When most of us make an online purchase, we don’t think about the processes needed to make the purchase happen. We simply make our selection, type in our information, and hit the submit button. Voila, our purchase is done.

Recently I had a discussion with a client about the behind-the-scenes differences between websites that use a shopping cart to sell a product and those that use a subscription to sell a service. Shopping cart purchases and subscription are entirely different ways to sell products or services online.

Shopping Carts for Products
Most of us are familiar with shopping carts on sites like Amazon where you view products, click through to read detailed information, and click again to add products to your shopping cart. When you’re ready to check out, you enter discount codes, your contact information, shipping, and payment choices before clicking to buy. Shopping carts are designed to sell tangible products such as books, music, movies and downloadable products.

Most shopping carts are similar behind the scenes. They include product information such as weight, length, description, colors, sizes, etc. Products can be sold at retail or wholesale pricing; discount codes can be created, and sales prices can be preset to launch and expire on certain dates. There are also settings for shipping options (FedEx, UPS, USPS), taxes, photographs, cross-selling products and more. Once all this information is inputted, the website developer sets up catalogs to display collections of products under prescribed search parameters, menus or tabs. As you can see, the process of setting up a cart to sell tangible and downloadable products is complex but offers buyers a good online experience.

Subscriptions for Services
Subscriptions are an entirely different way to sell online and are often used for online software, such as Quick Books, or online courses. With a subscription, the product isn’t tangible and is hosted in a secure zone of the website where a logon and password are needed. The vendor gives the customer permission to access their software, service or course for a price. In other words, customers are purchasing access to the secured zone where the service is located. Subscriptions do not permit discounts codes but do permit price changes for a promotional period. This process is similar to purchasing a membership at a health club that you visit a couple of times a week. Even though you don’t own the facility or its equipment, you enjoy the benefit of using the equipment and facility.

On the backend of the website, purchasing a subscription is fairly straight-forward. Once the customer has clicked on a button to start checking out, it’s a matter of completing the checkout form and hitting submit. The vendor then allows the customer access to the secured zone to enjoy the service or course using a logon and password.

Shopping Cart vs. Subscription: Which is Best?
The easiest way to decide whether you should use a shopping card or a subscription to sell online is to ask, “Do I have a tangible product that I can sell ownership to someone else?” If you retain ownership of the product and are allowing others to use it for a fee, then you are selling a subscription.  If you are selling ownership of the product then use a shopping cart.

If you’re planning to sell online, keep these two processes in mind. They will affect how you deliver your product or service and your marketing strategy.