zen cart review

Zen Cart Review: Open Source E-Commerce for Bloggers

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Small business projects need a good home, but what e-commerce platform should you choose? It may be obvious enough that Magento is a bit over the top for a store with just a few products, but there are so many other options out there that you may not know where to start.

For do-it-yourself bloggers and developers looking to start a small venture on the side, Zen Cart may just be the way to go. The platform itself may be simple, but the strong community-centric design gives it a unique appeal. And unlike the aforementioned Magento, you don’t need have spent years in an endless array of code (or coding arrays) to get started.

zen cart review

Easy-to-Use, Open-Source, and Free

Out of the box, Zen Cart is a free and open-source — if somewhat basic — program. It’s easy enough to install to a majority of hosting servers, and you get access to an admin area where you can easily manage your products. Add attributes, put them on sale, and limit purchases to a certain quantity per customer.

Payment gateways, including Paypal, Square, and Authorize.Net, and shipping companies are included as well. Show advertising banners, estimate shipping costs, translate to other languages and currencies and turn on customer reviews. There are a lot of other assorted features, so look around for yourself.

Finally, like other open-source platforms of its kind, Zen Cart runs entirely on a forum-based support system. There’s no paid support package. It’s a pretty active community, so don’t hesitate to join in, posting your own questions or tutoring new users. But don’t think that the job is left up to you; admins are all over the forum, assisting others and fixing all sorts of problems.

Bolstered by the Community

The magic of Zen Cart doesn’t rest in the basic features that come with it; it’s what you and the rest of the community can do with it. This platform is super customizable. Custom templates, modifications, graphics packs, and other modules dominate in the plugins database, and you can also make your own.

zen cart review ecommerce

All the plugins are free, too. Unlike other e-commerce sites’ costly marketplaces, it won’t drain your funds just to download a few templates or pick up a bit of extra functionality. That means there’s somewhat less traffic, but devs are more likely to put a bit more love into their work, not just make ten color-swapped templates for quick money.

Some of these useful plugin types include:

  • Language Packs: run your site in many languages, from traditional Chinese to Bulgarian, and everything in between.
  • Shipping and Payment Modules: 300+ community-sourced processors to choose from. Ship anywhere, pay with anything.
  • Templates and Graphics: re-skin the admin panel or the whole site. Download buttons, sliders, and more.
  • Product Support: if your store isn’t exactly your typical retailer, look here. Hidden wholesale, auctions, even entries as oddly specific as “assorted wine crates.” Zen Cart supports downloadable digital products, too.
  • Admin Tools: from something as tiny as a customer search log to a whole HTML editor program, this category is where you go to add small bits of extra functionality to the admin panel and your store.

The Zen Cart community has created tons of useful modifications and plugins to enhance other’s experiences. If you have an interest in web development, you should definitely join them.

Zen Cart itself would be nothing more than a fairly basic program without the group of creators spurring it on. But there are so many talented people working with this open-source tool that it turns a simple e-commerce platform into a rather interesting, one-of-a-kind experience.

Is Zen Cart a Good Fit?

Knowing all this, who is Zen Cart best for? Large ventures probably would be better off with an enterprise-level service that offers more features out of the box. Zen Cart is like a toolbox, a canvas; you have what you need to get started, but the rest is up to you.

Tiny to small to medium-sized projects are what it suits best. Whether your goal is to just get a handful of goods out there, run a blog that incorporates product sales (a food blog, an art blog, etc), or start a real business, all of those fit in here.

In addition, Zen Cart works best with those who love PHP plugins and are willing to work with the community. If you prefer to only deal with companies, avoid add-ons (even free ones), or want to just “install it and forget it” this won’t be the most suitable product for you. Since Zen Cart itself is a simple program, you’ll need to rely on plugins for a lot of advanced functionality.

But if simple is all you really need — if you’re just selling a couple of products — it’ll do fine in that regard as well. It’s one of the easiest shopping carts to get set up and running, so it’s great for beginners.

Open your online store with Zen Cart »

Need Something Else?

If Zen Cart’s strengths don’t quite fit the vision you have, there are plenty of other e-commerce products to choose from. More power or maybe even just a bit less, you’ll find something that works. Don’t worry if you didn’t find what you were looking for this time.

  • OpenCart: like Zen Cart, OpenCart is a platform whose appeal largely comes from its users. The marketplace has more apps and add-ons, but many are paid. This is a downside to Zen Cart’s entirely free plugin area.
  • WooCommerce: if you’re willing to get into WordPress, or are already familiar with it, WooCommerce is one of the most popular e-commerce plugins and has the customizability to rival this program.
  • Etsy: skip the downloads, the hosting, and the hassle altogether. If you want a blog that sells artistic merchandise on the side, at the cost of less exposure than a real website may bring, Etsy may be the place to go. For non-handmade goods, eBay or Amazon may be a better solution. If you’re just planning on selling a few products, the lack of difficult deployment may be beneficial.

Simplistic On the Surface

Fueled by its small, passionate community, Zen Cart provides a strong baseline for users to tinker with. It’s always wonderful to see an open-source program, game, or tool gain a group of dedicated followers, and this e-commerce platform is no exception.

If you’re looking for something filled with more core features, one that has little to no user involvement (perhaps just a paid marketplace dominated by companies rather than smaller devs and designers), Zen Cart is the opposite of what you want.

But if a simple open-source program with a full range of customizability and a small community is just what you’re after, there’s nothing better.

Brenda Barron is a writer from southern California. When not writing about blogging and business, she’s spending time with her family and knitting.
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