E-commerce business owners are stretched pretty thin these days. Between launching a massive endeavor like an online store and managing merchandise, how do they have time to think about anything else? Considering how important their store’s performance and product optimization is in terms of their business’s success, this is one detail they’ll need to make time for.
In fact, there are a number of high-quality store builder options for e-commerce site owners to choose from. According to Builtwith, WooCommerce is the most popular e-commerce platform available today. And what makes it such a popular choice, with 28% of all e-commerce-enabled websites currently using it?
To understand the answer to that question, let’s take a closer look at what WooCommerce is, how it works, and what it offers to its users.
WooCommerce was created by two developers, Mike Jolley and James Koster. They worked on a fork of an existing e-commerce plugin called Jigoshop, and the result was the first release of WooCommerce in 2011.
WooCommerce and WooThemes were both purchased by Automattic, the same company behind WordPress itself, in 2015. Automattic is now the active developer for WooCommerce, which is used by over 300,000 online retailers, including some fairly large and high-traffic sites.
Users like WooCommerce for several reasons, chief among them the fact that it is relatively easy to install and configure, which is always a bonus for busy new digital retailers.
WooCommerce: The Basics
The first thing to understand is how WooCommerce works on a broad, basic level.
For starters, it isn’t a standalone site builder. Rather, it’s an open-source WordPress plugin. This means that instead of signing up for a single hosting-to-checkout platform, WooCommerce works as a third-party integration within the greater scheme of WordPress.
- First, customers need to acquire hosting services from a web hosting provider.
- Next, they install and configure WordPress, the world’s most popular content management system (CMS).
- After building out the web design using a theme and boosting performance, security, and features with plugins, the user then installs and configures WooCommerce to handle the e-commerce function of the site.
In other words, WooCommerce only functions as a builder for the e-commerce part of the site.
But what you can build with it is pretty impressive as it works with both physical and digital goods. You can also sell products with multiple variants and configurations, and offer instant access via download to digital items. You can even use WooCommerce with an affiliate marketing model.
As of now, the base WooCommerce plugin is absolutely free to use. For additional functionality and flexibility, users can install plugins and other add-ons to the platform, most of which are not free. However, as an online store expands, those plugins often become necessary in order to improve the e-commerce experience for customers (and the shop owner), so the additional costs are something to consider.
In addition to the supporting market of extensions and plugins that’s grown up around WooCommerce, the WordPress development community has also embraced the plugin through the active development of several WooCommerce-compatible themes.
Together, the WooCommerce market offerings can help customers create a WordPress-based e-commerce site that can rival any of the major players in the digital marketplace.
Once activated, the plugin will need to be configured for your products. This is a fairly straightforward process.
If you’re familiar with how the WordPress dashboard presents plugin and theme controls, you’ll be able to find the submenus and options you’re looking for and navigate around the WooCommerce settings fairly easily.
You’ll notice immediately two new labels on your sidebar menu, WooCommerce (for the plugin’s general settings) and Products (where you add and configure new product items for sale).
Creating a new product is simple.
- Choose Products → Add Product
- Create a title
- Write a short description of the product
- Choose whether it’s virtual and downloadable
- Add price data
- Specify any sales price (and the duration of the sale).
If you want to customize stock management options, click the Inventory tab. There you can manage quantities, choose to display information as to whether the product is in stock or out of stock, and indicate whether a customer can place an item on backorder.
You can also manage upsells and cross-sells in the Linked Products tab and provide further details about your products in their Additional Information tabs. That’s an effective place for additional persuasive copywriting that will appear on the product page.
Other optional features include:
- specifying menu orders
- tagging and categorizing products
- adding short taglines for product images
- enabling or disabling reviews for specific products.
WooCommerce does a solid job at enabling users to control how the store is displayed and to shape the customer’s purchasing experience.
Sitebuilder Tools and Templates
Keep in mind that WooCommerce is not itself a site builder, per se. That is, unlike hosted e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, WooCommerce won’t, by itself, enable you to create a website or style it.
Several developers offer both free and premium WordPress themes that are built specifically to integrate and play nicely with WooCommerce and its extensions and associated plugins. WooCommerce itself offers Storefront, a free WordPress theme that’s designed to integrate deeply into the WooCommerce core plugin, maximize speed and site performance, and eliminate theme/plugin conflicts.
Storefront can be used as-is, right out of the box with default settings, or you can customize it. You can also choose and install a Storefront child theme to further refine the look and appearance of your e-commerce site.
WooCommerce Store Settings
Design flexibility is all well and good, but this is an e-commerce solution. So, the real question is: How powerful and flexible are the store’s settings?
