What is a Zen Cart and why would I want one?

You operate a small business selling goods or services. You know that having an Internet sales channel is key to your success. What are your options?

Option Issues
1. A large hosted e-commerce site, such as EBay, Yahoo Small Business or Amazon. Vendors like these offer total solutions. You use a wizard to build your site, and they host it. And because they're large operations, you can be reasonably confident they won't disappear tomorrow.
  • Very little work required; many of the payment collection headaches are handled for you
  • May be harder to add "branding" information and additional content
  • Some sites take a commission or charge a monthly fee
  • Limited ability to customize
  • Some of these solutions do not scale well as your store grows
  • May be hard to migrate away from these sites; they control your data and possibly even your brand
Be careful when a hosted e-commerce vendor offers you a free domain name with the purchase of a cart. In all likelihood, they own the domain, not you, making it very difficult for you to move away from them if you decide to change your cart. This is a classic anti-churn measure; watch out for it.
2. A smaller hosted e-commerce site, such as Shopify, RightCart, or eCrater. Vendors like these also offer total solutions.
  • They have many of the same advantages and disadvantages as their larger cousins listed above. However, many of these sites only charge you when you sell, so they may be less costly for very small vendors. They also typically offer much more customization ability and a less "boxy" user interface. At the same time, because these sorts of companies are often small startups, their survival is not certain.
3. A back-end hosted e-commerce site, such as BV or GoECart. Vendors like these host the database and back-end functionality of the cart; you host the front end and modify it to your needs. Much more customizable than previously mentioned solutions, but more expensive; typically a monthly fee will be charged for hosting. There may also be fees based on the number of products you sell. Some of these systems allow cart functionality to be nailed on to an existing website; others will require that their cart construction tools/wizard be used to create the front end.
4. An e-commerce package you host yourself, such as Zen Cart, OSCommerce, CubeCart, or Q-Shop. Packages like these offer the ultimate in customizability. However, much more time and expertise is required to manage these systems. You will have to pay for your own hosting and SSL certificate, but you own the software so there are no other recurring fees. Because you own all the software, you can customize it to work exactly the way you want it to. Of course, to do this, you will either need to know a programming language such as PHP or ASP, or to hire someone who does. You will also need to know HTML, CSS and JavaScript.


So as you can see, you have a number of choices. Things you should be thinking about in making your decision are:
  • Which cart features are mandatory, which are important, and which are nice to have. Compare this list to the cart's feature list to see which carts have all your mandatory or important features.
  • How much time and money do you have? How serious are you about your business? Are you prepared to expend effort to build your website or pay someone to do it? How much is your time worth?
  • How well supported is the cart? Open source carts such as OSCommerce and Zen Cart are free, but there is no formal support; documentation is generally very sparse and problem resolution is done through forums (bulletin boards) where volunteers answer questions.
  • Can you try the cart before committing too much time or money to the project? Some systems offer trial versions for evaluation.
  • If you are hosting the back end (option 4), will you be able to upgrade the site as new releases come out? Or will you have the budget to hire someone to do it?
  • Think TCO (total cost of ownership), not just price. Will you outgrow your cart in a year? If so, all the time, effort and money you invested in building it will be lost, and you'll have to start all over again. How about the recurring costs? What are they? Each of the small business systems mentioned has its own constraints. What constraints can you live with?
  • If you want to accept credit cards, you will need to investigate getting a merchant account. The simplest way to do this is with PayPal, but as your volumes grow, it becomes more effective to do your own credit card processing.

Zen Cart is an excellent choice for a small business with a substantial product breadth, a reasonable sales volume and a development budget (in time and/or dollars). It is extremely feature rich out of the box, and can be customized by any reasonably competent programmer. It can be extended to meet the product configuration and parameterization needs of most industries. However, it's not for everyone - if you're selling t-shirts on your blog, you'd probably be better off using something like RightCart or CafePress. And if you're selling off Aunt Edna's collection of Hummel figurines, you might want to consider Yahoo Auctions. It's your business - do the necessary due diligence. Really - break out the calculator and run the numbers.

As an exercise, let's compare a few scenarios using 1 or 2 type solutions (hosted e-commerce) versus an option 4 type solution (running your own cart). The numbers used are for the purposes of the example only; please get current pricing information when doing your calculations.

Scenario A Scenario B Analysis
Option 2 (Shopify): A commission only cart charging 3%. Assume it takes 5 hours to set up the cart. Option 4 (Zen Cart): An open source (free) cart running on a shared hosting package which costs $7/month plus $20/yr for an SSL certificate. Assume it takes 20 hours to set up the cart. Valuing your time at $20/hr, you would have to sell almost $13,500 worth of products before option 4 is less expensive. Valuing your time at $0/hr, you would have to sell almost $3500 worth of products before option 4 is less expensive.
Option 1 (GoDaddy Quick Cart): A 100 product catalog on a hosted e-commerce service which charges $25/month, plus $20/yr for an SSL certificate. Assume it takes 10 hours to set up the cart. Option 4 (Zen Cart): An open source (free) cart running on a shared hosting package which costs $7/month plus $20/yr for an SSL certificate. Assume it takes 40 hours to set up the cart. Valuing your time at $20/hr, your break-even point for option 4 would come in year 3 of operations, after which you would only pay $104/yr in fees, versus $320/yr for option 1. Valuing your time at $0/hr, you would be better off in the first year of operations to choose option 4.
Option 1 (Yahoo Small Business): An unlimited product catalog on a hosted e-commerce service which charges $40/month plus 1.5% of each transaction. Assume it takes 20 hours to set up the cart. Option 4 (Zen Cart): An open source (free) cart running on a shared hosting package which costs $7/month plus $20/yr for an SSL certificate. Assume it takes 80 hours to set up the cart. Assuming $10,000 of sales per year, valuing your time at $20/hr, your break-even point for option 4 would come in year 3 of operations, after which you would only pay $104/yr in fees, versus $630/yr for option 1. Valuing your time at $0/hr, you would be better off in the first year of operations to choose option 4.


Of course, you must also be sure you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison. Check the cart features and constraints for each option, and be sure that the price point you're using in your computations corresponds to a product meeting your requirements. For instance, in the second comparison (GoDaddy), the price point for option 1 is based on the number of items in your catalog. A larger catalog increases the price to $50/month. In the third comparison (Yahoo), the price point for option 1 does not include cross-selling features; if these are required, the monthly fee rises to $100/month.

Want to learn more about Zen Cart specifically? Take a look at these resources: Then take a look at That Software Guy, Inc.'s Zen Cart page to see what I've done. I would be happy to help advise you on your project.

Good luck in your e-commerce adventure!

Recommended Reading