I have used a range of platforms during my last five years in the e-commerce industry. From initial setup and product selection to writing product specs and content for the web, I’ve nearly done it all. And in my time I’ve always been a big believer in using e-commerce platforms for e-commerce and blogging platforms for blogging.
Of course WordPress is an incredibly powerful platform in its own right, with even more on the way with WordPress 3.3 on the horizon. E-commerce is still a growing field within the WordPress community, though, and the question remains: is WordPress really a smart way to manage online shops?
WooThemes think it is, and earlier this week officially released WooCommerce, their free e-commerce plugin for WordPress. WooCommerce is a fork of Jigoshop, which has caused a bit of controversy in the community.
Irrespective of that issue, right now let’s just focus on what WooCommerce has to offer.
Getting a shop started
To start things off I’m going to use the current WordPress default theme, Twenty Eleven. It comes bundled with every downloaded copy of WordPress, so it’s common and most should recognize the theme while we test things out.
Downloading WooCommerce is a matter of visiting WooThemes and signing up for a free account. You’ll want to do this anyway, since the WooCommerce documentation will require you to login to view it.
Upon installation, which is as simple as installation any normal plugin, you will immediately be greeted with the WooCommerce options panel.
It’s a standard WordPress tabbed interface (which Ryan would no doubt like) with a number of options. The screens live under a new top level menu called WooCommerce.
The WooCommerce main options panel gives you the opportunity to select your base country and the countries you are willing to ship to. You can select whether you want USA only, UK only, or all but a certain country, and so on.
You also have the option to allow for guest checkout, which will remove the cumbersome need for your customers to register for yet another website. Force SSL is a worthwhile addition if your store grows and you want to give customers peace of mind via an accredited SSL certificate.
The WooCommerce CSS option will add the WooThemes CSS styling to the theme you’re using. See the screenshot below to see the difference between the CSS off and the CSS activated.
If you cannot do without social media, Woo has you covered with ShareThis. Simply sign up at ShareThis and paste in your ShareThis publisher ID to enable your potential customers to do your marketing for you. The same goes for your Google Analytics ID.
Working with Pages
The Pages tab lets you define the pages for various functions of your store. WooCommerce actually creates all of these needed pages upon installation, which is a time saver. Also next to each shop page listed is a shortcode, which can be used at will to integrate certain shop functionality into a blog post or page.
Speaking of shortcodes, I would really like to see shortcodes generated for each product created on the back end. Imagine how powerful it would be to write an informative blog post in your niche, and then hit the user with a couple of related products right in your post.
The catalog section allows you to select whether or not you wish to display fields for SKUs and the weight for products. If enabled, these in turn show up on the product pages themselves.
Another useful feature is the “Cart redirect” option, which will redirect customers to the cart after adding a product to it. To be honest I have seen some e-commerce platforms built from the ground up that didn’t have this option. For me, this is a must have feature. Others may disagree, but I think showing end users the cart after purchase deters them from searching for more interesting items. It gives the impression that you have filled your cart, so you should pay for it and leave.
Image options are configurable here as well. The sizes here will depend on your WordPress theme; just pick something that will tie in appropriately. Other options such as currency for prices and decimal placement etc are all configurable here as well.
The inventory options allow you to select whether or not you wish to enable tracking of stock, display notices of low stock and so forth. This won’t really be necessary if you decide to sell digital products, but if you have a shop or warehouse full of stock and you want to give notice or warning when they are low this is a must have. The option to hide products that have low stock or have reached a threshold is a nice plus that puts WooCommerce up there with some dedicated e-commerce platforms.
Quite simply: this section gives you the option of enabling shipping calculations, as well as a shipping calculator.
Note: The shipping calculator is a fantastic feature for any e-commerce platform, let alone a WordPress e-commerce plugin such as this. However to get the most out of it you will need to pay for an extension via WooCommerce called Table Rate Shipping.
The ship to billing option will only allow shipping to the billing address. This is handy if you’re concerned about fraud, but would I use it? Probably not. People like to pay for goods and have them delivered to a variety of addresses, whether it be their work place or a friend’s house as a gift. Of course it’s just an option, and it’s always good to have options.
Tax settings, for me, will make or break any e-commerce solution. The companies I have worked for in the past have had exacting requirements on taxation. Shipping to the US, EU, UK and other countries each have their own taxation rules.
The added benefit of this section is you can allocate tax rules based on the designated country. For example US has different tax rules for different states, same as the rest of the world. This option really is one less headache; trust me I have been there and the fact this is part of the system is a great addition for anyone thinking of creating an online store with WooCommerce.
The option to display prices inclusive of or exclusive of tax is useful if you are a business to business company, since It gives them a clearer indication as to what their cost will be, and what they will get back from the tax department on business purchases.
Love them or hate them, WooCommerce has a number of configurable shipping options. I for one am glad to see care has been taken with this section. Shipping methods can be a pain. Also worth noting: you do have the option of enabling free shipping as well, site wide.
So we have flat rate shipping which is useful if you have struck a deal with a delivery company or are just trying to compete with other online stores.
