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  • Zen Cart

Zen Cart is an ecommerce application that can be installed on your web hosting account. It's free and distributed under GPL2. Developers love it because it can be modified and changed to suit practically any application. It can also be extended and improved with additional modules.


Zen Cart was started in 2003 as a fork from another established ecommerce tool, osCommerce. The fork resulted in a templated layout system, something which osCommerce lacked. This was a forward-thinking move that would let users customise Zen Cart and blend it more easily with their websites.

The modern Zen Cart has many features aimed at improving conversions, including guest checkout and quick newsletter suscription. If you already have an osCommerce shop, you can obtain scripts to convert your data into Zen Cart format, prior to finding a Zen Cart hosting plan.

Zen Cart Features

Zen Cart is written in PHP and uses the MySQL database for data storage. It comes with a number of gateways set up and ready to go, so you can install it, set the preferences and start selling within a matter of hours.

The software can be used to sell digital content (such as PDFs and mp3s), physical goods and recurring subscriptions. There's a search function which optionally uses the product catalogue to give predictive results; this optional extra is a premium feature.

Shoppers can create product reviews and ratings. They can also supply their own images and send items to friends. Zen Cart also supports a variety of languages and currencies.

Pros and Cons

Need some convincing reasons to use Zen Cart?:

  • It's free
  • It's very well supported
  • It's open source, so you can change it however you like
  • It supports most standard shop features, and some you will need as your shop grows and develops a niche
  • Customisation is simple, particularly when compared to osCommerce
  • Setting up a Zen Cart store doesn't take long
  • Zen Cart is far less complex to maintain than Magento

For some people, there may be a better ecommerce application:

  • Magento offers better SEO, which could be a killer feature for you if you're in a competitive niche
  • osCommerce has more integrations and modules
  • While you can create simple coupons in Zen Cart, the system is not sophisticated
  • Zen Cart stores have a slightly clunky look
  • The checkout process spans several pages, which many shoppers find tiresome

Hosting Requirements

Zen Cart is lightweight and will run on practically any hosting plan, so there's no need to spend a fortune in the beginning. It's installed using Softaculous, or manually if you prefer.

Bear in mind the potential impact of a traffic spike, since every page in Zen Cart queries the database over and over, and you'll quickly hit a bottleneck on a cheap plan. Plan for a little headroom. That might mean starting with a low-end managed VPS rather than a super-cheap shared hosting plan. (While shared hosting is advertised as having 'unlimited' resources, your host will expect usage to be within reasonable limits. Ultimately, you need to ensure your site is not going to go offline.)

A plan on the Linux OS is going to be your most straightforward option, since the key requirements for Zen Cart are Apache 2.x, PHP and MySQL. This is known as the LAMP stack, and it's something that Linux hosts tend to offer by default. If you want to run Zen Cart on Windows or Mac OS X, that's also possible.

Other notes:

  • SSL isn't mandatory for the core files on Zen Cart, but it's highly recommended. Businesses have legal obligations to protect customer data, and a working SSL certificate is the only way to make sure transactions are secure. Some payment modules won't install without SSL.
  • In addition to these basics, you will need cURL (for file transfer) and MySQLi (which stands for 'MySQL Improved' - read more about MySQLi here).
  • We strongly recommend obtaining a backup solution for your store, and your customer data. You will probably have to pay extra for this.
  • If you're not an experienced system administrator, invest in managed hosting to keep your server secure
  • Finally, you will also need a decent uptime guarantee to ensure your store is online round the clock. We recommend 99.99%, if you can find a host that offers it. (Work our how much downtime you can expect using this uptime calculator).

Zen Cart Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Zen Cart?

    Zen Cart is a free e-commerce management system and website builder. Its features and capabilities are expandable using modules, and because it’s open-source, the code can be modified to suit your needs.

  • What can I sell in a store made with Zen Cart?

    You can sell physical products, virtual products such as PDF downloads, or even services on a Zen Cart website.

  • What kind of hosting do I need to support Zen Cart?

    Zen Cart has minimal requirements which most Linux-based web hosts will meet. Your server needs to operate on a standard “LAMP” stack, which includes a Linux operating system, Apache web server, and support for MySQL and PHP.

