The Definitive Guide to OpenCart in 2018

MultiMerch is an online marketplace solution that supports OpenCart.

"What is OpenCart?" is the first question we get from marketplace owners who come from different systems or industries.

In this blog post, I tried to answer your questions and cover all things OpenCart – from its history and technical specifications to pricing, themes, extensions and suggestions for alternatives.

1. Introduction. What is OpenCart?

OpenCart is an open source shopping cart solution that is available for free under the GNU GPL license.

This means its source code is available on GitHub – you can download it for free and build your own online store.

Just like any other open source software, OpenCart has its advantages and disadvantages.

I'll start with technical specifications and a brief history of OpenCart and go through OpenCart features, themes, extensions, pricing and communities before drawing a conclusion.

(However, you can click here to jump right to the Pros and Cons section if you don't feel like reading the whole post).

 

 

2. Technical specifications. What is OpenCart built with?

OpenCart is open source software built with PHP/HTML and MySQL (the LAMP stack).

Designed with code simplicity in mind, OpenCart uses a simple Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern.

OpenCart is self hosted, which means you'll need to install it on your own server (in contrast to many popular cloud-based solutions like Shopify).

 

System requirements

The system requirements for the current OpenCart version (3.0.2.0) are:

  • a web server (Apache is recommended, but others can also be used, such as nginx or IIS)
  • PHP with cURL support (at least PHP5.4, but PHP7 is supported)
  • a database management software (MySQL is recommended, but MariaDB and PostgreSQL can also be used)

OpenCart is known for its simplicity – you can install it on even the most basic shared servers.

 

Architecture

Code-wise, OpenCart uses a plain MVC pattern (sometimes called MVCL where L stands for Language files) pattern for its underlying architecture.

This makes the solution relatively easy to work with compared to many larger online store solutions like Magento, especially for novice developers.

Generally, OpenCart code base consists of two different parts – one for the front store and one for the administration interfaces – and a number of global system files.

Each part contains an MVC structure for models, views and controllers, which makes the final structure of OpenCart code look as follows:

  • admin/
    • view/
    • model/
    • controller/
  • catalog/
    • view/
    • model/
    • controller/
  • system/

This is a simplified representation. Check out some of the developer guides for an in-depth look into OpenCart architecture.

Starting with version 3, Twig template engine has replaced regular PHTML template files for OpenCart views.

 

 

3. A brief history of OpenCart

The original OpenCart project was a Perl-based online shopping cart system created in 1998 by Christopher G. Mann. The project was abandoned in 2000.

In 2009, the name OpenCart was used by Daniel Kerr for his own open source shopping cart system built with PHP.

As of February 2018, there are 3 major OpenCart versions.

 

OpenCart 1.x (2009 - 2014)

OpenCart 1.1.1 was the first official release of OpenCart in 2009.

While the initial 1.x versions of OpenCart were plagued by bugs, security issues and inconsistent releases, the project was stabilized by the version 1.4.7. At this point, Daniel Kerr was joined in OpenCart development by another prominent OpenCart developer, Qphoria.

Ultimately, OpenCart 1.x has culminated into 1.5.6.4. This has become the most stable and popular version of OpenCart 1.x (also the latest one - 1.5.6 never happened).

OpenCart 2.x (2014 - 2017)

OpenCart 2 was a major OpenCart release that has introduced a redesigned administration interface and has received a front store facelift.

In addition to the styling changes, OpenCart 2 has implemented its own modification system based on vQmod (OCMOD), as well as a new event system to make it easier for developers to extend OpenCart.

Although the initial 2.0 release has received its share of criticism, 2.3.0.2 has ultimately become the most beloved OpenCart version among many marketplace owners and developers (MultiMerch included).

OpenCart 3.x (2017 - .. )

OpenCart 3 is a major version released in 2017 that has introduced a new PHP template engine (Twig) to replace the regular PHTML views. This move was negatively received by some OpenCart users and developers as it requires developers to maintain compatibility with a yet another version.

While being advertised as the latest stable version, the roadmap is still unclear and the latest version of OpenCart 3 (3.0.2.0) was released back in July 2017.

As of February 2018, many popular themes and extensions still do not support OpenCart 3.

Which one do you use? I covered the differences between OpenCart versions in a bit more detail in a separate blog post: Which OpenCart version should you use (and how to find yours)?

 

4. Features and benefits of OpenCart for the store owner

If you're a store owner, OpenCart offers you a decent set of online store features out of the box.

OpenCart does most of the things you'd expect from a free and open source shopping cart project and you can extend it further through third party plugins.

 

Manage your product catalog

First and foremost, OpenCart lets you publish products and organize them into categories.

