Shopping carts pt.2

In response to an earlier request (part one), Esther has generously written an article about shopping carts, comparing the advantages of Yahoo’s store (fee based) and Zen Cart (free). Still needed is a volunteer to write about the travails of setting up a cart from the get-go to include such topics as merchant services, site hosting, security and the like. In addition to Esther’s article which follows, I’d recommend reading Tom Antion who’s written a free ebook (pdf) on selecting a shopping cart. He’s also written a series (pt.1 pt.2 pt.3) describing “22 questions to ask when buying a shopping cart system”. Another resource listing (and some ratings) of shopping carts can be found on Scripty Goddess.

On to today’s entry. Esther Melander has worked as a designer of children’s clothing (sold in big box retail and specialty boutique stores), a technical designer, and a pattern maker for the last ten years. Her latest venture is the online retail boutique, which features baby gifts, clothing, and accessories. Esther continues to work as a contract pattern maker, part-time librarian and squeezes in regular updates to her blog Design Loft.

Yahoo to Zen-Cart
It is easy to get overwhelmed when trying to find a suitable e-commerce shopping cart. On top of the dozens of possible choices, you must determine site security, web hosting, design, ease of navigation, and ease of maintenance. In some cases, it makes the most sense to hire an independent web designer to set-up and maintain your site. In my case hiring a web designer was not an option. I had to do it myself.

It is also tempting to get a basic e-commerce site up as quickly as possible. But as Suzanne from The Good Mama says, “Don’t take any shortcuts.” Shopping cart systems fall into two basic categories – cookie-cutter designs built with wizards or complete customization requiring special programming. In this article I will share my experience with using Yahoo Webhosting with merchant services and my transition to an open-source shopping cart, Zen-cart. Nearly all shopping carts and related services do essentially the same thing. The difference lies in how reliable and cost effective they are.

Yahoo Webhosting
Yahoo offers a quick, easy to set-up shopping cart system. It is entirely possible to have a shopping cart live within a few hours of signing up. They offer a design wizard and a few templates to get you started. Store operations are easy to set-up too. You can set-up shipping table rates, checkout/order processes, and payment options with a few clicks. Merchant services automatically includes a security certificate. Yahoo maintains site upgrades with almost no interruption of your site. The administration area show site statistics including conversions, sales, inventory, etc. It is a pretty quick, and relatively easy, system to use.

To make a shopping cart truly your own, you must have all of your graphics and colors ready to go. They must be configured to work with Yahoo’s design wizard and chosen template. Yahoo offers SiteBuilder, a free html editor that will allow you to customize even further. More experienced designers can use FrontPage or Dreamweaver to customize.

I chose Yahoo, initially, because of a referral from a friend who is doing really well with it. It seemed easy to set-up and run. It was a little pricier than other options, but it was a complete package. There are thousands of stores that are succeeding with Yahoo, and the overhead costs are a fraction of traditional brick and mortar stores. Unfortunately, I struggled with Yahoo right from the beginning.

The first difficulty I experienced with Yahoo was customization of my site. I chose to build it with SiteBuilder rather than a cookie-cutter template. I didn’t learn until much later that SiteBuilder does not create Web 2.0 compliant pages. They are entirely table based, a very old way of building a web page. This causes web pages to be loaded down with lots of extra coding and causes browser compatibility issues. I would have had fewer coding issues if I had used their StoreBuilder templates. Still, their design wizard and templates are not really Web 2.0 compliant either. The sites are built using proprietary wizards and coding. As the Internet moves toward cascading style sheets (CSS) and database driven sites, Yahoo’s system is becoming antiquated. Yahoo doesn’t give you ready access to a CSS page to change styles of simple elements. Instead, you must work through their StoreBuilder program to find the correct option – a process of looking through 12 different pages instead of one. Again, if you are willing to learn (or hire someone to do) the Yahoo way of doing things, this won’t be a big deal to you.

