Rather than something you push around in a grocery store, for web marketers a shopping cart is software which lets visitors select and purchase items. While the exact boundaries of the shopping cart functions vary depending on the site, this software is essential to any ecommerce site.
At its simplest level, a shopping cart keeps track of items selected by customers who click on an "add to cart" link. The shopping cart keeps track of these items even if the customer continues to navigate the web site.
When the customer has completed selecting items, he usually clicks on a "check out" link, which causes the shopping cart to display a summary of the selected items and their total price. Usually, the customer can adjust the items and quantities at this point.
At this stage, the shipping charges may also be calculated and displayed. In some cases, the shopping cart will check with shipping services like UPS or USPS in real time to calculate the appropriate charge.
The shopping cart software will usually manage the collection of the customer's billing and shipping addresses, credit card information, and other necessary data. Depending on the software, this information may be stored permanently to make future ordering easier. Once all information is obtained and validated, the shopping cart software will initiate the charge card processing through a gateway. The customer will usually be informed of the successful completion of the order on the screen, and may also be sent an email confirmation.
Some shopping carts may also include elaborate code for displaying an online catalog, searching for products, and other front-end functions; simpler carts let the web site designer handle the product presentation and simply provide links to build into the pages.
On the "back end", some carts provide inventory control, shipment tracing, etc.
For any ecommece web site, the shopping cart is its heart - care should be taken to select a cart with the best characteristics for the site's products and customers.
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