OpenCart store owners can use over 50 predefined product fields – from generic fields like name, description and price to unique product identifiers like SKU, UPC and EAN, dimensions, options, attributes and more.

To make it easier for your customers to find relevant products, OpenCart makes it possible to sort and filter products via filters.

You can also sell digital products through your OpenCart store – such as software, music or e-books – by uploading files and attaching them to individual products.

 

Process payments and handle shipping

OpenCart comes with some 50 different payment plugins and a dozen of shipping extensions out of the box. It can further be extended with hundreds of payment and shipping plugins from third party developers.

By default, OpenCart lets you use such payment solutions as PayPal, Authorize.Net, Skrill, 2Checkout, Amazon Payments and others – as well as a number of manual payment options like manual bank transfer and cash on delivery.

OpenCart also includes integrations with popular shipping gateways like UPS, Royal Mail, USPS and FedEx out of the box.

As of 2018, the official OpenCart Marketplace for extensions alone lists over 600 various shipping plugins and over 1000 payment extensions.

 

Receive orders and manage customers

Once you've created your product catalog and configured payments and shipping, you can start accepting orders.

OpenCart offers store owners basic order and customer management.

First, you can receive, process and modify orders, generate invoices and print packing slips.

You can also view and modify customer accounts, assign customer to different customer groups and view their purchasing histories.

After having made an order with OpenCart store, customers can leave feedback about your products. Customer feedback is then publicly displayed on product pages.

Offer special prices and run discount campaigns

If you're running a promotion, OpenCart offers a number of options to do it.

First, you can define a special price for each of your products and limit it to specific dates if it's a limited-time offer.

Second, OpenCart lets you have bulk pricing for your products for wholesale buyers or to entice buyers to purchase larger quantities or specific products.

Finally, you can create discount coupon codes, send them out in a newsletter to specific customer groups and track your campaign performance through OpenCart's marketing campaign tracking.

Create custom pages and modify page layouts

We'll be honest here – OpenCart custom page management is nowhere near WordPress in terms of simplicity and user friendliness (this website is powered by WordPress – so, we have something to compare OpenCart to).

However, while not as convenient, OpenCart does make it possible for store owners to create custom store pages using the information module.

OpenCart also offers a basic page layout builder, so you can assign different modules to a few specific locations on individual pages.

So, it's not great – but it's there.

Generate reports and see analytics

When it comes to reporting, OpenCart offers about a dozen of basic reports for sales, products, customers and marketing campaigns:

  • Sales reports
    • Orders
    • Taxes
    • Shipping
    • Returns
    • Coupons
  • Product reports
    • Viewed products
    • Purchased products
  • Customer reports
    • Online
    • Activity
    • Searches
    • Orders
    • Reward points
    • Credit
  • Marketing reports
    • Marketing report
    • Affiliate report
    • Affiliate activity

Although there is no built-in analytics system in OpenCart, you can specify your Google Analytics tracking code to link your OpenCart store to your Google Analytics account (no gA Ecommerce tracking, though – but there's an extension for that).

Create a store with multiple languages

OpenCart comes with support for multiple languages by default – and makes it quite easy to build a store with multiple languages.

There are a few simple steps to adding a new language to your OpenCart store:

  • search for a decent translation pack for your language (via OpenCart project on Crowdin or the Languages category on OpenCart Marketplace, for example)
  • uploade the translation pack to your server (make sure you're downloading the right one for your OpenCart version)
  • enable the new language in OpenCart settings

OpenCart will use multiple languages in product descriptions, front store pages and admin-area interfaces.

As of 2018, there are over 500 different language packs and extensions offered on the official OpenCart Marketplace.

Use even more features for your particular store

In addition to the basic feature set, OpenCart has a number of extras which may be useful to some store owners.

These include features like:

  • a way to manage multiple stores through the same admin interface
  • support for recurring PayPal payments
  • a basic affiliate tracking system
  • built-in newsletter campaign tool
  • custom product feeds
  • anti-fraud modules and more

Some of these work fine, some aren't great, and most can be replaced with more powerful third party OpenCart extensions.

 

5. OpenCart themes and design. How do you build a beautiful OpenCart store?

pavilion heading image

You can use OpenCart themes to give your OpenCart store a better look and feel.

Let's face it – the default store theme of OpenCart is pretty basic, even after having received a facelift in OpenCart 3.

The good news is, there are hundreds of third party OpenCart themes you can use to build a fabulous store with OpenCart.

Some of the common types of OpenCart themes (and stores) are:

  • fashion
  • electronics
  • retail
  • grocery
  • accessories
  • multi-purpose

We always recommend investing in a great theme if you intend to run a successful online store (and don't plan to design your store from scratch).