Another difficulty with Yahoo was the expense. Yahoo charges a high monthly webhost fee to merchants. The more business (traffic and sales) you do, the higher your monthly fee. On top of the monthly webhost fee, Yahoo charges a finance charge for EVERY sale you process. If you do a lot of business, this can add up very quickly. If you sign-up for the Yahoo recommended merchant account, the merchant account provider charges are billed separately. Here is a breakdown of possibly monthly costs:

  • Webhost fees
  • Yahoo finance charges
  • Merchant account monthly charge
  • Merchant account credit card finance charges
  • Merchant account minimum monthly processing charges

I signed-up for the recommended merchant account provider and was surprised to discover a lot of hidden charges. I had difficulty trying to interpret the monthly billing charges and I suspect it is intentional. Who has the time to translate pages of information that make no sense? In the end, my monthly merchant account fees (not including finance charges) were twice the advertised rates.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the customer service support. Most questions can be answered through online help pages. Actual customer service support is available by email or phone. Expect to wait at least 24 hours for an answer to an email. Usually the answers are quotes from the online help pages unless you pester them with lots of follow-up questions. Follow-up emails are assigned to a new person automatically so you may have as many as 5 people trying to help you. One particular problem took 2 weeks of back and forth emails until they finally told me it could not be solved. A phone call would be the best route for emergencies.

My choice to move to Zen-cart was made out of necessity. Yahoo became too expensive and too difficult to work with. Zen-cart is an improved, open-source descendant of osCommerce. Customization occurs through CSS and template overrides. By switching to Zen-cart, I now have a lot more control over the style and costs of running an online store. As a trade off, I have to maintain store/site security and maintain the software by installing updates myself. Alternatively, you could hire someone to do this for you.

Zen-cart is available for free, so immediately my costs were cut in half. Keep in mind that while the software is free, you will make it up with your time. Here is a breakdown of costs:

  • Webhosting (I chose a certified webhost vendor at less than half the cost of Yahoo’s services)
  • Security certificate
  • PayPal finance charges (if you choose this over a traditional merchant account)
  • Domain registration

Additional charges might include:

  • Web designer/programmer
  • Merchant account monthly fees and finance charges

There are a lot of things I like about Zen-cart. I like the robust administration. It is easy to set-up and maintain products and manage customers. There is a newsletter feature that makes it easy to notify customers. Processing orders is rather simple too. It isn’t too hard to learn, given enough time. One Zen-cart supporter even wrote a book that will take you step-by-step. I like that my store is portable and can be moved to a new webhost very easily (unlike ecommerce solutions like Yahoo which cannot be ported easily).

I customized my store template and pages myself. Learning the system and coding the CSS pages took many hours of mind-numbing work. I would make one minor modification and then had to verify it in three different browsers. I did this over and over until I arrived at a product I am fairly satisfied with. My site is best viewed in FireFox, but looks fine in Internet Explorer 6 & 7. I further had to test the shopping experience and checkout process. My store functions fairly well and is reasonably secure.

Because Zen-cart is open-source, users are constantly adding improvements and customized modules. There are a few dozen, freely available templates that are ready to plug in. Each template can be customized by editing style sheets. A lot of help can be found from on-line help pages, FAQ’s, user forums, and Wiki’s. I was able to teach myself how to install, set-up, and customize my store by lapping those sources. I eventually purchased a user-created manual that helped further clarify things. Alternatively, you can hire web designers to work out the design for you. Zen-cart was created and is currently maintained by only four developers, supported by thousands of users worldwide. The development roadmap indicates further compliance with Web 2.0 standards and feature improvements.

Open-source shopping carts should be used with a bit of caution. Site security becomes even more important because hackers have just as easy access to the source code as you do. Zen-cart does have recommended security settings that will prevent most problems. Still, it becomes very important to watch the forums for any software updates and reports of hacks. Proprietary systems, like Yahoo, are just as vulnerable to hackers. I discovered some intrusions to my Yahoo store as I was transitioning to Zen-Cart. The difference is that Zen-cart gives you the tools to strengthen security and Yahoo does not.

