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An online shopping cart, or e-commerce shopping cart, is software that allows customers to make purchases on a website. You can use an e-commerce website builder to set up a cart and a website simultaneously, or you can download and customize an online shopping cart and add it to your existing website.
If you’re starting an e-commerce business, consider using a platform with a built-in online shopping cart for simplicity. If you already have a website or have a web developer on your team, though, a more flexible e-commerce cart may be right for you.
Here are our picks for the best online shopping cart providers.
Shopify: Best built-in online shopping cart
Shopify’s online shopping cart can calculate shipping rates for different products, gather data on customers who’ve abandoned their carts and provide a mobile experience to customers who are shopping on their phones.
Shopify also allows you to choose from dozens of different payment gateways — though you’ll pay an additional transaction fee if you don’t use Shopify Payments.
Shopify’s online shopping cart is part of a full suite of online store builder tools, including web hosting, omnichannel selling, marketing tools and shipping label printing. This makes it a good choice for those who need all those features and don’t want to shop around for each one.
Who should use Shopify: Businesses that sell physical products online and are rebuilding their websites or building them for the first time. Read NerdWallet's review of Shopify.
Square Online: Best free built-in online shopping cart
Square Online is a website builder for businesses that process payments using Square’s point-of-sale system. Square’s shopping cart can automatically calculate taxes and accept payments using Square, Cash App Pay, Apple Pay, Google Pay and Afterpay.
But you’ll have to upgrade to a paid version — which starts at $29 per month, on par with Shopify’s basic plan — for additional features like abandoned cart emails and gift receipts.
While there are other free online shopping carts, most are licensed software, which means you’ll have to download and integrate it into your website yourself, requiring relatively advanced web development skills. By contrast, Square Online offers a simple way to expand into online sales, and it may be sufficient if you have more important sales channels like a physical storefront.
Who should use Square Online: Brick-and-mortar businesses that want to expand into online sales. Read NerdWallet’s review of Square Online.
Shift4Shop: Best shopping cart for B2B sellers
Shift4Shop is an e-commerce website builder and a sister product to Shift4, a payment processor. In 2020, Shift4 acquired the online shopping cart software 3dcart, and now you may see Shift4Shop’s shopping cart under either name. (Both are the same thing.)
Shift4Shop’s online shopping cart allows customers to save their carts for later and see shipping rates and sales tax rates. You can also send emails, including discount codes, to customers who abandon their carts. And you can even accept eChecks and payments over the phone for customers who prefer that. Shift4 Payments is built in, however; it’s not possible to set up Shift4Shop with a different payment processor.
If you’re building a B2B website from scratch, Shift4Shop’s all-in-one website builder offers custom and wholesale pricing options and preorder functionality that make it a good fit for companies that often sell in bulk and need to plan their inventory.
If you already have a website, Shift4Shop also offers a licensed online shopping cart. You can use a plug-in to add a Shift4Shop shopping cart to a WordPress website, or create a subdomain that sends visitors to your Ship4Shop storefront if your website runs on a different hosting service. Plus, you can create “buy now” widgets and embed them on your website.
Who should use Shift4Shop: Businesses that sell primarily in bulk to other businesses, whether or not they already have a website. Read NerdWallet’s review of Shift4Shop.
WooCommerce: Best shopping cart plug-in for WordPress users
WooCommerce allows you to add shopping cart functionality to an existing WordPress website. The WooCommerce plug-in is free to download and is also open-source, meaning you can edit and customize it to your business’s needs.
WooCommerce offers many of the advanced capabilities of a full-service online store builder. You can use WooCommerce or additional plug-ins to list products, customize the checkout experience, create discounts and coupons, track your stock levels and more.
WooCommerce also offers its own payment processor that can accept credit and debit cards and Apple Pay. You can choose to use Stripe, Square, PayPal or other payment processors as well.
Who should use WooCommerce: Businesses that already rely on WordPress websites and want to add full e-commerce functionality to those websites.
OpenCart: Best online shopping cart to add to an existing website
OpenCart is an online shopping cart that you have to license and download to add to your existing website, rather than building your website using online shopping cart software the way you would with Shopify or Square Online.
