One of the major decisions when evaluating shopping cart software is whether to go with a hosted or self-hosted solution. This may be confusing, but bear with me while we go through the differences.
Hosted software means the software runs on someone else’s server, and they maintain it. Examples are if you have a blog on WordPress.com or a website through Weebly, or another site where you log into their website to use their software. They maintain the service and the code, and you just use it. You pay for the service, not just the software.
Self-hosted software means that you install the software on your own account that is hosted with a web hosting company. You pay for the software (or not, if it’s open source), but you install and maintain it yourself. For example, this blog is made using WordPress software, but I installed it on my own server and keep it updated myself.
Decisions are all about trade-offs, so here is how these options stack up.
- It’s very easy. You just sign up and go.
- You can ask for support anytime and the cost is included in your subscription.
- You don’t have to worry about installing updates, getting hacked, or other headaches that come with hosting your own software.
- Service usually runs on high-availability servers that don’t often have downtime and are optimized to run that exact software, rather than having to cater to a wide variety of hosting customers.
- Customizations will be limited (although you can often still do quite a lot). For example, WordPress.com comes with standard functionality that meets most people’s needs for blogging, but you can’t install your own plugins.
- Depending on how the licensing works, it may be more expensive as it is a monthly fee rather than a one-time fee. Sometimes for e-commerce there is a per-transaction fee. Note: while it isn’t fun to pay a lot for software, that money goes to pay developers and the people who support it. Sometimes it is very worth it to pay high fees for good software. It’s similar to the mortgage or lease if you were to rent a building–if you don’t pay much you may be living in a dump.
- You can customize your software as much as you want. For example, with self-hosted WordPress, there are thousands of plugins and themes to choose from and you can write your own or hire someone to create custom plugins for you.
- Hosting your own software comes with a lot of headaches. You need to keep your software updated so it does not get hacked. Installing updates can sometimes break your site. If your site does get hacked, you may need to pay to get it cleaned up. You may also lose valuable data or have downtime.
- You will be responsible for PCI-compliance, which are the regulations around collecting and storing credit card data.
- If you want high-availability hosting, it can be expensive.
- Customization is nice, but hiring a developer can be very expensive, and then you have custom code you have to keep maintained and upgrade every few years.
When it comes to blogging and promotion, I often recommend people self-host WordPress, because it is not too hard to do. But when it comes to e-commerce, you are dealing with complex software and security concerns, which also means liability concerns. You don’t want to go down because you accidentally broke your site doing an update and your developer is on vacation. For a big company who has a dedicated IT person it’s not a problem, but for the average tiny shop, I recommend starting with a hosted shopping cart. You may or may not want to move later on, but you probably don’t want to start out with all the headaches of hosting your own software when you are newly in business. E-commerce is very complex and it is worth it to go with a company who can handle the technical aspects of it for you.
I have two recommendations: Shopify and 3dcart. I personally like Shopify the best, aesthetically and in terms of customizations, but it’s always good to try a few options. I have also heard good things about LemonStand, although I have not tried them.
A hybrid option
If you are dead-set on your own website on your own hosting and being able to do whatever you want, you might consider a remotely-hosted shopping cart. This means that the site itself is on your hosting, but you insert shopping cart buttons that take the person to a shopping cart and payment screens on another site. This remotely-hosted cart takes care of all the security concerns, order tracking, etc. This is a great solution if you already have a good site you want to keep and just want to add some products to it. Here are some examples:
- The old standby: PayPal
- A shopping cart that I have worked with and thought was pretty good: Mal’s E-commerce
- Haven’t tried it but looks good: FoxyCart
If you want to self-host despite my warnings…
I support you! I self-host this site and I think it’s totally do-able. I’m a web developer though, so keep that in mind. I do my own technical support–if you aren’t a super geek, you will want to have a developer you can call on to help you out.
I don’t currently have a self-hosted shopping cart recommendation. There are sooo many options and I don’t like most of them. But from my cursory examination, if I were searching I would start with checking out OpenCart. I would not recommend Magento unless you are very technically savvy and/or have a lot of money to pay a developer, as it is overkill for most people. I would also not recommend ZenCart and osCommerce as they are old and clunky.
Here are other vendors you’ll also need to work with and my recommendations on those.
Web Hosting Recommendations
- For regular web hosting, I recommend SiteGround. They are independent, unlike a lot of web hosts that seem like separate companies but are actually owned by the conglomerate EIG, which buys up small hosts and then makes them suck.
- If you need a dedicated server, I recommend LiquidWeb. They have excellent technical staff and are one of the best hosts period.
Domains and merchant accounts
You need a domain no matter which type of hosting you choose…you will likely need a merchant account unless you use PayPal.