If you’re looking for the best platform to power an online store, you need to consider a few essential points. First you have to decide on its functionality. This includes the number of features the platform offers as well as how they are designed. Then you have to decide if you’re going for a hosted or self-hosted shopping cart.
Remember the following: an online store can be designed in the most modern, eye-catching way possible, yet still fail if the shopping cart itself is lacking in features or flexibility. It doesn’t matter if you have the most professional looking store, the best product pictures and amazing descriptions. If your customer clicks that “checkout” button and then faces a bad experience, all your other work has gone to waste.
Now, when it comes to choosing between a hosted or self-hosted shopping cart solution, there are no easy answers. In fact, there are endless debates on the topic and both sides have great arguments. In the end you will have to make the final decision based on your particular business needs, budget and even personality.
You’ll often hear online retailers say they avoid hosted shopping carts because they don’t like paying a monthly fee. So if you go for a hosted cart solution you pay a fee each month, but if you go for a self-hosted solution you buy it and you’re set for life?
Actually, that’s an oversimplification and far from the truth. A self-hosted solution is basically a piece of software that you licence. However, that license is most often limited to a particular version. Sure, you can “use” that particular version for life, but you don’t get lifetime updates for free, nor do you get support for life.
In practical terms you do often have to renew the license, and this is typically on a yearly basis. How is this different than getting a hosted-cart solution and paying a year in advance? It’s not that different really, so this distinction isn’t actually that relevant.
Self hosted shopping carts
If you want to explain to someone why self-hosted carts are better, the simplest way is to just give a couple of one-word answers. This includes things like “flexibility”, “freedom”, “ownership”, “customization”. If you want to look at what makes self-hosted solutions worse though, the answer is “it requires at least some technical knowledge”.
This is true with almost every type of software solution. If you want more flexibility and freedom to modify a software platform, you have to be willing to do more of the “dirty work”. Whether it is you personally, or someone on your staff – with a self-hosted solution, someone that has technical skills needs to do the work. That includes setting up the cart itself, modifying its design and configuring security and server settings.
It also means that if you make a mistake, you have to fix it yourself. If you set something up in a wrong way, you might be actually getting a lot of failed sales and not even know it. This is impossible on a hosted-service as any “bug” is service-wide. In essence every single customer on a hosted service is a troubleshooter. If a problem appears and is reported, it gets fixed for every other customer.
If you configure your self-hosted cart the wrong way, you are the one who needs to get it handled. Whereas with hosted solutions problems are fixed while you sleep. More flexibility and power means more responsibility. In essence hosted solutions protect you from yourself. Whereas self-hosted solutions give you the freedom to mess things up.
Let’s get back to the positives though. One of the main benefits with a self-hosted solution is that you own your sales. You do not have to share the profits with anyone and you can modify the cart as you please (if you have the technical knowledge).
If you’re the kind of person who likes to do things “your own way” and feel unshackled, then a self-hosted solution is the right one for you. There are no limitations and you are not confined to predetermined sets of options and design templates.
With a good self-hosted cart solution, you are in complete control of the design. Whereas hosted carts limit you to a selection of similar-looking templates, self-hosted allows you to use your own design. When you use hosted carts, you are essentially using their branding. With a good self-hosted platform you can develop your own branding.
Again, hosted solutions protect you from your own mistakes, and self-hosted solutions give you freedom and responsibility. With a hosted solution you get to choose a design that has been pre-tested and optimized to work on every device. If you do your own design, you have to do your own tests and bug-hunting. But that is usually the price you have to pay for success.
If you’re really intent on having a completely custom look that is uniquely your own, then self-hosted is for you. Remember though, that means more responsibility for you as well. This includes handling things like security and safety. While the self-hosted solution provides some built-in safety features and a guide on setting them up, ultimately the buck stops with your business. If any security or safety issues arise, this is again your own responsibility. If this idea is too stressful consider hiring professionals to help you set it up.
A hosted shopping cart
Hosted shopping carts are useful for companies that cannot host their own shopping cart. In most cases, they don t have people with the technical knowledge necessary to host their own online cart.
Unlike with a self hosted shopping cart, the user pays for each month (or year) that they use the cart. Remember, with a self-hosted solution you generally only have to pay again if you want to download a newer version or renew your customer support.
The main draw of hosted shopping carts is that they include a variety of templates that can be used in creating your online store. These designs are professionally done and guaranteed to work perfectly. The downside of course is that you’re sharing this design with thousands of other stores. If you have modest business goals this isn’t a problem. If you plan on growing big however, this might be a little unprofessional.
Remember, self-hosted shopping carts offer you the possibility to be creative and to experiment with your own ideas and branding. Hosted shopping carts limit you to “safe, but boring” options.
Since web hosting is included in the monthly fee, people new to online business may find the hosted shopping carts convenient. You don’t have to learn about servers, you don’t have to learn about web hosting or building websites.
If you don’t have a lot of time or any interest to learn about hosting and websites, a hosted solution is right for you. Do you want to just start selling immediately and have no patience to set up a unique professional store? Well, you’ve guessed it, a hosted solution is the right one for you.
Remember, when you get a hosted online cart, you are getting an entire team of professionals that work to keep that cart running smoothly. Or at least that’s what their marketing says. In fact this is also a false distinction. Self-hosted carts come with a community of users and developers and a support structure too.
And of course you can always hire professionals to support your self-hosted cart. With this strategy you get all the benefits promised by hosted carts, yet with all of the flexibility of being self-hosted.
Advantages and disadvantages to self hosted vs hosted shopping carts
Hosted shopping carts offer reliability, optimized designs, optimized speed and a great peace of mind. If things go wrong, the buck stops with them. However, they also take away a lot of control and leave you with pre-defined sets of choices. Unless you run the world’s simplest store, you will always run into an annoying limitation of some sort.
Hosted cart platforms cannot offer every single conceivable feature, so they limit themselves to offering the most common features that are used by most people selling the “typical kind of product” in a “typical small store”. This is your main trade off. If you are ok with compromises and don’t have much of an ambition, then hosted solutions might work just fine for you.
The self hosted shopping cart is great choice if you’re just getting started and don’t yet have a ready source of customers. This means that you have the time and space to tweak, customize and learn about how the cart works. If you like learning about technology and are in no hurry, a self-hosted cart can be a lot of fun.
You may even learn a few different skills that are useful in general. Whether you learn a bit of design, coding or server-lingo, this all adds up to your portfolio of “useful online skills”. Creating, building and tweaking your own website over time might help you get better at building up a brand and understanding online business at a deeper level.
And consider this, there are no serious online stores using hosted carts. This is not a coincidence. So if you have an ambition of making a serious business of selling products online, then self-hosted carts are really your only option. If you have no ambition of your store being anything more than a fun side-project, then a hosted solution may be acceptable.
After all, hosted shopping carts also offer simplicity of use; a person can create an online store within a few minutes by using ready-made templates. However, they will miss out on the opportunity to have a unique, one of a kind online shopping cart.