Zen-cart works well, but there is one feature yet to be added to the software that may affect apparel stores. Zen-cart currently does not have a stock-by-attributes option. This means that you cannot have one product, a t-shirt for example, with lots of options and concurrently track the inventory. If you sell t-shirts in three colors and three sizes, you will have to set-up each colorway, and possibly each size, as a separate product. This is not too big of a deal, but it will create a bit more work for inventory and stock management. The development road map shows this feature will be available in a future release. There is an add-on module to use now, but I could not get it to work properly.

Someday I will hire a graphic designer/web designer to snazz up my store. Still, I am pleased with the overall function, usability, and back end administration of Zen-cart. I am confident that my store will grow with my business. I am happy to answer any questions about Zen-Cart or Yahoo Webhosting that I can. You can view many (good and not-so good) examples of other Zen-cart based stores in their Showcase.

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  1. Miracle says:

    One thing I would seriously advise, for those who purchase software and own the license (as opposed to an ASP like yahoo where you’re paying a monthly fee) or who use open source, is to stay on top of security updates and bug fixes. Many small businesses do not and leave their customer data vulnerable.

  2. Vesta says:

    I’ve used Yahoo for five years, two different stores (one retail and one wholesale). You’re right about everything you said. I very quickly (within one year) hired a company to redesign my store, because I reached the end of my interest/time in learning the proprietary system. For me, the fees were well worth it, still are, for not having to worry at all about the store. I did dump their merchant account provider quickly for the same reason you did.

    It really just depends what you have more of: time or money. Like so many things in life!

    And for what it’s worth, when I searched out alternatives to Yahoo, a couple of years ago, I also arrived at Zen Cart. I just didn’t end up making the switch.

  3. Esther says:

    One thing I forgot to mention about Zen-Cart. The software is free but if you find the software useful, one should donate to keep the development team working. My zen-cart certified webhost donates a portion of my webhosting fees to the Zen-cart team. It is one way of giving back.

    BTW, you should also select a webhost carefully. Not all webhosting companies are able to handle an ecommerce site. Each shopping cart should include configuration requirements needed by the webhost in order to function optimally. Try to find a reliable webhost through referrals and hopefully “certified” by the cart developer.

  4. Eddie says:

    The best way to pick an ecommerce solution is to contact an independent consultant who doesnt have any conflicts of interest (not trying to sell you one version over the other). The advice dispensed here is adapted to the context of the small business and it does not apply to most medium or enterprise grade businesses.

    I usually recommend ASPs for small business clients in need of an ecommerce solution. Yahoo doesnt make the cut for several reasons, in addition to the ones Kathleen mentioned. ASP (application service providers) means that the software comes with the webhosting, you dont have to download/install anything and you dont have to worry about upgrades. yes they have monthly fees and some cut into your profit, but when you factor in the TCO (total cost of ownership) you will see that ASPs might end up being cheaper (not to mention less headaches) than hiring people to work on your site. Remember that you are not only paying for your developer’s time but you are also investing more of your time into finding/retaining/working with someone, plus carrying costs for webhosting, secure certificate, install/maintain/upgrade the software (upgrade costs of course only applicable when you are not using open-source).

    If you decide to go with a non-ASP solution: zen cart is good software, but most likely you’ll need someone to help you implement/customize it, since it is not as user friendly as some of the paid solutions. Why? paid solutions (ASP or not) providers have to try harder to compete with free (open source) products, and one of the few aspects they usually do better at is user friendliness. if you buy a shopping cart system (only recommended for more complex needs and usually doesnt apply to small businesses) you probably get tech support included. when you use an open source system, and a problem that your developer can’t solve on their own comes up, most of the time they will go to the product’s forums and wait for someone to help, which doesnt always happen (and more time goes by and things are not working as you expect).

    the last difference between ASP and using your own cart system is that when you go with the former you might not need to hire a designer at all. one of the cookie cutter templates might be suitable for your needs (not all cookie cutter templates look bad). if you think that you need a custom template, the ASP itself might be able to help you or you can hire a designer. note that I used the word designer instead of developer. the diff is that web designers work on the front end (HTML/CSS/maybe graphics too) whereas developers work on web application development, the software/database that runs on the backend (php,, etc). web designers can be had for $25 to $50 per hour, but webdevelopers (you will probably need one if you are not using an ASP) range from $60 to $150 per hour. these prices are of course not set in stone, as there are incredible designers that charge $300/hour and there are developers wanna-be that charge $30/hour.

