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Choosing the Right Shopping Cart

Our current “Top 4”, last updated May 1, 2018

by Ryan Design Studio

One of the biggest decisions you have to make when starting an e-commerce site is which shopping cart to choose.  You need a cart that will grow with you, has all of the features you need, and won’t bankrupt you with monthly fees once you start making a good number of sales. First, let’s talk about the different types of carts available.  There are two main types of shopping carts – hosted and self-hosted.  There are pros and cons of each approach.

Hosted Carts

Hosted carts, or Software as a Service (SaaS) carts, are companies that charge you a monthly fee to use the software on their server.  You don’t actually own the license, and they perform all of the upgrades and maintenance for you.  This is a fairly new type of cart, and there are new ones popping up all of the time.

Pros – easy to get started, no technical knowledge needed, secure, feature-rich, no need for PA-DSS compliance (click here to learn more about PA-DSS compliance)

Cons – can get EXTREMELY expensive the busier you get, as many of them charge a percentage fee on transactions.  If the company goes out of business you are out of luck.  You usually can’t get into the source code to perform complex changes and custom features, some don’t allow you to have your own SSL certificate.

Popular SaaS Carts:  Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion

Self-Hosted Carts

With self-hosted carts you purchase the license from the cart company then install the software on the server of your choice.  Even if the company goes out of business, you still own the license and continue to use the software for as long as you want.

Pros – the biggest benefit to this type of cart is that you own it and you can do anything you want with it.  The lifetime costs are also much lower.  They are much more flexible, as you can edit the code and manipulate it any way you want.  No need to wait for the cart company to develop a new feature when you can just build it yourself.

Cons – many of these carts require a higher technical knowledge, and may even require a professional to install and customize for you.  They also have to be PA-DSS compliant in order to accept credit cards online (click here to learn more about PA-DSS compliance).  Upgrades need to be done by you or your developer and are not automatic like the hosted carts.

Popular Self-Hosted Carts:  Pinnacle Cart, Magento, WooCommerce

So, which cart?

There are more than 100 carts out there, so which one do you choose for your business?  The first thing you need to do is determine what features and functions you will need both for your customer and as the store owner.  Will you be selling to wholesale customers as well as retail?

Will you offer free shipping?  Do you need to integrate your cart with Quickbooks?  Do you want to send out abandoned cart email reminders?  Once you have a list of features, go through each of the carts and see which ones have everything you need.  Also pay attention to which ones are included and which ones cost extra.  Remember to plan ahead and think about what your business may need 5 years down the road.  Pick the cart that addresses 75% of your needs and don’t just pick one based on what your friend/family member recommends!

Below are the top four choices currently available, as well as some to avoid.


Our personal favorite, so it gets first billing.  We’ve built over 150 sites using this platform, and our clients love it.

Cart type: Self-Hosted

Cost: $1500 (included for free as part of sites we build) license, plus $25/month

Pros: Easy upgrades, search-engine friendly, always on top of the latest trends and technology, easily integrates with many of the third party applications such as, Mailchimp and Webgility.  One click upgrades ensure you are always on the latest version.

Cons: the default templates aren’t great so you’ll want a pro to design one for you. No reward points or complex promotions, and there really isn’t a template or developer market here, meaning if it doesn’t exist you have to have it customized. Luckily we have already made quite a few of those ourselves!

Best for: Customers who want full-control over their store, the ability to customize as much as they want, will scale with their business and have all of the latest bells and whistles.  In short, if you are a professional company and want a self-hosted cart to match, this one is for you.


Americommerce just bought themselves back from Capital One as they weren’t happy with the direction the big corporation was taking.  Frankly, it makes all of us happy as well as development and support took a big hit when Capital One took over. Quite simply, this cart has the best features out of the box that I have seen.  Their system is well-coded, easy to understand and extremely robust.   This is by far our favorite as far as hosted carts go.

Cart type: Hosted

Cost: $24-$300/month

Pros: Features, features, features!  Spark Pay has a ton of them right out of the box.  Easily customizable templates, tons of support in the form of videos and how-tos. Their tech support is friendly and easy to use, and you won’t feel like just a number.  True multi-store functionality allowing you to operate multiple stores from the same admin area.