The general settings menu for the WooCommerce plugin is where you’ll find extensive customization options. Here you can tailor your customer’s experience in both detailed and general ways. Everything from the checkout process to how the numbers in prices get displayed can be tweaked here.
Here are some highlights of the WooCommerce builder’s settings:
Payment options available in the core WooCommerce plugin include major credit cards, PayPal, bank transfers, and even COD. If you need more flexibility, there are over 100 payment integrations that are available, including Stripe, Amazon Payments, and more.
One big area of concern for e-commerce site owners is the proper collection of applicable taxes. WooCommerce gives the site owner a great deal of control over how this is implemented. You can configure things so that tax is calculated on shipping address, billing address, or your store location.
WooCommerce also allows some impressive leeway when it comes to offering coupons and discounts. In addition to setting restrictions on products and product types for usage, you can restrict coupons to use with a minimum purchase amount, exclude items that are already price-reduced, and even ban certain email addresses from usage.
Shipping options are fairly standard and include free, flat rate, and real-time cost calculation options. You can restrict your shipping options geographically if you choose.
You can customize and tweak all the emails your customers might receive in the purchasing process on your site in the Emails menu. Any email that WooCommerce generates, you can tailor to your preferences, including its copy and design elements.
Every e-commerce site owner needs access to powerful data tracking, and WooCommerce provides that too. You can create, view, and export data in charts and graphs for a wide assortment of information, including sales, orders, shipping costs, and more. You can further customize your reports by specific product types and categories. WooCommerce also enables export of your data in CSV format for import into spreadsheets and other apps, making the data easier to work with.
The settings mentioned above are what you get with the base plugin. You can extend your site’s functionality by selecting and installing the right extensions from WooCommerce’s extensions store.
Free and premium WooCommerce extensions and additional plugins let you add features such as:
- appointment bookings
- membership-only sections of your site
- recurring subscriptions for digital or physical goods
- shipment tracking
- bulk discounts
- accept payments in-person via Square
- manage ticket sales for events
- manage and track EU VAT rules.
You can also find other extensions for WooCommerce on the WordPress repository site. There, you can find plugins to add more fine-tuned control over Google Analytics, invoices and packing slips, affiliate programs, and much more.
WooCommerce offers extensive documentation for users that covers the basics of working with the plugin. Topics include installation, initial configuration, adding products, setting up the checkout process, managing shipping options, and more.
Each topic is covered in a practical, how-to manner — short enough to help you through the process without overwhelming you with information you don’t need in order to accomplish the task at hand.
WooCommerce also offers more than one way to conquer its relatively small learning curve. If reading documentation isn’t your preferred method of figuring things out, check out the WooCommerce Guided Tour videos.
With over 30 quick-watch videos (most of them ten minutes or shorter in length) covering a plethora of basic and more advanced topics from installation to taxation and more, you’re sure to find a walkthrough visual aid that answers your questions.
WooCommerce’s stated goal is to help users help themselves wherever possible, so in addition to the extensive video collection and documentation it offers, it also lays out a straightforward troubleshooting process to help pinpoint the cause of a problem and identify the likeliest solution.
You might also find support in the WordPress.org WooCommerce user forum. After all, one of the biggest advantages to using WordPress-based products is the active, knowledgeable, and eager-to-help user community.
If all else fails, WooCommerce also has a ticket-based support system.
Of course, this only applies to issues with the base plugin itself. If the cause of your problem is deemed to be a third-party extension, you’ll have to look to that developer for assistance.
Is WooCommerce Right for You?
WooCommerce is undoubtedly the most popular e-commerce solution around, and that’s due in large part to the popularity and solid reputation of the underlying WordPress platform.
So, if you’re a fan of WordPress, or even if you’re just comfortable enough with it to know how to create and maintain a site with it, WooCommerce might present you with an advantage over other platforms: the lack of learning curve or, at the very least, a minimal one.
WooCommerce also offers another significant advantage. A site built with self-hosted WordPress technologies is truly the property of the site owner, and at the mercy of … not much, really, unlike sites built with all-in-one SaaS platforms. The latter can be subject to the whims of changing terms of service, decisions to take the platform business in a “new direction,” an overnight change in permissible uses or features, or a sudden bankruptcy.
Just be aware of the costs associated with WooCommerce. Unlike a traditional site builder tool that rolls all those costs into one, WooCommerce customers must think about the costs of self-hosting (through a web hosting company), premium WordPress themes and plugins, and WooCommerce add-ons. All of which can quickly add up if you don’t pay attention to them.
One more thing to consider is that this isn’t a one-stop, one-size turnkey solution. If you’d prefer a more centralized platform offering a single source for all the required site elements, or if you’d prefer a more “done for you” approach, you might want to look into other SaaS e-commerce platforms instead of a WordPress-based solution like WooCommerce.