E-commerce plugins: choosing the right WordPress shopping cart plugin

wordpress-shopping-cart-pluginWhile we weren't looking, folks here in the US spent over $225 billion dollars last year via e-commerce websites. In case you didn't know – that's a whole lot of money.

More importantly, it wasn't just a few people participating in e-commerce transactions. Some stats put online consumers at over 150 million. Just in 2012.

What if I went further and told you that Forrester Research predicts e-commerce to grow by 45% from last year's numbers – as early as 2016? You'd want to get in on the action, wouldn't you?

And if you're a fan of WordPress, like I know you are, it only makes sense that you'd start thinking about building an e-commerce site on WordPress. And the very next question you'd have is which shopping cart plugin was right for your WordPress site.

My WordPress Shopping Cart Plugin Comparison

There are many to choose from, and in this comparison, I'm going to look at the options below (in no order).

Yes, this is my mother of all e-commerce comparisons. But like always, the simple answer, which I'll tell you right now, is that it depends.

You know I was going to tell you that, didn't you?

The answer isn't about features, which is why you know my comparisons aren't just a laundry list of features with a chart.

The answer is really about you. Your needs. Your desires. The stuff you'll be selling.

Questions before you start

As you think about what you're trying to build, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Am I technical?
  2. How much money do I have? Can I afford a developer's help?
  3. Am I selling downloads? Or shipping products?
  4. If I'm shipping products, do I know my tax and inventory needs?
  5. Am I protecting content?
  6. Am I creating a marketplace, where others provide the products?
  7. Will I be creating a set of shops (using multisite)?

Notice – this has little to do with features. This is all about you and what you plan to do.

Educate Yourself

And I'm not joking when I tell you that you need to get smart. If you don't understand what kinds of issues you'll have with calculating taxes in different states, and who's responsible, find out.

If you don't understand what it means to have your records and your systems be “PCI compliant” and are counting on someone else to do it for you, you better do your homework. (No, you won't be PCI compliant on a GoDaddy shared network!)

I could write an entire article (and am looking at doing it) just on how to prepare for an e-commerce site, but that's beyond the comparison right now.

Let's start with some of the rather unique goals you may have…

Are you creating a set of shops with the need for a global cart, using multisite?

If you're doing that, few of the e-commerce plugins will work that way. I know of two that you could consider MarketPress (by WPMU DEV) and WP e-Commerce (getshopped.org). Of the two, I'd go with WP e-Commerce for three reasons:

  1. It's a product that's had constant and consistent updates
  2. It's a product where you can get quality support
  3. I know some of the guys over there and trust them

Now, as I write this, I just received notice that MarketPress was getting some updates. But in the last year and a half, as I've watched, it's struggled to get updated. And even when Stripe was promised as a gateway, it took months to hear any news. If you're building a large network of sites, you want quick replies. That's why I'd go with WP e-Commerce.

Are you creating a store where you need product bundles?

Now, to be clear, many of the WordPress e-commerce plugins support “related products” and “recommended products.” That's not what I'm talking about.

If you sell three physical items, but also sell it in a group, with it's own price, that's a bundle. Bundles are tricky because you have to manage inventory via the single item purchase and the bundle purchase (that still decrements the inventory).

Another way people use bundles is to make certain products a requirement when purchasing others. If you buy a product but it needs other parts to actually use it, you're going to want to force all of the required parts into the cart.

The one player that does this – via extensions – in two different ways (forced products placed into the cart, or simple bundles), is WooCommerce. So if that's what you're doing, that's where you want to head.

Hosted Checkout

That takes care of the really special circumstances where the winner is super easy because there aren't a lot of options. But you may be wondering about security. Which is the best option for security to make sure you aren't in the hot seat when it comes to collecting or processing credit cards.

Here's good news. The guys behind Cart66 also created a solution called Mijireh. It's a tough name to spell, and I'm betting they'll update the name at some point. But that's not the point. The point is that it provides hosted checkout.

Most of the WordPress e-commerce plugins offer Paypal as the first (and often free) gateway. This is because it's a hosted checkout. Your prospects leave your site and go there. So you don't have to worry about credit cards at all, because the process is on their site, not yours.

But from a conversion perspective, you lose. Because people end up leaving mid-transaction. Over 66% of store owners in one study found that their largest issue for success was conversion improvements. Trust me when I tell you that hosted checkout is awesome for liability but has (until Mijireh) been horrible for conversion.

So Mijireh offers hosted, PCI-compliant, checkout. But here's how they go one step better than Paypal.

The check out page looks like your site. They use a “page slurp” technology (trust me, they're all engineers without good naming ability) to mirror your look and feel on their hosted checkout. So all the processing happens there. With any of their 90 payment gateways. Yes 90!

So at this point, you're thinking – wait, how does this relate to the shopping cart. Are they a cart? Only sort of. Because they do the cart and checkout, but not the product definition and not inventory. So really, they're a pre-gateway processor.