  • What makes Zen Cart different from other e-commerce site builders?

    Founded in 2003, Zen Cart was one of the very first e-commerce tools to offer a layout system based on templates. It’s one of the few that’s free and open-source, and has a large and active community online.

  • What are the benefits of using Zen Cart?

    Zen Cart is free, and many third-party modules and plugins are available for free as well. There’s no limit to the number of products you can add to your website. The official website offers a lot of supporting documentation, including a wiki, forum, and FAQs, and the community is very active.

  • What features are included with Zen Cart?

    Out of the box, Zen Cart includes multi-tier and promotional pricing, features, meta tags for your products, product reviews, stock management, thumbnail creation, report generation, newsletter functionality, and gift certificates. You can add many more features with the hundreds of third-party modules available for free download.

  • Are there any drawbacks to using Zen Cart?

    Zen Cart is not for beginners: it can be difficult to customize or tweak your store design or functionality without advanced programming knowledge. It has a reputation for being less than ideal for SEO, making it more difficult to optimize your site to rank in search engines. Themes that support mobile devices are lacking, and it has no official customer support team, just community support.

  • Is Zen Cart good for beginners with no coding knowledge?

    Zen Cart isn't geared for beginners. You'll need to have some technical knowledge, or hire a developer, to be able to install and maintain your eCommerce site using Zen Cart. If you want to make changes to your theme, you’ll need to know HTML and CSS at a minimum for basic changes, and possibly PHP for structural changes.

  • Who is the typical or ideal user for Zen Cart?

    Zen Cart is typically used by small businesses or individuals with some technical coding knowledge or the ability to hire a developer and designer for their website. Zen Cart stores are usually eCommerce sites on the more basic side, with no need for the advanced features a big brand or enterprise-level store might require.

  • Is Zen Cart the same as OSCommerce?

    Zen Cart actually originated from OSCommerce, but split off as a separate project in 2003. Today, they are both still free and open-source, and run on PHP and MySQL, but there are many differences. OSCommerce's back-end admin can be clunky and outdated, while Zen Cart’s is designed to be much more intuitive. Both platforms can be extended via modules and plugins, but OSCommerce is very bare-bones out of the box, while Zen Cart includes important functionality such as payment processors, coupons, product reviews, and newsletters.

  • How does Zen Cart compare to Magento?

    Magento and Zen Cart are both free and open-source e-commerce website management systems. Magento, however, is much more complex and has a steep learning curve. Typically, Zen Cart is used by smaller businesses and individuals, while Magento is run by bigger companies who have a developer on staff, or can hire a contractor, to manage the technical details. The developer should have Magento expertise in particular, since the complex code can be tough to master. With the right developer, Magento can be a much more powerful tool for creating highly customized e-commerce sites with advanced features.

  • How does Zen Cart compare to WooCommerce?

    Zen Cart is a stand-alone platform and content management system (CMS) you install on your own hosting account, while WooCommerce is an eCommerce plugin for another CMS: WordPress. If you already have a WordPress website you'd like to add an online store, or if you’re already familiar with WordPress and don’t want to learn another system, WooCommerce is worth considering.

  • How does Zen Cart compare to PrestaShop?

    PrestaShop is another free, open-source ecommerce software platform. PrestaShop was first released in 2007, and is generally considered to be easier to use and better for SEO than Zen Cart. With PrestaShop, you have the option of creating a cloud-hosted store, or downloading the software to install on your own hosting plan.

  • How does Zen Cart compare to Shopify?

    Unlike Zen Cart, Shopify is a proprietary e-commerce tool that can host your website for you for a monthly fee. Shopify has a reputation for being much easier to learn and use than Zen Cart, and it requires no technical knowledge. You do not need to purchase separate hosting since Shopify provides the hosting for your site. Shopify also offers 24/7 customer support.

  • How do I find a Zen Cart web host?

    Most web hosts will support Zen Cart, and many hosts even offer easy one-click installation of the software. If you plan on using Zen Cart to run your eCommerce site, consider going with a hosting company that specializes in hosting optimized for Zen Cart. They may offer pre-installation of the software as well.

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