    Here are the four solutions I usually recommend to my small business clients. please let me know if you decide to use any of them, as I resell some of these and I could get a referral fee for sending you their way.

    –> NetSuite is more than an ecommerce system, it is a very intelligent way to run your entire small business (do away with quickbooks)

    –> Volusion is probably the best choice for pure ecommerce (its quickbooks direct integration is something that will probably come in handy)

    –> Nexternal Nexus is very good. It scales to large storefronts (I mean thousands of customers per hour) and can satisfy more advanced needs than volusion (needs that should not be an issue to 95% of you). I am not sure if they integrate with quickbooks directly (indirectly they ALL do)

    –> ProStores/eBay: not sure if they integrate with quickbooks directly (indirectly they ALL do). Main reason to use this system is if you will be selling thru eBay simultaneously:

    BTW, i wouldnt say that open source shopping carts are less secure than closed/proprietary system, especially when talking about the #1 open source shopping cart system, zen cart. regardless of being open source or not, you really have to stay on top of updates and security, not only for your server/shopping cart, but for ALL the computers that you and your employees use. if one of the computers gets compromised, a hacker can steal the password that you use to login to your store interface and there you go: your fully up-to-date super secure incredible shopping cart gets hacked and your customers info’s stolen (that’s what they are usually after). The bottom line is the computer security chain is only as strong as the weakest link (BTW the weakest link is usually humans).

    lastly, there are two people that, no matter how you slice it, you will need to hire: a graphic designer and a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) specialist. Small businesses in the B2C space usually dont have huge marketing budgets and the ROI (Return on Investment) on their online storefront suffers because customers can’t find their store on google. Expect Search Engine Optimization to be the most expensive cost in your online store front budget.

  5. I use zencart with one of my stores, and mals-e cart with my other (hosted by pappashop). I find that mals-e works well and is secure. It can be integrated into any site, and you need very little coding knowledge to make it work. Zencart is a full package, and mals-e needs to be integrated into your existing store, but mals-e is secure and very easy to use. offers a great ecommerce package (and will integrate mals-e cart for you) for an incredibly reasonable price. Just my thoughts!

  6. Jessika says:

    We used Zencart for our online store -however, it is highly modified design-wise (thanks to my husband who is savvy in this way and has a good sense of style, so he understood the look I wanted it to have). I love the functionality of it and how I can manage all of the orders via the web. Like Eddie warned, it is important to make sure your customers’ information is as secure as possible. We chose not to save people’s credit card information for example.

  7. Nanette says:

    We are now in the process of changing our site over from a 1997-designed Java script based site (pretty darn good for its time) to a “real” shopping cart system, using Zencart. Given that we’ve always operated by having customers provide their measurements and height and then we make the design to fit, it was about all we could do at that time. However, now that we have been in business 16 years (yay!) operating first (and still) as a brick-and-mortar showroom and as of 1997, a website, we felt it’s time to “get real” and start making it easier for people to order, so we decided to have our site redesigned so women can choose their own size, which will still be different depending on body style (X or H) and height, for ultimate fit.
    Since we lost our initial web designer (my sister’s ex-boyfriend!)a couple years ago, and I took over the duties, learning HTML etc as I went, I knew a full re-design was beyond me, but I was intrigued by Zencart and ordered the book by Matthew Thierren. He was an amazing find, not only sending me free updates to it (new modules and changes are added by the community), but ultimately becoming our own web guru to implement Zencart into a brand new and much more professional site. They are still working on it, and I myself will STILL have plenty to do (we’ll need to re-shoot some of our older pictures, and I have to write and content pages), but the new site should debut in early July and it will be a work in progress, but at least much easier to deal with than our current site. I HIGHLY recommend Matthew’s company,, as they are not only VERY reasonably priced but exceptionally skilled, patient, and wonderful to deal with in every way. The re-design includes training time, which he conducts with me through Skype or Yahoo Messenger, and it’s just like he’s sitting next to me at the computer! As others have said, Zencart is amazingly powerful — so much more can be done with it than any other free cart — but yes, there is a learning curve! I’ll let you all know when the new site is up so you can check out the work done by Matthew and his amazing team(especially designer Paul, a patient and soft-spoken guy that was a pleasure to deal with). The great thing about Matthew’s company is that all they do is work with small businesses like ours — you won’t feel overwhelmed; you will feel like you have a friend guiding the way. :)

