Bottom line: Among the many shopping cart platforms, I found that Zen Cart stands out as the most functional, free solution. Every platform has its drawbacks, but I especially liked Zen Cart’s extensive customization capabilities, the wide range of integration options, and its open-source nature. Zen Cart supports multiple hosting providers, in-built payment processing integration, and fantastic plug-ins and add-ons that make your store stand out.
Who should choose Zen Cart? Anyone with some technical expertise. Zen Cart requires some technical knowledge as an open-source program, even though it’s advertised as easy to install.
What we like about Zen Cart
- Great for programmers: Zen Cart is great for programmers who know how to code. The code is clean and organized, which makes it easy to understand and work with.
- Strong community forum and self-help options: One of Zen Cart’s biggest selling points is its strong community forum, filled with experts to help fix any problems. Those without technical skills, however, may be frustrated. In that case, you should pick an easier option, like Shopify, Web.com, or WooCommerce.
- Highly customizable: There are dozens of templates and plug-ins to choose from. You can find plenty of templates and plugins to customize your shopping cart, which benefits business owners.
- Free to download: If you’re looking for a free, open-source shopping cart solution, this is a great choice.
What fell flat
- Outdated interface: The interface is not as modern as others in the market and can be confusing for beginners.
- Lacks support: Since Zen Cart is free to use, it lacks the resources to provide proper support to its users, which would help them resolve problems more quickly. Those who lack programming skills or are beginners may find this a deal breaker.
If Zen Cart isn’t the right fit, check out our featured ecommerce platforms below:
Zen Cart’s Editorial Review
As one of the most popular shopping cart solutions in the market, Zen Cart is known for its flexibility, security, and strong community. But it also comes with some cons, such as its learning curve, which can be steep for beginners.
Furthermore, Zen Cart offers a lot of flexibility for those with technical knowledge, as well as great plug-ins and integrations. As a downside, it lacks the ability to offer services to users with no technical experience, which lowers the overall score. In addition, Zen Cart’s interface is a bit outdated compared with its competitors.
“If you crave a fully customizable e-commerce solution, Zen Cart could be your ideal pick, but make sure you also look for the best hosting solution with Linux server hosting because Zen Cart was built with PHP and MySQL, so it’s required. In a way, Zen Cart is to e-commerce as WordPress is to website building — you’re going to need to rely on a lot of plugins to make it more functional.”Amy Nichol Smith, Content Marketing Manager
- Store locally or in the cloud
- Fully customizable
- Plug-ins and add-ons
- Payment processing features
- Works with many hosting companies
- Third-party contributions
- Can be used with custom domains
- Templating system
- Additional useful tools
There have been a few reported instances of security flaws in Zen Cart. However, the developers have typically been very responsive in addressing these issues. Overall, Zen Cart is considered a secure platform.
Plans and Pricing
The key advantage of Zen Cart over its competitors is that it’s entirely free and fully customizable. While Zen Cart is free, setting up an online store does have expenses. You will need to purchase a domain name, an SSL certificate, and web hosting services.
You may also need to budget for a web developer and designer if you have limited technical knowledge. There are additional expenses associated with add-ons and third-party templates.
Zen Cart offers a single plan:
- Basic (Free)
- Good for: Developers and businesses with technical knowledge
This open-source shopping cart has thousands of add-ons and plug-ins and you can add unlimited categories and products. There’s unlimited flexibility, around 250 templates to choose from, and features for sales support, order management, reporting, and marketing.
Zen Cart has many great features that make it a valuable e-commerce business tool. Among them are:
Store locally or in the cloud
Zen Cart offers you two options in terms of where your shopping cart data is stored. You can store it locally on your computer or in the cloud via a third-party provider.
Local storage is great if you want complete control over your data and don’t mind paying for hosting yourself. Cloud storage is a better option if you want to save money on hosting and don’t mind giving up some control over your data.
Since Zen Cart is one of the most popular open-source shopping cart solutions, most hosting providers will have it as a quick installation option.
With Zen Cart’s open-source code, I was able to customize the product. This is great news if you can code because it allows you to modify the shopping cart and codebase for your needs.
The installation bundle also allows you to enhance your business processes by modifying them. Customizations can be made on the back end when you modify your Zen Cart installation source code or on the front end, when you use plug-ins and add-ons you’ve developed or shared with others.
This is an advantage compared to other solutions, which may not have this option.
Plug-ins and add-ons
Zen Cart plug-ins and add-ons are tools that extend the functionality of your Zen Cart store. They can be used to add new features or to customize the look and feel of your store.