So now you're thinking – great, which e-commerce shopping cart do they work with? Because if you're like me, you don't have time to become a PCI compliance expert.

Ready for the good news?

They work with:

  • Cart66
  • Easy Digital Downloads
  • WooCommerce
  • Exchange
  • MarketPress
  • WP e-Commerce

So just about everyone! That's great news and my strong suggestion (because their pricing is simply .50 per transaction) is that you use them with whatever e-commerce plugin you use on your WordPress site. After all, .50 is cheap to stop worrying about the server components of PCI compliance.

Back to our comparison.

Digital Downloads

Hey, I know it's not rocket science – one of the products is called Easy Digital Downloads. Who doesn't want easy when you're creating a simple site for downloads, like PDFs and MP3s? Or videos?

The good news is that Easy Digital Downloads is one of the best when it comes to clean and extensible code, with tons of extensions. So just about anything you want to do, you can do with EDD.

Just getting started with simple downloads?

Now, the only case where I would recommend another option is when you're just getting started and may only have one or two products to sell, digitally, and your technical know-how is low.

In that case, check out Exchange. The folks at iThemes really cater to folks who value ease-of-use and their support, like EDD, is fantastic.

Digital & Physical Products (without Inventory)

If you're selling both physical and digital products, you'll notice, right away, that you've taken a lot on your plate.

Sure you have to name and price a product, but what if you have variations to that product (which change the price)? What if you need to ship the product (and need to calculate shipping, by weight, or by cart total, for example)?

What if you want to distribute a digital file but don't want to just put it in your downloads folder so anyone with the URL can get it? Or pass the url around?

In this case, I recommend you check out either Cart66 or WooCommerce, as both will do what you need.

Now, you'll head over to Cart66 and notice it's like $200 a year. That costs more than WooCommerce, which is free. But if you add a few extensions, you'll find it gets close to even, if not tipping closer to Cart66.

< small rant >

Plus, seriously, if you want to run an entire e-commerce infrastructure and sell digital and physical products and want your investment to be less than $200, I'd like to understand your logic. Is this just a quick, let's see if we can make some money kind of thing? If so, just go create buttons in Paypal and stick them on your site. I hate Paypal, but maybe it's right for you.

</ small rant >

Building an e-commerce site with inventory?

If you are building a site that requires you to manage your inventory of physical products, there aren't many plugins I'd recommend you look at. Most of the e-commerce plugins don't try to go there.

But WooCommerce does and does a pretty darn good job at it. Plus their various extensions can make a lot of different things easier for you (at a price).

WP e-commerce also does inventory, but I find that it's not as robust a feature.

No, the other one I'd suggest is Shopp. Shopp allows you to track and manage inventory – including some bulk updating, which can save you some time.

Have a developer working with you? Want customizations?

Speaking of Shopp, it's one of the few e-commerce plugins that creates it's own tables for its plugin. Some people prefer using the Post and Post_Meta tables, making products custom post types (CPTs). But this becomes a problem when you have tons of variations and you're storing all that data in the meta table, at least from an indexing and performance perspective.

I find that if you're working with a developer and you're building a customized solution, they might find Shopp to be their favored solution.

If you're building a digital downloads site, your developer may find working with Easy Digital Downloads the best. Clean code, great support, and the count of extensions written by third parties speaks for itself.

Selling Plugins?

Plugins are digital files. So look at the digital options above. But know this, some of the cleanest UX/UI experiences I've had are on sites built using Easy Digital Downloads. Take that for what you will.

Want the most popular?

If you spend a decent amount of time on my site, you'll notice I have a lot of WooCommerce articles here. It's because my research suggested it was the one that had the most people asking about it without getting answers. Maybe it's a support issue. Or maybe it's a popularity issue. I won't get into the debate. But what I can tell you is that you can do a lot with WooCommerce. A whole lot.

I'll also tell you upfront that every WooCommerce site I've worked on has required extensions. So know that it won't be free, even if that's the first thing you see or hear about it.

Last option: Subscriptions

I've written over twenty (20) articles on membership sites. If all you're doing is creating a membership site, go check those out.

But sometimes you want to offer a subscription access to a digital product, or you want a subscription so you can ship products monthly to your customers. What do you do then?

My answer is simple: if you're already using Cart66, WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads, keep using them for subscriptions. If you're not using one of them, switch to the one that makes the most sense, given all of the above.

Heads Up & Disclaimers

Let me stop you before you comment about a plugin I missed. I love your comments, and I want to hear your experiences, but I want to head certain comments off at the pass.

It's why I listed the plugins I was going to talk about up top. These are the ones I felt like shinning some light on. I know there are others.

In terms of other disclaimers, no one contacted me asking for a review and no one paid for the review. All plugins I worked with were purchased (when they had a price) by me. Nothing was given to me for free (that normally had a price).

The opinions above are all mine and mine alone. I strongly suggest you do additional research before settling on one. This is, after all, your store.