If you want a shed in your backyard, you can either buy a pre-built shed, hire a contractor, or purchase plans and materials and build it yourself.
When it comes to ecommerce, using an open-source ecommerce platform is a bit like building your own shed. The platform, like the plans and materials for the shed, provides everything you need to develop an ecommerce website while affording the freedom to customize it according to your needs. The downside is that working with open-source software requires special skills and time.
If you have the technical knowledge—or if you hire a web developer—an open-source ecommerce platform can allow you to build a user-friendly, scalable online store exactly as you envision it.
What is open-source ecommerce?
Open-source ecommerce refers to any ecommerce software that provides users full access to its original source code, allowing them to modify and customize the ecommerce platform to meet your needs, and gives them control over your online store’s design and functionality. Open-source software is typically free to download and use.
How does open-source ecommerce work?
The first step to using an open-source ecommerce solution is downloading the source code. Most open-source platform providers offer direct download links on their websites, although some may require you to sign up for a free membership before downloading. Many platforms are available on an online open-source software library, like SourceForge.
Using the code to set up an online store is where it gets more complicated. Although some providers allow users with limited technical knowledge to set up a storefront, taking full advantage of an open-source solution requires web development expertise. Many businesses hire web developers for help.
Most open-source ecommerce platforms offer apps and extensions that provide additional functionality and customization options. You might add an inventory management application to your site. Users can purchase these through the company’s app marketplace, a multi-vendor marketplace, or a third-party developer. Because open-source software is made to modify, a skilled web developer can customize the platform to meet your needs.
Open-source ecommerce vs. SaaS ecommerce
There are two main types of ecommerce platforms: open-source and software as a service (SaaS). SaaS is a cloud-based software delivery method that allows you to access subscription-licensed software online. Shopify, for example, is a SaaS ecommerce platform.
Both these ecommerce solutions can be used to create secure, user-friendly online stores, but differ in fee structure, customization options, and the degree of technical knowledge required for site set-up and maintenance.
- How they’re similar. While open-source software is typically free to download and use, setting up and running an online store using an open-source or a SaaS platform will cost money.
- How they’re different. SaaS platforms charge a subscription fee to use their software, which often includes apps, extensions, and hosting costs. Open-source software is free of charge, but apps and extensions, hosting, and web development often cost money.
- How they’re similar. SaaS and open-source platforms allow for customization, apps, and extensions.
- How they’re different. In theory, open-source platforms are infinitely customizable—providing you (or a developer) have the technical knowledge required. SaaS platforms include customization parameters, but options are often more limited.
- How they’re similar. Both SaaS and open-source platforms give users multiple display options to determine the look and feel of the user interface. Many also include multiple prebuilt themes, essentially front-end website templates.
- How they’re different. Web developers can manipulate source code to alter any element of an open-source platform’s display. In contrast, SaaS platforms allow users with limited technical knowledge to customize displays within set parameters.
- How they’re similar. Both platforms are designed to allow ecommerce businesses to protect customer data and provide a secure shopping experience.
- How they’re different. SaaS platforms provide built-in security safeguards and regularly monitor and improve the software to keep up with the latest technologies. Many also offer PCI compliance, confirming a website securely handles credit card data. Open-source platforms require users to apply updates, maintain PCI compliance, and monitor site security.
6 popular open-source ecommerce platforms
- Zen Cart
There are many open-source ecommerce platform options, from shopping cart plug-ins to fully integrated front-end and back-end systems. The following six choices are popular with small business owners for their ease of use and powerful functionalities.
Integrating WooCommerce with the WordPress content management system requires no web development expertise, but customizations require facility with the PHP programming language.
WooCommerce’s features include:
- Over 1,200 themes
- Product sorting
- Tax calculation
- Built-in payment processing
- Inventory management
- Over 800 extensions
- Customer support for WooCommerce products
OpenCart is a small, Hong Kong–based open-source ecommerce platform built with the PHP programming language. Like WooCommerce, OpenCart allows users with no technical knowledge to set up a basic storefront using one of the company’s themes.
OpenCart operates on a “core plus extensions’”model, offering fewer built-in features than most competitors. Most ecommerce store owners still need to download several extensions to meet their needs. The company’s active developer community contributes to a library of over 13,000 extensions.
OpenCart’s built-in features include:
- Over 2,700 themes
- Over 20 integrated payment gateways
- Multi-storefront management
- User roles
- Unlimited products and product categories
- Product filters and sorting
- Multi-currency support
- Integrated shipping
- Recurring orders
NopCommerce is a free open-source ecommerce platform based in Russia that serves small and medium-sized businesses and enterprise customers. NopCommerce is based on ASP.Net, a server-side scripting language created by Microsoft that runs on the C# programming language, making it popular with businesses that use other Microsoft technologies.
NopCommerce offers two download versions: a source code version for web developers and a one-click install version for users with limited technical knowledge.
NopCommerce’s features include:
- Content management system
- Over 1,500 integrations
- Mobile-responsive interface
- Multi-storefront management
- Omnichannel selling
- Headless functionality
- SEO-friendly design
- Over 150 developer, hosting, and technology partners
Magento is Adobe Commerce’s popular open-source ecommerce platform that offers an extensive list of built-in features. The Magento Marketplace offers over 3,000 free and paid extensions for businesses that require more specific functionality.
Magento has a steeper learning curve than most popular open-source platforms. Users with limited technical knowledge will need to hire a web developer to take full advantage of the platform. Magento uses the PHP programming language.
Adobe Commerce’s open-source platform, Magento, includes:
- Content management system
- Analytics and reporting
- Catalog management
- SEO-optimization tools
- Inventory management system
- Multi-tier pricing
- Mobile-optimized storefront
- International currencies accepted
Ecwid is a free open-source shopping cart integration designed to add to a pre-existing website. Ecwid is written in PHP, and some technical knowledge is required to integrate Ecwid with an existing site.
Ecwid works with over 50 payment providers and multiple POS systems. The free version allows two product categories, up to 10 items, and a one-page ecommerce website. Larger stores require one of three paid plans, which start at $15 per month.
Ecwid’s built-in features include:
- Tax management
- Subscription management
- Language detection
6. Zen Cart
Zen Cart is a free PHP-based shopping cart integration. Like Ecwid, Zen Cart requires technical knowledge to add to an existing site. Its built-in storefront is also less user-friendly than many of its competitors, making Zen Cart a better option for business owners who plan to use a web developer for customization than for those looking for a simpler solution.
Zen Cart operates on a core-plus-extensions model and offers over 2,000 free and paid add-ons. Built-in features include:
- Supports multiple languages
- Accepts multiple currencies
- SEO tools
- Reporting and analytics
- Customer group pricing
Open-source ecommerce FAQ
What is open-source ecommerce?
Is Shopify an open-source ecommerce platform?
Shopify is a closed-source SaaS platform. To use Shopify, business owners purchase a monthly subscription.
What are some examples of open-source ecommerce platforms?
- Open Cart
- Wix Ecommerce
- Drupal Commerce