Here are some popular Zen Cart plug-ins and add-ons I found:
- 251 admin tools: Zen Cart admin functions give access to extra features such as HTML editors, data importers, email tools, and more.
- 79 buttons and graphics: Gives you access to extra buttons and graphics, that you can use in your shopping cart.
- 67 language packs: You can launch your shopping cart in 67 languages.
- 136 marketing tools: Gives you access to Zen Cart upsells, cross-sells, email reminders, and other useful integrations like Mailchimp email integration.
- 368 other modules: Extra features such as one-page checkout, SEO URLs, and testimonial management.
- 249 payment modules: Provides access to most popular international payment providers.
- 23 pricing tools: Offers extra pricing tools such as quantity discounts; buy one, get one free; military discounts; and more.
- 4 privacy and condition statements: Allows you to add conditions such as terms of service, and privacy policies.
- 9 product types: Auction, book-selling tools, gold-selling tools, and many more types of custom products.
- 110 shipping modules: Access to the most popular shipping providers worldwide, and the ability to add “priority handling” and other features to shipping processes.
- 135 sideboxes: Modules for your sidebars such as product filters, answer boxes, and live chat.
- 96 template alterations: Template add-ons to your site, including catalog invoices, banners, print invoice pop-ups, and news pieces.
- 199 template packages: Different website template packages that you can apply to your website.
- 15 troubleshooting tools: Access to various reporting tools, a syscheck scanner, backtrace for the MyDebuglog, and much more.
- 43 zones: Regions that can be used to calculate taxes and shipping for different countries.
Payment processing features
Zen Cart offers a variety of payment processing features, including credit card payments, PayPal, checks, and money orders. You can also protect your business from fraudulent charges with third-party fraud protection systems. Most of them integrate directly with Zen Cart (for example, Kount and MaxMind’s minFraud).
Luckily, there is an option to add a custom module if your payment processor is not supported. I personally enjoy doing custom modules, as they give the checkout process a unique touch. You can integrate many other popular payment gateways with these community-built modules.
On top of that, you have many options for international payments if you do business in multiple countries.
Works with many hosting companies
When choosing a hosting provider, Zen Cart runs on commonly used components, such as PHP, Apache, and MySQL. This shopping cart app requires Linux to run, so if your website is hosted on a Windows server, you’ll have to migrate or look for alternatives.
A variety of factors can affect performance, but the hosting company you choose makes a difference. A good hosting company will offer fast and reliable service, which is important for ensuring your Zen Cart store runs smoothly. Additionally, a good hosting company will provide adequate resources and support to help you troubleshoot any issues.
You can save time and hassle by using ready-made templates and themes created by expert developers.
If you have no experience building websites, I recommend that you purchase a ready-made template. This will save you a lot of time and money. However, Zen Cart is not the easiest to use when it comes to templates, and you should opt for other providers if you’re looking for an out-of-the-box solution.
An open-source product such as Zen Cart has the advantage that anyone can contribute to its improvement. Either the base package itself can be updated or add-on packages can be created to extend its functionality to include new features that weren’t included in the original installation.
Zen Cart’s wiki contains links to third-party contributions. Besides smaller things like offering two prices for a single product, you can also find packages integrating unsupported payment processors, manipulating order totals, and managing data imports.
The Zen Cart dashboard is the first screen you see when you log in to your store’s admin area. From the dashboard, you can quickly access the most important areas of your store’s back end, including orders, customers, catalog, and extensions. The dashboard also displays key metrics about your store’s performance, such as total sales and average order value.
When I began testing, I discovered that finding everything on Zen Cart’s dashboard can be quite a hassle. You’ll have to learn how to navigate through many drop-down menus.
However, there is no denying that Zen Cart’s dashboard is great since it provides many features and options.
Dashboard features include:
- Product options: You can add, edit, or delete products from your store, as well as manage product options such as size and color.
- Categories: You can easily add, edit, or delete unlimited categories and sub-categories.
- Manage shipping settings: Set up shipping methods and zones, as well as set up flat rate or free shipping.
- Configure taxes: Easily add, edit, or delete tax classes and rates.
- Orders overview: It shows you the total number of orders, the total amount of sales, and the average order value.
- Customers overview: Shows you the total number of products in the store, the total number of products sold, and the average product price.
With all these features, you can easily control your store. However, there are some drawbacks. The dashboard can be slow to load, and it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for.
