What Is Zen Cart?
Zen Cart is an open-source software and e-commerce application that can be installed on your web hosting account. It's free and distributed under GPL2, which is a widely-used free software license.
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.
History of Zen Cart
Zen Cart was started in 2003 as a fork from another established e-commerce tool, osCommerce. The fork resulted in a templated layout system, something which osCommerce lacked. This was a forward-thinking move that would let users customize 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 subscription. 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
Overall, Zen Cart allows you to build a functional online store on their e-commerce platform. There are six main things you can do using the Zen Cart e-commerce solution:
- Accept customer credit card payments using variously integrated payment gateways
- Take advantage of a variety of Zen Cart templates to customize your store
- List detailed descriptions of products in your store including images and pricing
- Create a customized e-commerce shopping cart
- Manage discounts or coupon codes
- Show advertisements and banners in your store to advertise related products
Structure of Zen Cart
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.
Web 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. You'll be fine hosting Zen Cart on a shared server hosting plan. 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.
Plan Types and OS Support
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 On Hosting Requirements:
Prior to committing to any sort of hosting plan, it makes sense to fully familiarize yourself with the nitty-gritty details of the above requirements.
Here are a few more points, to make your knowledge on the topic whole:
- 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").
- 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 an uptime calculator).
Zen Cart Installation and Setup
Some web hosting providers include Softaculous in your hosting account's control panel. If your web host provides the cPanel control panel, you may have access to the Softaculous script installer. This will allow you to conduct a Zen Cart installation with just one click.
If not, you may want to conduct a manual Zen Cart installation instead. Before you start, make sure you have what you need.
The Requirements for Zen Cart Installation:
Zencart have their own wiki with an in-depth installation guide.
There are a few basic requirements for Zen Cart's installation. Here is the brief list:
- Web Hosting
- Domain Name
- FTP Software
- Text Editor
- Access to MySQL Databases
Let's expand on each requirement so we're ready to rock.
1.) Web Hosting Name
Find cheap hosting if you're starting an e-commerce website for the first time. Have a look at your requirements and choose accordingly.
2.) Domain Name
Grab a domain for your online store when you sign up for web hosting. These are usually included for free with most shared hosting plans.
3.) FTP software
You'll need FTP software to conduct the Zen Cart installation manually. First, ensure you get FTP access from your web host. Then, download FTP software such as FileZilla. This allows you to transfer files to and from your web server.
4.) Text editor
This will be used for modifying the files in the Zen Cart software. You can use:
- Any other good text editor
5.) Access to MySQL databases
You may need to create a new database for your Zen Cart installation. You can do this from your web hosting account's control panel.
Once you've satisfied these 4 requirements, you're good to go to install Zen Cart. Check out the installation page on Zen Cart's website for an in-depth guide to manual installation.
Getting Started with Administrative Settings
Once you've got Zen Cart installed, you'll want to address a few things to make sure your store is functional.
First, get to your admin settings by going to www.mydomain.com/zencart/admin. Just replace "mydomain" with your domain name. Check our Zen Cart's Wiki page if you need more information about these settings.
|Configuration > My Store||Choose the level of tax for your products and shipping|
|Configuration > Images||Make sure image sizes are appropriate for your store|
|Configuration > Customer Details||Choose the options available at user login, registration, and on user account pages|
|Configuration > Shipping/Packaging||Verify your country and ZIP code for shipping quotes|
|Configuration > Email Options||Choose your e-mail sending and receiving settings|
|Configuration > GZip Compression||Enable GZip to speed up page loading on your store|
|Configuration > Credit Cards||Choose which credit cards you will accept|
|Modules > Payment||Install, edit, and disable different payment methods|
|Modules > Shipping||Select your desired shipping providers|
|Localization > Currencies||Select the currencies your store will accept|
|Localization > Languages||Add different languages for translating your site|
Pros and Alternatives
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
- The customization 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 e-commerce 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.
Top 3 Zen Cart Hosts
I have accumulated a selection of the 3 best hosting providers when taking Zen Cart into consideration.
Here they are!
Siteground hosting for Zen Cart
SiteGround is always a winner in our books. Their shared web hosting plans are extremely affordable and great for individuals as well as small businesses.
They include free website migration if you're looking to switch. And, for your e-commerce site, they include a free SSL certificate for your customers' security.
WebHostingHub hosting for Zen Cart
For the longest, zero-risk trial, try out WebHostingHub with their 90-day money-back guarantee. Their hosting includes Softaculous for free 1-click installs of applications such as Zen Cart.
Their hosting includes advanced policy firewall protection and suPHP encryption for higher security. Cheaper than SiteGround, WebHostingHub also provides a 99.9% uptime guarantee for your peace of mind.
A2 Hosting hosting for Zen Cart
Similar in price to SiteGround, A2 Hosting has optional Turbo Servers for up to 20x-faster loading speeds and optimized Zen Cart support. You'll get one-click installations of Zen Cart from your control panel as well as an automatic e-mail notification when a new Zen Cart version is available to install.
They'll even issue a pro-rated refund at any time if you decide their hosting is not up to your expectations.
Other features in E-commerce
Zen Cart Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Zen Cart?
Zen Cart is a free ecommerce 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 software and 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 (Linux operating system, Apache web server, and support for MySQL and PHP).
- What makes Zen Cart different from other ecommerce site builders?
Founded in 2003, Zen Cart was one of the very first ecommerce 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 project 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 a number of features:
- Multi-tier and promotional pricing
- Meta tags for your products
- Product reviews
- Stock management
- Thumbnail creation
- Report generation
- Newsletter functionality
- 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 PHP for structural changes.
- Who is the typical or ideal user for Zen Cart?
Zen Cart is normally 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. 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. In comparison, Zen Cart includes important functionality in its core, 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 ecommerce 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 ecommerce 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 the WordPress CMS.
If you already have a WordPress website and 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?
Shopify is a proprietary ecommerce tool that hosts 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.