If you have ever purchased anything over the Internet, then you will have used a shopping cart program to make that purchase. In simple terms, a shopping cart is a type of software program that enables web sites to offer products for sale to visitors. The software typically allows visitors to add their choice of products to a basket and, when they have completed their shopping, go through a checkout procedure. At this point the software will total the costs of the purchases, add shipping costs and taxes, and present the visitor with a total. The visitor can then complete the purchase by entering name and address details, and can use a credit card to pay for the goods purchased.

Shopping cart programs typically have two different interfaces, the public interface that is accessed by the visitor in order to make purchases, and a separate private interface for site administration. This second interface is used to add or delete products and make stock or price changes, amongst other things.

There are three different ways in which a shopping cart can be added to a web site. The first, and easiest for a novice to implement, is to use a merchant service such as 2Checkout. With such a service, when a visitor clicks on an item in order to make a purchase, he will be redirected to the merchant services web site in order to complete the purchase. The advantage of this for the owner of the web site is the ease of set-up – the merchant service will supply the HTML code that will need to be added to the web page HTML. However, there are drawbacks. Some visitors can be put off making a purchase if the payment has to be made through a different web site than the one they are visiting. This also means that the business name appearing on the customers’ credit card statement is that of the merchant service, rather than your business, and this can result in customers querying charges more often. The cost can also be a factor here. A service like this typically charges a set-up fee, and then will also take a percentage of each purchase, which could be as much as 10 %, as well as transaction fees.

The second method of adding a shopping cart is to use a hosted service. Similar in some ways to the merchant services above, there are also some differences. Like merchant services, customers purchasing through a hosted service will also be redirected to a different web site. However, that web site can normally be edited, so that it appears to be part of your own web site. The business name that appears on the customers’ statement will be your own business, helping to reduce queries from confused customers. As with merchant services, a hosted service will provide the HTML code necessary for the service to function. Costs vary quite a bit, depending on exactly what is needed. A small site with a limited number of products can be hosted in this way for around $40/month whereas for a larger site the cost could be over $150/month.

The last option is to use software that can be installed on your own web server. This type of shopping cart is the most versatile, although to get the best from it you will need to have some programming knowledge. The software can normally be modified so that it will match the style of your web site. There are far more options available for product displays than can be found on either of the two earlier types of shopping cart discussed above. All of the order processing will take place on your own web site, using your own merchant provider for payment services. The cost of this type of software can vary enormously, depending on how capable a programmer you are, and how much functionality you desire. There are several free versions available, such as Agora or Zen, although the free software will require more in the way of programming skills. Commercial software is also available; one such is X-Cart, which costs between $200 and $300 depending on which features are needed. This will be a little less demanding in terms of the software skills needed, compared to the free versions. If you don’t feel that you’re capable of handling this, then of course you could get professional help, in which case the cost could be well over $1000 for a fully integrated solution.

If you are looking to open a web site with the aim of selling goods, then you will need some form of shopping cart. Which of these three choices is the best for your web site really does depend on your needs, your budget and on your skills. Do some research – most sites that supply this type of software offer on-lines demos – and see what the best fit is for you.