Zen Cart came about in 2003 as a software fork from osCommerce, developed by several users who sought to improve upon the architecture of osCommerce and enhance a few of its capabilities. The idea was that osCommerce was starting to show its age and could benefit from some fresh programming, including the addition of a store template system and other small features. Today, Zen Cart has developed into a popular free and open-source eCommerce alternative for technical-minded entrepreneurs who like to code their own features.
3dcart began development in the late 1990s, grown directly from the shopping cart software experience of Gonzalo Gil, founder and CEO. Gonzalo developed shopping cart customizations for numerous eCommerce merchants, and he conceived 3dcart as the ultimate eCommerce platform that would bring all the most-demanded, necessary features together into one streamlined solution. Since then, 3dcart has continued to grow its capabilities through integrations, apps, and more built-in features including the best SEO tools on the market.
Free isn't always free. Zen Cart, while a free download, requires you to handle all the aspects of eCommerce on your own. You'll have to pay for a domain name, hosting, and SSL, and go out of your way to ensure your site is PCI compliant. There is no central development team to handle your tech support issues, and you'll have to rely on the Zen Cart community. Setup and design are also best handled by someone with coding know-how, and if this doesn't describe you, be prepared to pay top dollar for a competent designer and developer.
With 3dcart, you can forget about all those limitations and extra costs. Your plan includes hosting, top-of-the-line security, and 24/7/365 tech support when you need it. Over 100 mobile-ready themes are available and ready for you to customize. And best yet, all the features you need are built right in.
Zen Cart's admin is underwhelming and hard to learn. There are tons of options, but they're not organized in a way that makes them easy to understand. 3dcart, however, has an intuitive admin panel that's easy to learn, and support is always available to help you.
Zen Cart comes with few SEO tools, which are a necessity in today's eCommerce market. 3dcart's included features are much more robust, and built to help you dominate Google searches and reach more customers.
“Zen Cart looked great at first, but I soon realized what I was in for. About the third time I had to reinstall because a software upgrade, theme, or module crashed my store, I knew it was time to look elsewhere.”
– Former Zen Cart Merchant
Zen Cart warns you that some themes and modules will break your store's security, causing you to lose PCI compliance. This is a nonexistent issue with 3dcart: not a single theme or app will ever cause an issue, let alone one that breaches your security!
Zen Cart and 3dcart both offer a wide selection of free templates to help design your store, but are they really created equal? Let's find out.
Much like its other plugins and features, Zen Cart's themes are created by the community. A wide variety of styles are available and most designers have a deep understanding of the cart software. However, it's difficult to find a great Zen Cart template simply because of their website format. Zen Cart doesn't have a theme "catalog" with thumbnail images — instead, templates are listed in text-based forum posts. Many themes don't even have a preview available, meaning you'll need to install them just to see them — and unfortunately, theme installation can actually break your store! Since Zen Cart templates are created by third-party users with no guarantee of continued updates and support, many are years old and haven't been updated for the latest Zen Cart version, meaning you have to worry about your theme and your software becoming incompatible due to updates, but you can't avoid these updates because you risk leaving your store vulnerable to security breaches. Zen Cart even posts a disclaimer in its theme forums stating that you use all templates "at your own risk."
Unlike Zen Cart templates, 3dcart's selection of over 150 free themes are all fully compatible with every 3dcart store. Previews are available for every theme, in the form of example 3dcart stores that let you examine every single page. Plus, 3dcart templates are built on modern architecture with a unique system known as the Core Templating Engine, a powerful theme framework that brings advantages like AMP for product pages, AJAX, and fully optimized code to ensure ultra-fast load speeds on every device. Not only do these advancements make shopping easier for your customers, they also provide SEO benefits since they're built in line with Google's web design standards. 3dcart themes are 100% safe and will never cause your online store to break or to lose its PCI compliance. The only minor drawback is that customization requires a bit of HTML and CSS knowledge, but everything is thoroughly documented and takes far less effort than digging into the PHP-based Zen Cart. Overall, 3dcart themes are more reliable, secure, and offer an easier method to choose the best for your store.
Zen Cart is open source, meaning you can download the software for free. However, before you can use it to open an online store, you need to find and pay for a web host with servers that meet the system requirements of your eCommerce software. You'll also have to pay for SSL security in order to do business. Hosting and security both represent extra expenses on top of any custom development and design you're likely to need if you use Zen Cart. You're also responsible for installing and updating the Zen Cart software onto your web space, which has been reported as difficult by Zen Cart users. Plus, since your store will be based on software and hosting from two different providers, narrowing down issues such as site slowdown are harder than usual.
With 3dcart, your eCommerce software and web hosting are both included under your plan, which also covers essentials like SSL security and your domain name registration. All the technical details, including software installation and upgrades, are handled in-house at 3dcart headquarters. Rather than worrying about finding an appropriate (and affordable) web host, and installing complicated software, you can jump right into building your online store within moments of signing up for 3dcart. Online business owners using 3dcart can create their stores and start selling products while Zen Cart users are still comparing web hosting providers. 3dcart may not be "free" in the same sense as Zen Cart, but it will pay for itself (and more) much sooner.
3dcart is partnered with over 160 payment providers around the world, so you can let your customers make their purchases with their favorite method.
Zen Cart has very few payment gateways, limiting the options you can provide your customers and turning some shoppers away.