Can be used with your custom domain
Using a custom domain means that you can use your own domain name to access your Zen Cart installation instead of the default Zen Cart URL. You must set up your hosting account and edit the configuration file to accomplish this. With these steps completed, your Zen Cart installation will be accessible via your custom domain name.
To use Zen Cart with a custom domain, you must set up a few things first. In your hosting account, you must create a subdomain and point it to the /www/Zen Cart/directory.
You must also edit the /www/Zen Cart/includes/configure.php file and change the HTTP_SERVER line to reflect your new domain name.
Finally, you will need to update your DNS records to point your domain name to your hosting account’s IP address. Once all of these steps are completed, you can access your Zen Cart installation via your custom domain name.
Some benefits of using a custom domain for your Zen Cart installation include:
- Your store will be easier to remember and brand
- It can help with SEO
- Your store will look more professional
- You can better control the URL structure
- A custom SSL certificate can enhance security
One of Zen Cart’s best selling features is its templating system, which can be used for two purposes:
- Designing multiple website themes (for example, holiday/seasonal)
- Ensuring any custom features you have implemented won’t be overridden when upgrading Zen Cart
Templates consist of database settings, overrides, and files that are automatically included in all new templates.
Although the templating system allows you to do some interesting things with your Zen Cart implementation, it does have a steep learning curve. It’s certainly possible to use Zen Cart without learning about the templating system, but you will miss out on some of the program’s features.
There are many ways in which these features can benefit your business, including:
- Owners can customize their shop’s appearance to match their branding
- Templates can be selected from a variety of options
- Templates can be created from scratch
- The look of the shop can be easily changed without editing the code
Additional useful tools
In addition to the basic features offered by Zen Cart, I found a few additional tools extremely useful:
- Discount codes: This tool allows you to offer customers price reductions on their purchases by entering a code at checkout. This is a great way to encourage customers to buy more, especially during seasonal and holiday campaigns, when many businesses make their biggest sales.
- Custom order statuses: This feature allows you to create unique updates for orders, such as ” processing” or ” shipped.” This can help keep track of orders and know exactly where they are in the fulfillment process.
- Abandoned cart recovery: This tool allows you to find abandoned carts and send customers reminder emails about their unfinished orders. Since most sales are driven by retargeting, this can boost sales and encourage purchases.
- Shipping quotes: This tool allows you to offer customers shipping estimates based on their location and the items they buy. This is a great way to encourage customers to buy more from your store by offering them free or discounted shipping.
If you are not using these features, you may be missing out on valuable opportunities to improve your store and boost sales.
Some of the reported security flaws in Zen Cart include:
- A weakness that allowed attackers to inject SQL code into queries
- A cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability
- A directory traversal vulnerability
- Multiple vulnerabilities in the “install” folder that could allow an attacker to gain access to sensitive information or modify files on the server
How were they fixed?
The SQL injection flaw was addressed in Zen Cart versions 1.3.9 and newer by validating user input and properly escaping any potentially dangerous characters.
The XSS vulnerability was patched in version 1.5.1 by preventing unescaped HTML code from being output in error messages.
The directory traversal flaw was fixed in version 1.5.2 by properly sanitizing user input.
The vulnerabilities in the “install” folder were addressed in versions 1.5.3 and newer versions by removing the install folder once the installation is complete.
According to my experience, Zen Cart is a secure shopping cart platform. However, as with any software, it is important to keep your installation up-to-date and to follow best practices for securing your website. It is good to know that developers have typically responded quickly to reported security issues, and there are several ways to help keep your website secure.
Some best practices for securing your Zen Cart website include:
- Keeping your Zen Cart installation and all plug-ins and themes updated
- Using strong passwords for all administrator accounts
- Restricting access to the admin area to trusted IP addresses
- Installing an SSL certificate to encrypt communications between your website and visitors’ browsers
It’s easy to get help with Zen Cart. The community is large and active so that you can find answers to your questions quickly. Additionally, the developers are responsive to bug reports and requests for new features. Overall, most users have been happy with the level of support they’ve received.
Since Zen Cart is open-source, there is no guided support system. However, there are many ways to find help for most issues. Among them:
- Zen Cart Wiki: The first place I looked when I ran into issues with my Zen Cart was the Zen Cart Wiki. There are hundreds of text manuals on how to do specific tasks. Specifically developed for Zen Cart users, the manual topics include plug-ins, admin system, email, installing, payments, reporting, speed, troubleshooting, and much more.
- FAQs and tutorials: Zen Cart’s FAQ page includes answers to the most common questions and solutions to possible problems. Additionally, there are tutorials for specific tasks.