There is also a per order charge or per item charge (drop down selection) you can also choose whether to have your shipping taxable or not, whether to charge handling fees, etc. To get the most out of the individual producing shipping options you will need to pick up the Per Product Shipping extension from WooThemes for $50.
Method availability is an excellent feature, since if we allow everyone to have the same level of shipping then things could get messy. By clicking on method availability this opens up the drop down whereby you can select specific countries to give a certain shipping method too.
My reservation with the system in it’s current format is that every online retailer is different and has different needs. It would have been nice to have a way to charge different amounts depending on a locale / country by default. This is not a deal breaker though, and a paid for extension is available (see above image) called Table Rate Shipping which extends this section significantly for $50.
Gateways could make or break WooCommerce; thankfully we have options. BACS payments are supporting, which can be useful for those looking to deal with business to business customers for large orders. This isn’t the first time I have seen this method, but it’s still a welcome addition. PayPal support is there, though only standard PayPal, as well as Cheque payments.
Again, other payment options are available as commercial extensions Paypal Pro, webcash, 2checkout, Payson, Paygate and Authorize.net, each for $50 from WooThemes.
Adding products to the store
So those are the options we have. What next?
This is where the fun starts: time to add products. Adding a product is a relatively simple affair. First, we’ll add a category.
After you added a new product category it’s then on to adding a new product. This is where things get really interesting.
Clicking on Add a new product throws up a screen similar to what you will see when creating a new post on a standard WordPress install. You will, though, have a few new options.
I’m a bit picky when it comes to e-commerce, so this is where I got excited. It’s nice to see a useful selection of tabs and configurable options. First up is product type, which you can select from options that include Simple, Downloadable, Variable, Virtual and Grouped.
Simple quite literally means simple, or an easy-to-configure product with minimal options.
Select Downloadable and your greeted with these product type-specific options:
Upon first review the “Upload a file” button here didn’t actually work. It has been fixed with the 1.0.1 update, however. Good thing it works now, since it will no doubt win favor with those who wish to set up a digital download store, such as (for example) selling WordPress products like themes and plugins.
Each respective product type carries its own range of options, so if you are looking to set up downloadble products WooCommerce has you covered, and if you have products with options you are also covered.
The “Up-Sells & Cross-Sells” section allows you to manually input a product and then allocate it to your current product, in a similar vein to Amazon’s “Customers who bought this, also bought this” feature. Initially this option was giving me trouble, but that problem seems to have been fixed in the 1.0.1 update as well.
Your visual store
Now let’s look at what your customers will actually see and experience. WooCommerce includes breadcrumbs for navigation as well as some rather excellent sidebar widgets like the price filter (love this), top products and a handful of others.
Product pages are handled very well in the Twenty Eleven theme, and demonstrating that it can be used with this theme highlights the helpful nature of WooCommerce.
Having worked in e-commerce for a while now, and having heard various social media gurus state that sharing on social media is where it’s at, I remain old fashioned. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe a decent review of a product can affect the opinions of an undecided buyer.
WooCommerce has us covered in this respect, using a simple ratings system built on top of the WordPress comment system and using a handy star rating.
Reporting and figures
Everything so far is lovely. But what about the hardcore store owners? I want facts and figures. I need store reporting.
This, again, is taken care of.
If you have installed WooCommerce by now you will have noticed that on your Dashboard you have some new widgets:
- monthly sales overview,
- recent orders, and
- recent reviews, which you can amend, trash, publish and so on.
Beyond the widget, your WooCommerce menu also provides a link to a full reporting screen (shown below) that’s similar in structure to the WooCommerce settings pages. A tabbed interface with a number of options for each tab which gives you better granularity in terms of drilling down to what you need.
From this tabbed interface we can get an overview of daily sales, monthly sales, product sales, top sellers, and top earners. All of these options can be chosen from under the sales tab.
Clicking on customers gives us better insight into total sales, as well as total guest sales. Total guest sales is a nice feature that shows all of those who have purchased without signing up. The stock tab gives you an overview of what is running low and what is out of stock.
There is an awful lot to WooCommerce, and if you read this whole review you’re likely on your third or fourth coffee. By now you might have even downloaded the plugin and formed your own conclusions, which I encourage.
This is what it’s all about: feature rich for the store owner and easy to use for the customer.
The front-end user interface that WooCommerce provides is pretty darn good, with a smooth easy to use system. From a store owner’s perspective, an interface that’s easy for customers to use will lead to more sales, to a degree.
Would I recommend WooCommerce to others? Yes I would. Your store can be set up on its own or bolted to your existing blog in a relatively short period of time. It has a great user interface and above all else it’s easy for the customer to use it and make purchases. From a WordPress administrator’s point of view it is relatively easy to utilize add products and, well, administrate the shop.
In the end that’s what it’s all about: feature rich for you, the store owner, and easy to use for the customer.
Before the 1.0.1 update I would have given WooCommerce a 3, but with the update it’s a solid 4 out of 5 mints. With paid extensions and plenty of themes to choose from the first week it’s availble, it would seem that WooThemes is investing quite heavily into this side of their business. And it could end up paying dividends for them. WooCommerce is one to watch.
This review was completed using only the free download of WooCommerce and the Twenty Eleven theme.