Cons: The only real con is that you can’t customize features.  If it doesn’t exist, you can’t have it without spending some big money with their developers.  Not a ton of free templates to choose from yet as they are still growing.  Not nearly as robust a community as Shopify.

Best for: If you prefer hosted carts vs self-hosted carts, this one is a great choice for anyone who wants to sell online.  It will scale with your business, has tons of features and the design can be customized however you like.


This used to be a cart that we didn’t recommend, but boy have they come a long way in the past year.  The company that owns WordPress now owns Woo as well, so it looks like they will eventually combine into one platform.  Currently Woo exists as a plug-in to WordPress.  One very important thing to note:  This is not a cart you can run yourself – you absolutely need a developer to assist you!

Cart type: Self-Hosted

Cost: Free

Pros: Free and easy to install. If you already have a WordPress site, you just need to install the free plug-in.  Many hosting platforms come with WordPress as a one-click install, so setup couldn’t be easier.  Hundreds of thousands of free and paid themes available, and just about every plug-in you can think of has already been developed.

Cons: Requires a hosting account and a developer to maintain WordPress and the plug-ins.  Security is a huge issue, as WordPress is the most hacked platform on the planet.  Plugin updates can break other plugins, or the cart all together.  Not PA-DSS compliant, so your choices of credit card gateways are limited.  Support from WooCommerce themselves is weak, they ‘may respond in 24 hours’, but that is what you get with a free cart.Best for: A content-heavy site or a site owner that likes to create their own page layouts and wants the power of WordPress front and center.  As previously mentioned (but a point I can’t stress enough): this cart requires you partner with a developer and host both for the initial setup and the long haul.  It requires constant updates and tweaks, and you do NOT want to manage that yourself.


The #1 cart out there, they have a lot of capital and a very robust ecosystem.

Cart type: Hosted

Cost: $29-$2500/month plus a transaction fee of up to 2%

Pros: Extremely easy to set up.  Clean and well-designed templates, with thousands of paid templates to choose from.  Lots of add-on modules and features available from hundreds of active mod developers.  CDN to help speed up page load times.

Cons: The biggest issue with Shopify is the monthly cost (see our Why Not Shopify post).  The busier you get, the more expensive your monthly plan gets.  When you get REALLY busy, they not only charge you over $2000/month, but they also take a portion of your sales.  That can wind up costing you tens of thousands of dollars a year.  Wholesale functionality is extremely limited, although they are apparently working on that.  The built-in blog is weak compared to WordPress.

Best for: A great place for makers or creatives who are looking to get started quickly or move away from Etsy and don’t plan on a large monthly sales volume.

Carts to Avoid

There are some carts you should just avoid all together, either because they are not PA-DSS compliant (meaning you can’t accept credit cards on your site), or they are just dated and lack core features.  As a general rule, avoid any free cart as they just won’t have the support or security you need and won’t be able to grow with your business. The ‘avoid’ list:

X-Cart – dated, buggy, lack of tech support and features, they don’t keep up with the latest technology and trends

osCommerce – dated, not PA-DSS compliant, insecure, difficult to edit

BigCommerce – awful customer service, a habit of increasing fees exponentially without notice

Volusion – Haven’t kept up with the times and it appears very dated

Zen Cart – a relic

Magento – requires a PHD in computer science to edit, their Enterprise version costs more than a new Tesla

Magento GO – discontinued

PrestaShop – Not PA-DSS compliant

Yahoo Stores – just not suited for a professional e-commerce site, no mobile support

CS-Cart – basically just X-Cart with another name

OpenCart – not PA-DSS compliant

CubeCart – a nightmare

Weebly – not a professional platform, not PA-DSS compliant, not a lot of features

Wix – see Weebly

Of course this list will change regularly as carts come and go all of the time.  As an example, osCommerce use to be ‘it’ for e-commerce sites, and now I have it on my ‘avoid’ list.  No one really  knows what the future will bring in e-commerce, but hopefully if you chose the right cart to start, it will grow and adapt with your business and the ever-changing landscape. Is your cart not on the list or do you have questions about a particular cart?  Drop me an email and let me know, I’ll let you know!


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