- Forums: I saw tens of thousands of posts about specific things on Zen Cart’s forums. If you can’t find an answer, try to crowdsource it by posting about your issue on the forums.
- Development blog: You can also try finding an answer from the developer community.
If you’re not sure where to start searching, try looking in the troubleshooting guide.
If your issue is still relevant, you can try contacting an external developer for help. There are a few avenues you can explore when looking for developers. One is to post your job on a freelancing site like Upwork or Freelancer.com. You can also reach out to developers through online communities and forums, such as Stack Overflow or GitHub.
Zen Cart is an open-source e-commerce platform that anyone can contribute to the software’s development. As such, feedback from users is always welcome. Developers are constantly looking for new ways to upgrade the platform. Here are a few new improvements I found:
- Newer versions of PHP: PHP is commonly used for web development because it’s fast, flexible, and powerful, and the Zen Cart developers have updated it. PHP code can be embedded into HTML pages or run as a standalone program. Updates to PHP mean that developers can upgrade Zen Cart faster and more flexibly.
- Improved performance and security: Zen Cart’s performance and security have improved significantly over the years, as the software is often updated by developers. There is now greater stability and security in the software, which is especially crucial for users with large businesses.
- Minor user interface changes: Zen Cart has had several minor UI improvements over the years, including a new check-out process, a redesigned admin panel, and other small tweaks. These have all helped to make the platform easier to use.
Features coming soon to Zen Cart:
- Improved support for mobile devices: Smartphones and tablet users will have a smoother experience.
- Improved security: Since Zen Cart is constantly updated and developed, security is improving.
Compare Zen Cart Alternatives
Zen Cart is a strong contender for shopping cart solutions. Still, competitors such as OpenCart, Ecwid, X-Cart, AbanteCart, and BigCommerce could be a better fit for some businesses. See how Zen Cart compares to other top-tier e-commerce platforms that the team here at Digital.com recommends.
Pricing + Basic Plan Features
Frequently Asked Questions About Zen Cart
How much does Zen Cart cost?
There is no set cost for Zen Cart, as it is an open-source platform. This means that anyone can download and use the software for free. Nevertheless, if you need support or additional features, you may need to purchase plug-ins or hire a developer, which can end up costing more than using all-in-one e-commerce alternatives like WooCommerce or BigCommerce.
Do you need to be a designer or developer to use Zen Cart?
Zen Cart does not require designers or developers, but knowing a little bit of coding is really helpful. In terms of adding new integrations and add-ons, you will be much further ahead if you have coding skills.
What do you need to get started with Zen Cart?
To get started with Zen Cart, you will need a web hosting account that supports PHP and MySQL. You will also need to download the latest version of Zen Cart from the official website. Once you have these things, you can follow the installation instructions to get Zen Cart up and running on your server.
We recommend using a web hosting account that supports PHP 7.3 and MySQL 5.7.8 or higher (GeekHost, MyZen CartHost, Digital Ocean). These are the minimum requirements for running Zen Cart. If your web host does not support these requirements, you may still be able to use Zen Cart, but you’ll need to contact your web host for further assistance.
Can I use Zen Cart on my existing store?
Yes, you can use Zen Cart on your existing store if it meets the minimum requirements. You will need to back up your store before proceeding with the installation.
What kind Of customer service does Zen Cart offer?
Zen Cart offers a variety of customer service options, including a community forum, Zen Cart Wiki, FAQs and tutorials, and a development blog. The Zen Cart forums also have many active developers who help people occasionally.
Can you have multiple stores on Zen Cart?
Yes, you can have multiple stores on Zen Cart. Each store can have its own domain name, logo, products, and settings. You can find instructions for setting up multiple stores in the Zen Cart Wiki and forums.
Does Zen Cart support multilingual stores?
Zen Cart supports multilingual stores. On the Zen Cart Wiki, you can find tutorials and information about setting up a multilingual store.
How I Rated Zen Cart
I test e-commerce providers based on the following factors:
- Value: What do you get for each plan — and does it hit that sweet spot of cost ratio to features?
- Ease of use: Is it simple to use the platform with intuitive tools, familiar interfaces, and supportive tutorials or tours?
- Features: Does the platform offer tools that support your business, including marketing integrations, plug-ins, reporting, and management? How effective are the features?
- Security: Which measures does the platform take to protect your business? Does it offer Payment card industry (PCI) compliance and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates?
- Support and improvements: How well does the platform help when you need it? And will it continue to grow with your needs?
Learn more about our review methodology.