Where to find OpenCart themes

There's a plenty of websites offering hundreds of OpenCart themes –  both free and commercial ones – for all kinds of stores.

Some of the places to look for OpenCart themes are:

However, we recommend to always get your OpenCart themes from ThemeForest (with a few exceptions – like if you're using a localized version of OpenCart).

In our experience, ThemeForest offers:

  • the best selection of quality OpenCart themes
  • a way to browse feedback by real customers
  • at least some vetting process of listings
  • a way for you to get a refund for poor quality products

Unfortunately, most other online marketplaces selling OpenCart themes have a worse track record (even the official OpenCart Marketplace) and can't be trusted this much.

The exceptions are online marketplaces within local OpenCart communities.

For example, OCStore is the most popular Russian localization of OpenCart and their forums are the most popular marketplace for OpenCart extensions and themes by Russian developers – you won't usually find these on ThemeForest.

Our favorite OpenCart themes

Since MultiMerch creates a completely new set of front store pages for vendors, we've had experience with dozens of OpenCart themes over the past years.

Some OpenCart themes are great, some are awful, most are something in between – so choosing a great OpenCart theme may be tricky.

While I don't want to specifically mention the awful ones here, this is the MultiMerch list of our favorite OpenCart themes in 2018:

Why are these our favorite themes?

First, they look great and will suite different store types.

Second, they are pretty good in terms of design and code quality. This is more important than you'd think it is – especially when you'll eventually need to customize a theme for you.

Finally, these themes have great developers and support teams behind them – if you run into issues, you'll get quality support – and get treated fairly.

 

6. OpenCart extensions. How do you add more features?

Like most other open source shopping carts, OpenCart has an extension system. You can use OpenCart extensions to add new features to your online store.

There are thousands of OpenCart extensions available online for pretty much any purpose you can think of:

  • payment plugins
  • shipping integrations
  • marketing tools
  • performance and optimization extensions
  • improvements to product and order management
  • and lots of others

The question is – how much do you need OpenCart extensions to run a successful online store?

Do you need OpenCart extensions?

OpenCart itself offers a decent set of online store features to get started and you'll get some extra features by investing in a decent theme. Still, you'll usually need at least a few extensions as your online store grows.

In most cases, you'll be looking for OpenCart extensions that allow you to:

  • import and export your product catalog and order data
  • improve the performance of your store and optimize it for search engines
  • run marketing and promotion campaigns with OpenCart
  • generate better reports and look into advanced analytics

You'll also usually need a third party OpenCart extension if you want to use a specific payment gateway or a particular shipping method.

Where to find OpenCart extensions?

OpenCart extensions can be found all around the web, but we usually recommend sticking with the official OpenCart Marketplace when purchasing extensions.

While it does not offer any kind of vetting of extension developers, you'll usually be able to research the specific extension you're looking at and look through feedback from other customers before making the purchase.

You will also be able to request a refund from the OpenCart Marketplace team if you're not happy with your purchase.

In addition to OpenCart Marketplace, some of the other decent third party marketplaces to shop for OpenCart extensions are CodeCanyon and iSenseLabs Marketplace.

Is it difficult to install OpenCart extensions? How safe are they?

Installing most OpenCart extensions is pretty straight forward – you'll only need to upload the files and enable the extension through OpenCart admin area.

However, OpenCart extension system has a few architectural flaws. Unlike WordPress, which offers a safe and flexible hook system, most OpenCart extensions built with vQmod and OCMOD and will use low level code edits through xml.

This means that some extensions (especially the large ones and the poorly designed ones) will cause conflicts with other themes and extensions as they modify the same OpenCart code.

In the worst case, this will take your whole OpenCart store down – so be careful when choosing OpenCart extensions to install, don't use too many of them and only purchase extensions from credible developers through trusted sources.

 

7. Pricing and costs. What will it cost you to build an online store with OpenCart?

OpenCart is absolutely free and can be downloaded from the official website and from GitHub.

This means that technically, you can create and run an online store with OpenCart at no cost.

That is, if you manage to find a decent free hosting provider and have enough technical skill or are willing to seek help in OpenCart communities.

However, if you're seriously intending to build a successful online store with OpenCart, you'll need to invest in a few things.

Hosting costs

Free hosting generally isn't something you'll want to rely on when running an online store. This means you need a paid hosting for your business.

Fortunately, OpenCart doesn't need much in terms of resources compared to larger shopping cart solutions like Magento. So, a very basic shared hosting will do for a start.