  8. Daniel Lee says:

    I do not think that this might be a popular view, but I do not understand why people do not hire an IT consulting firm or a company of that sort to do their ecommerce website. MOST websites that I have seen designed by individuals are really unprofessional. I would go to a clothing designer if I wanted to design clothes, likewise I would go to a web designer if I wanted to design a website. Most of the sites that I’ve seen created with Yahoo! shopping cart or Zen cart are very unprofessional and are sites that at BEST can be thrown together for under 2000 by hiring an outsourcing firm from eLance or Guru. I think that any SERIOUS company should really invest around 5k and get a decent ecommerce website. If you factor in your time and effort, 5k is really not much for a website. There are GOOD solutions out there if you look. Granted larger firms will charge 10K+, but at that point you are looking at customized solutions.

  9. Jim Miller says:

    As an FYI – our company produces a lot of commercial grade software modules for Zen Cart – and we do in fact have a ‘Stock Management by Attribute’ module available, as well as Gift Wrap, Multi Price, Image Rollovers and more.

    We are also connected with one the world’s leading Zen Cart implementation teams and certainly one of the best and friendliest!

  10. Nanette says:

    In response to Daniel Lee, I would agree in that it makes sense to have a professionally designed — it does make a big difference in perception. Zencart alone does NOT make a beautiful professional looking site; you need someone who understands not only the power of it but how to make it beautiful, and that’s where your expert comes in. However, Daniel’s budget range would scare anyone away! We have accomplished an AMAZING redesign for FAR less money(FAR, FAR, LESS) than Daniel mentioned. I cannot recommend enough and if you are curious at all about what it would cost, just contact them for a quote! Don’t let fearful assumptions get in your way of getting what you want and need.

  11. Jessika says:

    I think it’s important to know your limitations and hire out the things that you can’t do well yourself, but as an entrepreneur (especially when starting out) it helps to be able to do as much as possible yourself…and sometimes be a jack or jill of all trades. We saved a LOT by doing our own site using Zencart and I’m glad we did as it leaves more resources for production, etc. We also have complete control over it and can make any changes we need to whenever we need to. Don’t necessarily assume you ought to do it all yourself -Daniel has some good points (especially if you are not computer savvy) and I’d love to be in a position where I could hand 5k over to someone to whip up a great site…but don’t assume that is the only way to get a good online store set up either. When we started working with Zencart, we didn’t know anything about os commerce and whether our site is professional looking or not would be a matter of opinion. I like it and it’s doing it’s job well. I won’t lie…it took time to learn (mainly my husband’s time as he spent many evenings figuring it out) but we’re not bankrupt over it either. :)

  12. Daniel Lee says:

    I agree it is often difficult for companies that are starting out to spend 5k or more on a website.

    I just find it weird when at a show like MAGIC companies are calling themselves established and then give me a link to their website that looks very sketchy at best. I also do not understand why any serious company will use PayPal for merchant services when their percentage is so high. But I will save that entry for a future blog.

  13. Nanette says:

    I agree with Jessika in that it’s important to have control to make your own updates, and that’s something every one of us probably is going to have to deal with, as it would be expensive to have someone, either on staff or on an ongoing basis, to monitor all that for you. A couple of sources that really helped me in my research (before I approached the web design company) were two books, one called “Don’t Make Me Think” and another newer book (and pretty expensive, somewhere around $60) about Web Site Useability (don’t have it handy to get the exact title). That book ALONE was exceptional, because it’s the result of a lot of research into what real people think when they come to your site and how they operate. It’s important to remember what the user’s experience is or will be, since we are all focused on what we think they want, but only they know. One very key point is this: you’ve got about 30 seconds to hook them in — don’t waste it on Flash (often very annoying for someone short on time, especially if it’s not easy to see how to turn it off or bypass it) and other impressive looking features. Make it EASY (don’t make them think!) to find what they want. Sometimes that means giving up some of the cool or beautiful features you think you want, but remember, it’s sales you really want.

