Your website is your business's storefront on the internet, and its appearance and presentation matter just as much as any location, physical or otherwise. A well-organized, attractive eCommerce website will help your brand stand out in the minds of your customers, helping you build a long-term audience and increase your brand authority. A bad website will have just the opposite effect, driving customers away and costing you conversions.
While web design conventions have changed over the years, modern standards have become clearly defined. A great website is visually appealing, easy to navigate, appropriate for your brand identity, and completely mobile friendly. Mobile friendliness has standards of its own, with the preferred method today being responsive design, meaning the website's layout automatically alters itself to fit every screen size and works just as well when tapped by a finger as clicked with a mouse. Loading speed is also critical, as visitors are easily frustrated with slow websites, and even more so on mobile devices.
Fortunately for eCommerce entrepreneurs everywhere, building a great website no longer requires coding knowledge. Most of today's eCommerce platforms have a selection of available themes or templates that can be installed to instantly provide a design for your site. Many templates are listed as premium or paid, but an assortment of free themes is also usually available. Some business owners prefer to start with a free theme while deciding if they want to commit to the software and plan to choose a premium or custom theme later, but some of the best free eCommerce templates can be used throughout the lifetime of a business.
Zen Cart and Shift4Shop both offer free themes for eCommerce websites. Let's analyze both.
The first thing you'll need to understand about Zen Cart themes is that Zen Cart does not have a theme store, so you won't be able to easily see all available Zen Cart themes side by side to help you pick one. Instead, Zen Cart theme developers usually sell their templates through their own websites or marketplaces or post them in the Zen Cart forum. This means shopping for a Zen Cart theme will require a lot of searching and browsing, as they're scattered across multiple websites rather than collected in a central location.
Since anyone is free to make a Zen Cart template, there are tons of designs available for all types of industries — as long as you're willing to put time into the search. Unfortunately, the quality of Zen Cart themes has just as much variance as their design, with many available themes being riddled with bugs or other problems. Version compatibility is also an issue, as themes need to be updated to work with the most current version of Zen Cart. If your favorite Zen Cart theme is broken by a software update, you'll have to hope that the designer updates the theme, otherwise you'll need to choose another or hire a developer to update it for you. You shouldn't try to avoid this problem by skipping Zen Cart updates, either, because that could expose your online store to security risks.
Many Zen Cart themes don't even have previews available, so you'll have to install the theme onto your website to look at it — but be careful, because theme installation can cause problems for your store, relating to incompatibilities like we mentioned above. If you shop for a Zen Cart theme outside of the official website's forum, you're more likely to find a familiar "theme store" style of layout, complete with previews. Since these are the templates built and offered by professional designers, they usually have a price tag, but some Zen Cart community designers do offer free themes on their websites.
Zen Cart's community focus does lend itself well to plenty of variety, and a skilled designer can create a truly beautiful theme due to the freedom afforded by Zen Cart's CSS-based coding structure. However, finding the right theme in the first place — especially if you want a free theme — can be a challenge. You may need to browse several websites, and many of these themes reappear in multiple catalogs, so you may not have as many options as you first thought. You'll also have to pay attention to version compatibility to ensure the theme will work with your Zen Cart installation, and this information isn't always clearly presented. Plus, needing to share a theme on social media to unlock a free download can be a deterrent to some people.
Customization is another big weakness of Zen Cart's themes — while designers have a lot of freedom, once you install the theme, there's no theme editor or other simple tools for changing colors or other design elements. If you want to customize, you'll have to edit the code itself, as Zen Cart's various page editors serve only to change the content on the page. This is yet another sign that Zen Cart is intended for use by tech-savvy business owners or medium-sized businesses that have access to an internal web development staff.View more Zen Cart themes here
Shift4Shop offers a wide variety of free online store templates and frequently adds more to the selection, so online store owners have even more choices for their sites. Unlike Zen Cart, Shift4Shop themes are easy to browse within the Theme Store, although independent designers do exist (and many of their themes are available right from your Shift4Shop dashboard). Shift4Shop also has a built-in Theme Editor and HTML Builder to help you customize the look of your website with no need to touch the code. However, if you want to work with code directly, you'll have access to all your theme files to make any changes you please. You can even clone your existing theme to experiment freely and safely!
Many of Shift4Shop's themes also include extra features that Zen Cart users must often pay for as addons. Some examples are image-enhanced navigation via Mega Menus, product animations, Instagram feeds, and more, all built right in. You can easily preview any theme to see what functionality is included.
All of Shift4Shop's current themes are based on our Core Template Engine, a revolutionary Bootstrap-based theme framework. The purpose of the Core Template Engine is to make theme design easier via a modular set of code building blocks, and to automatically bring certain advantages to online stores using Core themes. These include SEO-focused, user-friendly responsive design, Google AMP for several types of website pages, AJAX implementation and code optimization for fast page loading, and more.
A friendly, fun eCommerce theme perfect for kids' stores and other lighthearted industries, with plenty of featured products on the front page.
A dark, dynamic theme with a huge hero banner and navigation enhanced by a sticky menu that remains onscreen when the customer scrolls.
A powerfully visual theme great for music, electronics, or any store seeking to make an impact, with a convenient sticky menu for easier browsing.
A clean, straightforward theme great for putting the focus on your products, if you prefer a more understated design.
Shift4Shop themes come in a wide variety of layouts and default color schemes, so any brand can find something that works right out of the box. Since all current Shift4Shop themes are built on the Core Template Engine, each is fully responsive to all mobile and desktop browsers. It's also much easier to customize a Shift4Shop theme than a Zen Cart theme, since Shift4Shop provides built-in tools for making the changes you desire.
With Shift4Shop, you can quickly and easily build a completely branded website that not only looks great, but works perfectly for your visitors, wherever they are. Whether you want to make basic customizations using the Theme Editor and adjust your layout with the Drag n' Drop HTML Builder, or go deeper and edit the code directly, everything is possible. You're free to create an online store that looks exactly how you've imagined.