We at MultiMerch have had great experience with a few hosting providers:

These are offering basic shared hosting starting at $4/month.

Theme and extension prices

OpenCart comes with a basic default store theme included, so you could use that. However, it's just not great.

You'll need a decent theme for a decent online store.

While you can find a third party theme for free, we strongly recommend investing in a decent theme. Not only your store will look great, but you'll also get support, regular updates and (usually) a set of extra features included in the theme price.

Premium OpenCart themes on ThemeForest start at $30.

When it comes to OpenCart extensions, the prices vary – but so does the quality.

While OpenCart extensions generally cost less than those for larger shopping cart systems and you'll find lots of free ones, the high quality OpenCart extensions will usually cost around $100 a piece.

However, in most cases you don't need expensive OpenCart extensions right away, especially if you've invested in a premium theme that comes with a lot of extra features itself.

Development costs

If you're a developer yourself, you may not need this.

If you're not a developer, you can look for free assistance on OpenCart Forums and other online communities.

However, we usually recommend having access to a technical person to help you run your OpenCart store. Why spend time digging through code when you can spend it growing your business?

The good news is – OpenCart is generally on the budget side when it comes to custom development (again, compared to larger solutions like Magento). OpenCart is also pretty simple in terms of code architecture – so even non-OpenCart developers will usually have no trouble working with it.

You can find OpenCart freelancers on Upwork starting at as low as $5 per hour, although the price range for decent developers usually starts at around $20 per hour.

 

8. Resources and communities. Where can you find support and information about OpenCart?

OpenCart has been around for almost 10 years and is a well known system. This means you can usually find answers to most questions and issues online.

Where to find documentation and tutorials?

OpenCart's official documentation exists, but it's quite lacking.

Generally, you'll get more useful information on running an OpenCart store from unofficial resources.

Some of the decent places to look for OpenCart tutorials in addition to the official documentation are:

 

Where to seek support online?

The first place to look for OpenCart help are the official OpenCart Forums. On OpenCart forums, you'll find subforums dedicated to support for different OpenCart versions, developer discussions, theme and extension support and even local subforums offering support in other languages.

In addition to OpenCart Forums, you may find answers to your OpenCart questions on Quora and StackOverflow.

If you've run into a generic OpenCart issue, you'll usually find that you're not the only one. Solutions to most of the generic OpenCart questions and issues are usually available on OpenCart Forums.

The things get a bit more difficult if you've stumbled upon something unique for your particular setup or if you're modifying OpenCart to suit your needs.

Still – in most cases, you'll be able to post your question on OpenCart Forums, Quora and StackOverflow and get it answered by the community.

 

Local OpenCart communities

In addition to large international OpenCart communities, you may also find a local OpenCart community in your own country and language.

Some local OpenCart communities are more active than others and often offer their own localizations of OpenCart.

A few of the prominent unofficial OpenCart communities and localizations in different countries are:

Depending on the quality of the localized version, you may find it easier to start with it instead of the original OpenCart if you're building an online store specific to your country.

9. Pros and cons. What are the goods and the bads of OpenCart?

Just like any other shopping cart system out there, OpenCart has its benefits and drawbacks.

When researching OpenCart online, you'll find all kinds of articles about OpenCart – from horror stories and warnings never ever to use OpenCart to blog posts praising OpenCart as the best open source shopping cart you'll find.

Some of these articles are heavily biased, others have been relevant to specific OpenCart versions, but aren't relevant today.

Here, I tried to gather the most relevant benefits and drawbacks of OpenCart and present them in an unbiased way.

 

The main pros of OpenCart are:

  • simple architecture and no learning curve for developers – as a store owner, you'll usually be able to find a decent OpenCart developer to help you build your store
  • relatively low cost of themes, extensions and services – you won't need to spend a fortune to get started with OpenCart
  • low performance requirements for hosting – you'll be able to host your OpenCart store on a budget, at least for a start
  • relatively large international following and local communitites – if you have a question or an issue with OpenCart, it has most likely been already solved by someone else
  • extensive unofficial documentation and resources for store owners and developers – you'll find a number of guides, tutorials and books explaining the workings of OpenCart

 

The main drawbacks of OpenCart are:

  • lacking core feature set and sometimes poorly designed interfaces – as a store owner, you may find the job of managing your online store more complex, than you'd expect
  • no simple way of updating your setup, lack of upgrade documentation and often broken upgrade scripts – if you need to update your OpenCart store to a newer version, better hire a developer to do it for you
  • lack of a clear project roadmap by the OpenCart team – you don't usually know when the next OpenCart version is out and how much trouble it will cause you
  • lack of a robust plugin system and no strict guidelines for developers – always keep in mind that the next extension you're installing may cause a conflict with one of the other ones and bring your store down
  • lots of low quality themes and extensions and no quality assurance on the official extension marketplace – purchasing OpenCart extensions will be a hit and miss

 

While none of these things are deal breakers on their own, many of them will slow you down in launching your OpenCart store. In some cases, they just might make your life a nightmare if you're not prepared.