  14. Miracle says:

    I think that any SERIOUS company should really invest around 5k and get a decent ecommerce website. If you factor in your time and effort, 5k is really not much for a website.

    I’m on the fence about this one. Normally, most people I come across I advise to get a cheap designer and do it as cheaply as possible. Why? Because most people want a copy of (insert big huge company name here) website, with all the bells and whistles, and are only looking at the appearance.

    They drive designers crazy with pointless change after pointless change, they never listen to any advice on what is and isn’t search engine friendly, they want a site that impresses their friends and family.

    So I usually say, do it cheap, then change it later, besides, since you NEVER listen, you won’t have any customers in the beginning anyway, no one will see it.

    But, since they NEVER listen, they throw 5K down the drain, hiring a flashy designer to create a website that they can’t change (because some designers will often implement code that does not work with the software’s click and build system) and end up with a non-search engine friendly site (because they ignore the recommendations to get a SEO specialist involved at the DESIGN stage, not afterwards). They end up having to completely re do the thing anyway, money wasted.

    By the time I started my real website, I had already had a few. Experimented, tried a ton of systems, yahoo store, os commerce included. Paid for a few different ASP services and knew what I could live without and what I absolutely needed.

    For example– stock by attributes– deal breaker for me and requiring that feature CONSIDERABLY narrows your options (which makes it easier in both a good and a bad way). But you don’t know these things until you’re actually running a website using the software. Then you start to see what is missing and you realize that you don’t really know what you need until you actually need it.

    I just find it weird when at a show like MAGIC companies are calling themselves established and then give me a link to their website that looks very sketchy at best. I also do not understand why any serious company will use PayPal for merchant services when their percentage is so high. But I will save that entry for a future blog.

    I do agree with you on that one. It really sucks that people don’t take the web seriously enough to present an image that is in line with their company. But on the flipside, if they all did, then they all would probably be trying to compete online, which could hurt their distribution channels.

    So, I do understand that some companies have an understated (or poor) web presence intentionally. But what I would like to see, honestly, is a graphically intense (meaning lots of product photos) site with a directory of stores and corporate contacts. I think it would be a tremendous boost to companies looking to get press and new accounts, as media contacts often look for websites and potential retailers often want to see “something”.

    The PayPal thing is another thing and I’m with you on that. I’ve had that conversation too many times and well, I just say PayPal has a serious hustle.

  15. Eddie says:

    i agree that paypal is bad news for payment processing. I recommend either a traditional merchant account or Google Checkout, which is offering 0% discount fees for the entire year of 2007. It takes literally 5 minutes to get setup:

    the only caveat is that google checkout only processes payments for US billing addresses (this will change in the future)

    also, one can’t emphasized enough what miracle just said: you will need an SEO specialist at design stage, not after you are up and running (yes they won’t listen)

  16. Esther says:

    Google checkout is not available with Yahoo Merchant Services (as far as I know), although PayPal was just recently added. Zen-cart does not support Google checkout although there is a 3rd party payment module that can be added. The module has been buggy in the past.

  17. Daniel Lee says:

    But what I would like to see, honestly, is a graphically intense (meaning
    lots of product photos) site with a directory of stores and corporate contacts.
    I think it would be a tremendous boost to companies looking to get press and new
    accounts, as media contacts often look for websites and potential retailers
    often want to see.

    This is out there. I don’t want to spam the board but yea, what you are looking for is already online.

    So, I do understand that some companies have an understated (or poor) web presence intentionally.

    Can you explain more about when you state state a company might intentionally want a poor web presence?

  18. Lesya says:

    Zen cart has been on the market for a while. It’s pretty easy to use. If you want to try zen cart for your online business you can easily switch to Zen Cart with cart2cart web service. It automates data migration fm your shopping cart to Zen Cart. Check for details.

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