helpful. In addition to looking nice, themes need to be up to modern standards, which include mobile friendliness.
Some e-commerce software themes come with a "mobile theme" that activates when the customer visits from a tablet or smartphone, but the better option is to choose a theme with responsive design. Responsive websites alter their layout to fit the visitor's screen. Google prioritizes responsive websites in search results, so choosing a responsive theme will help boost your SEO.
If you have a question about how to use your shopping cart software, where can you turn for answers? Some e-commerce providers maintain support staff, while others are geared toward self-help through community forums or other online resources. Depending on how tech-savvy you feel, you may want to ensure you'll have professional support available. Be aware that some providers charge for support or limit access to office hours.
Even though pricing is often the first thing a website owner checks, we've listed it last because you can make a much more informed decision when you've learned about the other factors first.
When you compare shopping cart software pricing, look at the cost of the platform itself alongside any supplemental costs, such as web hosting, security and support. Some e-commerce providers include all these under a single fee, while others provide only the cart software itself, meaning you'll have to find adequate hosting separately.
By following the guidelines we've laid out here, you'll be able to make an informed decision when selecting the best shopping cart for your business. Remember to start with what you need and work from there so you can narrow down your options and arrive at the best possible result.