Self-hosted ecommerce websites are sites that you, the business owner, builds or hires a developer to build, and placed on a dedicated or shared hosting environment. The other option for ecommerce sites is to go with a hosted option, but as I outlined in another article, self-hosted options give you greater flexibility and control over the end result.
With that said, most developers are not going to build a truly custom solution, simply because in website development, especially in ecommerce, there is really no reason to reinvent the wheel. The following shopping cart applications have just about every conceivable feature you could want in an online storefront, already programmed and tested by hundreds or even thousands of successful websites. You will most likely still need to hire a developer to customize the solutions for you, and they will have their own opinions on which solution is best, but you do have a say, so here is a short synopsis of the top 5 shopping cart solutions.
The king of all ecommerce applications is WooCommerce which has a market share of 28% of all ecommerce storefronts online today. The main reason WooCommerce is so dominant in the industry is that it works well with the WordPress content management system, which runs most new websites today. In fact, WooCommerce won’t work as a standalone application, it requires WordPress to already be installed. Really, if you are running or planning to run a WordPress site, your search is over, use WooCommerce. It is fast, well designed, and constantly updated with new features by Automattic, the guys behind WordPress.com.
WooCommerce is extendable to an almost infinite degree. Any feature of function you can think of can be added with an extension available from dozens of plug-in creators. Codecanyon, for example, currently lists 1,246 WooCommerce plugins allowing you to customize shopping, checkout, payment, products options, social and third-party application integration, and every conceivable shipping and tax situation.
Most important feature of WooCommerce is its integration with WordPress. Because of this, WooCommerce will work well with your existing site theme and it does not need to deal with other aspects of your website such as content pages. Integration with WordPress can be an issue, though, for business owners if you are not interested in learning to develop WordPress websites but you are looking for a simpler solution.
WooCommerce by itself is free and exceptionally easy to install inside an existing WordPress site. Extensions are also very reasonable, with many available for free and most available for under $100. If you are planning to use WooCommerce on a new website, I would suggest you find a WordPress theme that is specifically designed with WooCommerce compatibility.
Magento is a complete website content management system and ecommerce package that can be extended to be extremely powerful. It is based on the standard PHP/MySQL system and there is a fairly large pool of developers who specialize in Magento customization. It is used by some of the largest businesses out there and seems to focus more on medium to large businesses rather than small startup companies. Magento has a reputation of being difficult to use for do-it-yourself business owners and I can tell you from personal experience, I attempted to install the software on three different shared hosting accounts and could not complete the installation. In one case, my version of PHP was too old. In another case, my version of MySQL was too new so it seems the server technology requirements are extremely narrow so if you are planning to use Magento.
Unlike WooCommerce which plugs into an existing content management system, Magento is by itself a complete website and content management solution as well as a storefront and shopping cart. Therefore, all of your non-storefront pages will need to be created within Magento. The good news is there is a large pool of themes available to help control the look of your site. ThemeForest alone currently shows 763 themes. Customization through plugins are also readily available and a reasonable cost. Condecanyon is currently showing 533 extensions.
There are two versions main versions of Magento. In the open source community, when we discuss Magento we are normally referring to the Open Source version, which is free to install and use. For medium to large businesses, Magento sells an Enterprise version designed to scale up to hundreds of thousands of products. For large sites, Magento claims it can delivery dramatic performance improvements over its open source version, but costs can range between $15,000 to well over $500,000 for implementation.
PrestaShop is a free and open source shopping cart solution. Like WooCommerce, its revenue is generated for the developers through the sale of extensions, and there are a ton of extensions available. Codecanyon currently lists 573, and there are hundreds more available from other extension sites including prestashop.com itself. Prices range from free to hundreds of dollars and run every customization option you can think of.
Like most of the solutions here, PrestaShop is a completely website and content management system and has a very modern look. It is completely responsive, so you should be able to manage your store not just from a desktop from also from a mobile device.
For new websites, or those willing to change hosting companies, PrestaShop can be preinstalled on hosting accounts making implementation straight forward, or it can be freely downloaded and installed on your own host account. I did run into issues with specific PHP features
PrestaShop also has a robust community of theme developers, with hundreds of very professional themes available on prestashop.com and other theme sellers. ThemeForest currently has 738 themes available.
OpenCart is true open source software, completely free and available to install on any hosting environment. Like PrestaShop, Magento, and ZenCart, it is a complete website solution and content management system with built in page management, order and checkout system, and can be extended with a large base of plug-ins available from multiple providers. Codecanyon currently shows 371 extensions available all for a reasonable price. OpenCart by itself is much more basic compared to PrestaShop and Magento, so it really relies on the community of extension builders to meet shop owner’s needs beyond selling and shipping products.
Site design is controlled by themes and there is a wide array of available themes from multiple providers. Themeforst currently has 650 themes available for a reasonable price and opencart.com itself has hundreds more.
The content management system is very professional with a modern look and has all of the major features that a small-business owner could need including complex shipping options, order and customer management, coupons and more.
ZenCart is free and open source and is a derivative of the open source osCommerce project. ZenCart took the core of osCommerce back in 2003 and updated it with a more robust CSS based layout system. Since it is truly open source software, users are free to download and install it, as well as completely customize it, rewrite the code, and really do anything to the software that you want.
The standard front-end template is a typical three column design with page links across the header, categories down the left side, and additional links on the right. The basic design seems very dated and is based on a template that comes predesigned with the software. While ZenCart does support third party templates, ThemeForest current shows only 17 available, so unless you are going to spend an enormous amount of money to customize the site, you won’t have a lot of options for changing the design much.
The content management system can be very confusing. Product pages are lengthy with an enormous amount of options with little attempt to show site owners only what they need to see. Product description pages don’t come standard with text editors, although can be installed as an option.
ZenCart is built using PHP and the MySQL database, but it is also open source, so customization options are endless, but you will most likely need an experienced PHP developer to do so. There are very few pre-build extensions available in the online community. In fact, CodeCanyon currently shows only 5 extensions available.
If you read the descriptions above, you will notice that there is very little difference between the major ecommerce options. All are PHP/MySQL based and can be installed on any hosting platform with the help of the hosting company. So which one is better? For very large storefronts, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of products, Magento may be the best choice. It scales up to handle large loads but it can get very expensive, very quickly.
Overall, most business owners are best suited with WooCommerce. WordPress is the number one content management system for a reason, it is secure, easy to use, and has literally thousands of available plug-ins to expand to your business needs. WooCommerce is one of those plug-ins and itself has hundreds of plug-ins. Most importantly, there is a good chance that, if you already have a website, you are already running WordPress, so adding in WooCommerce is just a few clicks away. It will integrate with your existing theme.
You will be well suited with OpenCart and PrestaShop as well, but I can’t recommend ZenCart. It’s content management system and themes are limited and it has very few extensions available.