What Is a Shopping Cart—A Short Guide

Updated · Mar 06, 2023

If you’ve ever done any shopping, online or off, you’ve probably used a shopping cart.

Real shopping carts are baskets on wheels where you put your items so you can carry them to check out. 

eCommerce shopping carts serve similar purpose, but there’s a lot more to them than that.

Read on as we discuss them in greater detail.

What Is a Shopping Cart?

The term “shopping cart” is often used loosely.

Shopping carts can refer to tools that allow you to add ecommerce functionality to your website, although website builders and ecommerce platforms are sometimes referred to as shopping carts too.

The first usage is most correct, but there is overlap amongst all three tool types. It’s then difficult to talk about shopping carts by segmenting them completely. 

To complicate things a little further, actual shopping carts, where online customers stack their items and checkout, can be found in all three of these.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly be focusing on the tools that add ecommerce functionality to your site, and the types of shopping carts customers will interact with. 

Uses for Shopping Carts

Shopping carts are an essential part of any ecommerce website.

They’re necessary for customers to actually select items and pay for them, but they can also offer valuable insights into buyer behavior.

By tracking how customers use online shopping carts, i.e what products they’re putting in, and taking out, you can get an idea of what’s attracting them, and what’s giving them second thoughts.

Furthermore, unlike their real-world counterparts, online shopping carts can be used for “remarketing”.

Most shopping cart software can be configured to detect whether a customer has left without completing their purchase.

This is known as cart abandonment, and by connecting your shopping cart with an email automation tool, you can send “nudges”, to try and get them to return and complete the purchase. 

Types of Shopping Carts

When it comes to shopping carts, there are two main types: software-as-a-service (SaaS) and open source.

Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the best solution for your business will depend on your specific needs.

The SaaS vs open source divide is a near-constant feature throughout ecommerce. The most basic difference is a trade-off between customizability and support, with open source being more customizable, and SaaS offering better support. 


SaaS shopping carts are easy to set up and use, and they require no upfront investment.

However, they typically charge monthly fees, and you don't have as much control over the software.

This means a lack of customizability, both in the way the order cart looks, and the way it functions. 

There’s also the concern of vendor lock-in, or being too reliant on that specific software provider.

One big benefit of SaaS shopping carts is that you have near-constant tech support. If something goes wrong, you can reach out to the service provider, and they will assist you with the problem.  

Another benefit is security. You can be sure that providers have tested their systems well, and will keep an eye out for vulnerabilities. Although there is a lack of transparency on how code works. 

This is a major reason why some are ardent supporters of open source.

Open Source

Open-source ecommerce shopping carts are free to use, and you have full control over the code, meaning you can customize them to your liking.

However, therein lies the difficulty. To set up and use them, you'll need to invest in hosting, and support, if you don’t have a team member with the technical skills required. 

The trade-off is greater customizability in terms of look, but also in terms of function. Having access to the inner workers allows you to install tools that, for example, provide richer data on users behavior.  

As we’ve mentioned, SaaS has support, but with open source, you’re on your own. You’ll have to seek advice from forums and other users, and when it comes to actually tweaking your shopping cart options, you’ll need to do it personally, or pay out of pocket for someone else to do it. 

The best two open-source solutions are WooCommerce, and its hosting solutions, which is a WordPress plugin, and Magento, with its hosting solutions.

Both of these actually offer more support that basic open source solutions, but you will be paying for them.

Magento is a popular choice with large enterprises such as Nike. 

Preconfigured Solutions 

Of course, digital shopping carts often come bundled in with broader solutions.

For example, ecommerce website builders often include shopping cart software, and if you setup a store on Shopify, the shopping cart will be automatically taken care of. 

As these are also SaaS solutions, the trade-off for convenience is a lack of customizability. 

A Possible Alternative 

There’s a possible alternative to shopping carts, although their applications are limited.

By using landing page builders, you can create single sales’ page.

These pages allow you to sell a specific item quickly. 

Although creating a landing page is not a substitute for an online shopping cart, if you have a highly targeted campaign, it could prove quite useful. 


Choosing the right shopping cart for your ecommerce business is essential to its success.

Your shopping cart will be the endpoint for many of your sales funnels, and the experience your customers have with it could be the difference between a sale, and them going elsewhere.

In summary, SaaS carts are easier, but more expensive in the short term, and less customizable. Open source can be free, but on the higher end costs can add up. 

That’s why it’s vital you do your research, and we hope this article answering the question of “What is a shopping cart?” has helped in that regard.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.