OpenCart’s software is free to install and update. After installation, OpenCart offers features like rewards programs, a dashboard for managing affiliate marketers, the ability to accept payments in foreign currencies and more.
However, you may need a developer’s help to take advantage of all of its features fully. Plus, OpenCart doesn’t offer built-in payment processing; you’ll have to choose from one of 36 payment processors that OpenCart can integrate with, which adds another decision point and relationship you’ll need to manage.
Who should use OpenCart: Businesses that have an in-house web developer and a robust existing website.
What is an online shopping cart?
An online shopping cart is the software that allows customers to select and pay for products on a business’s website.
This part of the checkout process normally includes the shopping cart itself — where your customers can view the items they wish to purchase, change quantities, apply discount codes and see approximate shipping rates or tax amounts — and the payment gateway or payment processor, where customers enter credit or debit card information and pay for their items.
If you run your e-commerce website on an all-in-one platform, like Shopify or Square Online, you may not recognize an online shopping cart as a distinct tool. But if you’re adding e-commerce functionality to an existing website, you’ll need software so that customers can take this step in the process.
Types of online shopping carts
Hosted online shopping carts
Online store builders usually offer e-commerce shopping carts, as well as website hosting and web design tools. These are often referred to as “hosted” carts because the e-commerce platform manages all your online store’s elements on its own servers and is responsible for system backups, maintenance, upgrades and security.
When you use an all-in-one website builder, you don’t have to download and install the shopping cart software onto a website that lives separately. This can make hosted online shopping carts best for business owners who are launching their e-commerce website for the first time, or those with limited web development experience who prefer an all-in-one, easy-to-manage solution.
Licensed online shopping carts
A licensed online shopping cart is software that you can acquire, download and install on your existing web server. A company may offer a paid version of its shopping cart software that you can license (Shift4Shop, for instance), or you can license free, open-source options like OpenCart.
In general, licensed software offers greater flexibility and customization than hosted options do. However, making use of those capabilities can require significant web design skills. Licensed e-commerce shopping carts can also come with greater upkeep, as you’ll have to update software yourself and handle potential security aspects like PCI compliance on your own.
If you have that existing infrastructure or coding ability — or you’re OK hiring an expert — a licensed cart may make sense for you. If not, you may be better off choosing an all-in-one website builder.
How to choose an online shopping cart
Consider these questions when choosing the best e-commerce shopping cart for your business.
How much does it cost?
The price of an online shopping cart depends on a variety of factors. Monthly fees for e-commerce website builders that include online shopping carts can range from $10 per month to more than $200 per month, with more features available at higher price points.
By comparison, a free open-source shopping cart may seem appealing. But note that you’ll have to assume lots of other costs: web hosting, payment processing and potentially paying a developer to build your website.
How will you take payments?
Some online shopping carts, like Shopify and Square, offer a built-in payment processor that you can use to accept credit and debit card payments. Others offer you the chance to choose your payment processor. If you go that route, look for shopping cart software that doesn’t require you to pay an extra fee for using your desired payment processor.
Is it as customizable as you need?
While most e-commerce shopping carts serve the same basic purpose, you’ll need to think more specifically about your particular needs.
Do you need all-inclusive software that allows you to build and manage your online store? Or do you already have a business website and just need to add an online shopping cart feature? Do you need advanced SEO, reporting tools or email marketing capabilities — or just a digital storefront?
Next, consider your own skills. Depending on your experience level, you may want a simple, clean-cut software that’s known for its usability. On the other hand, if you have a technical background or plan to hire a developer, an open-source option may be less intimidating. You’ll also want to think about how much you want to change the look and feel of your online shopping cart and whether the cart’s layout is customizable.
Last, think about what components you’ll need to integrate with your online shopping cart. If there are particular business apps and tools that you rely on, make sure you choose a cart that can work with those tools. Or, if you choose an all-in-one e-commerce website builder, make sure that you’re willing to replace your existing software suite with what’s built into your new one.
A version of this article was first published on Fundera, a subsidiary of NerdWallet.