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Zen Cart review: open source shopping cart with its pros and cons

Zen Cart is an open-source ecommerce software. It’s one of the oldest ecommerce solutions available. As open-source software, it’s free to download, use, and modify to your needs.

It was created by a group of designers, programmers, and shop owners. Originally, it was osCommerce but branched off in 2003. It has developed new features and functionalities since then.

It’s an electronic cart system that tries to satisfy both the shop owner and customers’ needs. It’s however, not a fully-fledged ecommerce offering.

Setting up Zen Cart requires basic technical knowledge as with all open-source software, but it is not one of the more intuitive open source content management systems, let alone commerce platforms.

Pros and cons of Zen Cart


  • It’s designed from the ground up to be customisable, expandable, and secure.
  • It has many language packs so that you can run your site in many languages
  • Its plugins are all also free
  • It has out of the box coupons and gift cards


  • The installation process is more complicated then what I’m used to with open source (for example WordPress)
  • Outdated design and UI
  • It’s not very intuitive and takes a while to get used to it.
  • Upgrades can be complicated since Zen Cart sites can lose their customisation during the process
  • Having many plugins can be difficult to make all of them work together

Who is Zen Cart for?

As long as you have an average PHP and programming knowledge, you can completely customise every feature in Zen Cart. Its philosophy is more like “here are all the tools to fish, now go fishing”.

If you’re a merchant with basic tech skills, you can set it up. That said, if you prefer to just install it and get on with your business, Zen Cart is not a good choice. You’ll need to install plugins for a lot of functionality since Zen Cart is quite a simple program. It works best for tiny to medium-sized projects.

Larger ventures are better off with enterprise-level software or a subscription-based service.

How easy is Zen Cart to use?

As with open-source software, you first have to buy your domain and hosting service, then you can install it. For the installation, you download the software, create a database, upload the software to your server, create the configuration files, and then run the installer.

Zen Cart dashboard

You configure, extend, and manage your store in the dashboard. But to find everything you need, you first have to check the many drop-down tabs in the navigation. These many options are one of the reasons that make Zen Cart so customisable, but it is a far cry from being intuitive.

Going against industry standards, you do not “add” or “save” a product, but you first preview and then insert it. There is definitively a learning curve to Zen Cart.

Add a product to Zen Cart

Zen Cart themes and templates

The design templates as the themes are called in Zen Cart aren’t the most professional or attractive looking. Right after installation, this is how the storefront looks

Zen Cart default storefornt

Without PHP knowledge, you’d need a developer to help you make your store more appealing.

But what is really intriguing is that it has a templating system that allows you to design multiple appearances for your store. Imagine having a special look for each season and holiday. Again, there is a steep learning curve associated with applying the templating system.

It has a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor for pages like, privacy policy or contact, which are pages that are not saved into the database like a product page.

How to manage your ecommerce store in Zen Cart?

Your catalog and products are listed under the tab Catalog. You can add a product easily enough as mentioned above, but if you want to add product attributions, you need to navigate to Attributes Controller and add them there. It supports downloadable goods.

Zen Cart Attribute Controller

As Zen Cart is a shopping cart and not a full ecommerce system, out of the box, it does not provide tools for returns and refunds. But you get a comprehensive sale report under the tab Reports.

You can configure taxes and shipping methods for different countries, send coupons and gift cards. It also supports multiple currencies and languages.

Zen Cart integrations

With its extensive list of plugins, you can quite easily extend the core functionality of Zen Cart. The plugins range from changing the appearance of your store to adding necessary text like privacy policy and more language support to adding new functionalities. All the plugins are free.

As with any open-source ecosystem, be wary of what plugins you install, they might not be compatible with each other. According to Zen Cart, some may affect PCI compliance.

What marketing and SEO tools does Zen Cart have?


Zen Cart comes with a few SEO tools out of the box so that you can add meta tags, keywords, and descriptions for your products. But it’s best to install a plugin that lets you write additional meta tags. When you’re at it, also install a tool for sitemap.xml.

Email campaigns

This is where Zen Cart shines. Not only can you design and send transactional mails, you can also send your newsletters right out of the box. You can also notify your customers when products are back in stock.


You will need to install a blogging plugin or integrate your Zen Cart with third party blogging content management systems like WordPress.

Payment options

Zen Cart is fully integrated with PayPal and You can add a custom plugin to remedy if the payment processor you’re using isn’t supported.

Zen Cart security

As open-source software, you are responsible for the security of your site. That means it is on you to find a good and reliable hosting provider and install an SSL certificate. Also, if you use the above mentioned PayPal and, both of which never store credit card information on your site, then your site will be PCI compliant.

Zen Cart customer support

As with open-source software, Zen Cart’s support system is based on its community. It’s an active community. It’s heavily supporting the application and ready to answer any development-related questions. Traditional and personalised customer support is not available in any form.

You can find answers in Zen Cart Documentation, Tutorials & FAQs, or the forum.

If you are out of your depth, then the only way you get support is by hiring a third-party Zen Cart developer.

Zen Cart pricing

Zen Cart is open-source software, and as such, is free for you to download and install. You need to set aside a budget for hosting, domain name, and if necessary a Zen Cart developer.

Is Zen Cart the right pick for you?

Apart from hosting, domain, and SSL fees, Zen Cart is a free and fully customisable shopping cart. It has a vibrant community and well-documented resources. If you’re a web developer yourself, versed in PHP, or have an IT team behind you, this could make a nice project.

Still, in this constellation, you have better options to choose from. Zen Cart’s appearance, that is its template and its dashboard are quite outdated. Also, you’d need to consider adding quite a number of plugins so that Zen Cart satisfies your needs; and remember, the more plugins you install, potentially the more problems.

If your heart is still set on an open-source platform, why not take a look at Prestashop or Magento Opensource? Both are more up-to-date and fully-fledged ecommerce platforms.

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