So, make sure to weigh these OpenCart pros and cons before deciding to go with OpenCart as your shopping cart software of choice.

 

 

10. Making the decision. Is OpenCart right for you?

Generally, OpenCart is a decent all-round open source shopping cart system, which can power both small and large online stores.

However, in some cases OpenCart will work better than the alternatives – and in other cases, you might want to look for something else.

 

Choose OpenCart if:

  • you're willing to build your own online store on a smaller budget – running an OpenCart won't cost you a fortune
  • you have at least basic technical skills or have access to a developer or a team – with some technical knowledge, you'll find OpenCart quite easy to work with
  • you're comfortable looking for solutions to problems online and seeking help on forums – you'll find OpenCart support online if you know where to look for it
  • you're building a store only and don't have plans to turn it into a larger multi-purpose website – OpenCart is a decent shopping cart system, but not a great website platform

 

Look for an OpenCart alternative if:

  • you need the easiest possible way to sell your stuff online without dealing with technical details – in this case, you'll be better off signing up for a hosted online store
  • you're building an enterprise-grade online store and have a team and budget to make it happen – you can do it with OpenCart, but there are more suitable enterprise shopping cart solutions
  • you're looking for a low maintenance online store which you can leave on autopilot – maintaining an OpenCart store is often quite a manual process
  • you want to make your online store part of a larger website, e.g. blog or a company website – OpenCart wasn't designed as a website builder, so doing things unrelated to selling products will require increasingly more work

 

You can definitely use OpenCart in all of these cases if you feel like, but it just doesn't make good business sense to use a tool for a purpose it wasn't designed for.

 

 

11. OpenCart alternatives. What other platforms can you use if OpenCart is not for you?

Did you go through OpenCart pros and cons and realized OpenCart won't do for your project?

Well, there's a number of decent OpenCart alternatives for different types of businesses available to choose from.

If you're looking for something similar to OpenCart, but different, try one of the popular OpenCart alternatives in the same weight class:

  • PrestaShop is another open source shopping cart built with PHP, but has a larger community and a team behind it
  • X-Cart is a commercial shopping cart system built with PHP, which has both downloadable and hosted plans
  • nopCommerce is an open source shopping cart solution built with ASP.NET and MS SQL Server

If you're an individual and don't wish to deal with technical stuff, try one of the hosted platforms or website builders (or even sell on regular online marketplaces):

  • Shopify is a hosted online store platform – sign up for Shopify to start your own online store in the cloud
  • Etsy is an online marketplace – create a profile with Etsy to sell your own (most handmade or vintage) products
  • Wix is currently regarded as the best website builder out there – use Wix to build your own multi-purpose website
  • Squarespace is another popular website builder – it is one of the oldest popular website builders with a track record
  • eBay is the original online marketplace and auction website – use eBay to sell anything to anyone if you're not concerned about having your own website
  • Amazon is the popular alternative to eBay – sell your products on Amazon if you have something to offer from Amazon's catalog

If you're building an online store that is only one part of a larger website, try WordPress with one of the popular e-commerce plugins:

  • WordPress with WooCommerce – use WooCommerce if you want to go with the largest and the most popular e-commerce plugin for WordPress
  • WordPress with Easy Digital Downloads – use EDD if you're building a smaller store or an online store for downloadable and license-based products

If you're building a larger online store, try some of the alternatives geared towards enterprise-level stores:

  • Magento is an open source shopping cart built with larger online stores in mind
  • BigCommerce is a hosted alternative to Magento if you prefer hosted cloud solutions

As you can see, there's a plenty of alternatives to choose from if you think OpenCart is not for you

 

 

12. Conclusion. Should you use OpenCart?

When it comes to open source shopping cart solutions, OpenCart is a decent all-rounder, all things considered.

It has a long track record of releases and has had its ups and downs over the past years.

Due its technical simplicity and general affordability, OpenCart has attracted a following among developers and store owners around the world.

Thus, OpenCart won't go anywhere anytime soon. Give it a try and see if it suits you – just keep in mind that OpenCart is not perfect. But this is true for everything out there, though.

Build a multi vendor marketplace with MultiMerch

Martin Boss

Martin is the founder of MultiMerch, an ex-OpenCart developer and an e-commerce enthusiast.You can also find him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Quora.