Zen Cart is a popular eCommerce platform for businesses that want to open an online store. As open-source software, it's available as a free download. Some web hosts also offer Zen Cart installation as an option within the control panel. This leads many entrepreneurs to try Zen Cart for their eCommerce websites. After all, it's free and easy to get, but is it really the best choice? Your eCommerce platform is an important decision, so it's better to do some research first.
No matter the size of your business, always do a pricing comparison between any Zen Cart alternatives you're considering using — in this case, Zen Cart vs. Shift4Shop. Since Zen Cart is free, it may seem odd at first to compare its pricing with another cart, but if you're at all familiar with open-source eCommerce software, you know that there are always costs involved. On the other hand, if you're brand new to eCommerce and considering Zen Cart or another open-source platform for your online business, this is an important lesson that you'll need to learn in order to make the smartest decision for building your website.
Let's dive into the costs of running a Zen Cart store.
Since Zen Cart is free software, there are no plans or membership tiers to compare to one another. Anyone who uses Zen Cart will get the same baseline features (before adding extensions, plugins, or themes, which we'll get to shortly). This does not mean you can operate a Zen Cart online store for free: while the software itself has no charge, you will still be paying. The difference is what you are paying for.
With Zen Cart, instead of paying for the base software, you will pay for hosting, security, third-party integrations, and custom development. These expenses can be unpredictable and can sink an unprepared business — especially one that was relying on having a "free" eCommerce website due to a tight budget.
With Shift4Shop, "free" really does mean free. Our End-to-End eCommerce plan covers everything, including web hosting, PCI compliance, 24/7/365 technical support, and more. This is why Shift4Shop is referred to as an "all-in-one" eCommerce platform. Shift4Shop also includes more features and has access to more integrations than Zen Cart, so you'll have more tools available to you right away instead of needing to seek out compatible extensions produced by a range of unrelated developers.
Zen Cart, like all software, has system requirements that any web server must meet in order for the software to function properly. More advanced software tends to need more powerful servers with additional features already installed on them, like database tools and other "working parts" that support its needs. Fortunately, Zen Cart's system requirements are pretty mild, so you won't need to seek out a top-of-the-line web host to install it.
However, you should be aware that hosting prices are often given as deceptively cheap — and this isn't to say that hosting providers are trying to deceive you, only that much of their pricing doesn't take the growth of your website into account. It's easy for a web host to offer "unlimited" bandwidth with the fine print stating that there is indeed a bandwidth cap, only it's high enough that the provider doesn't expect anyone using that hosting plan to ever reach it. This can cause a lot of problems for your online store if you become successful enough to draw more traffic than your web host anticipated.
For example, many hosting providers offer cheap plans, some even claiming to be intended specifically for Zen Cart, for rock-bottom prices like a few dollars per month. They may even claim to include unlimited bandwidth and disk space. But in practice, cheap web hosts of this type aren't suitable for a growing online store — only Shift4Shop can offer a free, truly scalable plan, since it's powered by Shift4 Payments. Here are a few reasons you'll see your Zen Cart web hosting costs rise (and there may be others as well):
Security includes an SSL certificate to encrypt your website so information passed between you and the customer can't be intercepted by a third party. SSL is required for doing business online, as it's a crucial part of preventing your customers' payment information from being stolen. Most web hosts offer SSL as an additional feature with its own cost, or you can obtain one from a third-party provider. Pricing varies depending on the provider and whether the SSL certificate is shared or dedicated, but you can expect to pay $49 – $99/year for a basic one.
To accept credit cards online, your website also needs to be PCI compliant, meaning it must comply with an extensive series of guidelines to ensure your business is using the strongest security possible. PCI compliance is time-consuming and expensive to handle on your own, as the process includes frequent audits to ensure your security is up to par. Some web hosts are willing to handle some parts of the process as part of their service, but as a Zen Cart user, you'll have other concerns too: some Zen Cart themes and extensions come with the warning that they can break your PCI compliance, exposing your customers to danger and potentially subjecting your business to PCI non-compliance penalties, which consist of fines from $5,000 – $100,000 per month.
It's clear that the risks are just too high to rely on Zen Cart's security, unless you can hire a web developer who can build everything you need without resorting to unreliable plugins and themes, which can be prohibitively expensive.
Like many online shopping cart solutions, Zen Cart can be extended with additional features by the installation of plugins. Zen Cart plugins can add functionality, change different aspects of your store to match your business model, allow you the use of more payment processors, and more.
Since Zen Cart is an open-source platform, anyone with the programming knowledge can create plugins. While this does mean there's a huge variety available for customizing your online store, it also means vast inconsistency in plugin quality, compatibility, and price. Plugins may not be up-to-date with the current Zen Cart software version, and even those that work well with Zen Cart in general may break when used together.
Since Zen Cart plugins come from so many different sources, they're also spread across numerous websites. These sites are fully independent from each other and have their own pricing structures, layouts, and categories. Shopping for Zen Cart plugins will involve visiting numerous websites, and differences between individual plugin stores can make it harder to accurately compare the plugins. For example, not all Zen Cart plugin stores have star ratings or customer reviews, and even if they do, a 5-star plugin on one website isn't necessarily equal to a 5-star plugin on another site.
Zen Cart does maintain a plugin directory on its official website, but this is done through a forum category rather than an "app store" style of layout. Anyone can post a plugin into any of the categories and there's no convenient way to compare them, with no customer reviews or ratings. The only available information is the plugin description and the linked support forum thread, which can be multiple pages in length. This is a structure geared more toward web developers than eCommerce store owners.
Overall, the decentralized nature of Zen Cart plugin development means there's a lot of room for creativity, but makes it extremely difficult to get a solid idea of what the best plugins are for your needs and how much they cost. Depending on the developer, pricing varies from free up to almost any amount, and making an informed decision will take a lot of time.
Your website's design is crucial for attracting and retaining customers and also has an effect on your SEO, as mobile-responsive, fast websites are favored by search engines. Web design is a challenging skill that takes years to master and maintain, so eCommerce platforms usually offer a variety of store themes or templates to get you started.
Different platforms handle this their own way: sometimes there's a large number of templates available so everyone has plenty of choice, and other times only a couple free themes exist since most of the platform's users are expected to have access to their own designer. Zen Cart is unique in the sense that it combines parts of both approaches: a large number of themes are available, but store owners need at least some degree of technical expertise.
Zen Cart templates are available from a wide variety of sources across the internet, including numerous independent designers. Installation requires uploading the theme files to your web space. Some designers will install the theme for you for an extra fee, although this involves giving them access to your web hosting control panel.
Much like the extensions, Zen Cart themes vary greatly in quality, compatibility, features, and pricing. While many free themes can be found, premium themes can often reach costs in the hundreds of dollars. Customizing a theme to match your business is a task for a professional web designer, so you're likely to need to pay for custom development on at least some level. This can be quite expensive depending on the time spent and the quality of the work.
To get a great Zen Cart theme that's fully branded for your business and meant to be used as the permanent design of your website, you could easily pay several hundred dollars or even a few thousand.
Anyone in business has heard the phrase "time is money." This refers to the concept that your time has a value, because how you spend that time will translate directly to profits for your business. The more time you spend working on technical details behind the scenes, the less time you have to work on the business itself.