EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 350 - January 05, 2014 - ISSN 1528-6703     4 of 6

Selling via WordPress: Design First, or Ecommerce?

By Greg Holden

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If you've ever set up a website using WordPress, you may have been interested in an article in the last issue, called WooCommerce Shopping Cart Brings Ecommerce to WordPress. In Part 2, EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor Greg Holden discusses some of the challenges he faced in setting up a bookseller's site and how he found a solution to setting up shipping calculations for customers placing multiple-quantity orders.

Which comes first, design or ecommerce? In other words, should you create an online store by first installing an ecommerce package and then building a website around it? Or, on the other hand, should you create your website first and add the ecommerce on to it, making components like a shopping cart and catalog pages conform to your site's existing look and feel?

There isn't any perfect answer to these questions, of course. But they're ones every ecommerce entrepreneur should raise at some point.

The questions have become particularly "real" for me in recent weeks as I've been working on a couple of websites with WordPress and its ecommerce plugin WooCommerce. I wrote a column recently about my initial experience with WooCommerce and got some interesting feedback on different approaches to building an online store.

In this column, I want to describe the two ways of building a store with WooCommerce and to describe in more detail the pros and cons of working with an existing design. I'm no expert with WooCommerce. I've only been working with it a little while and am still learning the ins and outs of this popular and flexible shopping cart, which has the potential to turn any WordPress website or blog into a moneymaking store.

My only experience with WooCommerce is using the free plugin version. This adds ecommerce functionality to an existing website. WooCommerce also comes as a $99 theme, which gives your site the look and feel of a real online store.

I started working with WooCommerce when a Chicago bookstore asked my design colleague Scott Wills and I to bid on a redesign and to fix a couple of specific problems with the shopping cart for one of their two websites. (The owners could not reach the original designers and no longer wanted to work with them.) In this case, we were forced to work with the plugin version on a site that had been designed several years before.

The first problem was with the shipping. The site wants to charge flat shipping rates for the books it sells. Two shipping classes were set up by the previous designers: "regular" books cost $9 to ship, and large books $12. The owners, conscious of the need to compete with Amazon and other booksellers, wanted to give customers discounts on multiple purchases. They asked: Can the shipping be adjusted so that, if someone buys two or more books, each subsequent purchase has a charge of only $1 extra?

It sounds easy, but I encountered several challenges right away. The first was that the site was up and running already. When I logged into WooCommerce, I was fascinated to see orders coming in in real time, some having been received only minutes before.

The busy holiday season was underway and the manager didn't want to take it offline for repairs. This was a problem because WooCommerce was sorely in need of updating. The site was running version 1.6.5.2 at the time. The latest version, 2.0.20, was dramatically updated and more powerful.

I could tell from the description of the latest version that more flexible shipping options were provided for and might solve the problem. But we chose not to reinstall WooCommerce while the site was running for fear of creating new problems and changing the design in ways we had not planned.

The solution was to install a shipping plug-in to WooCommerce. Plug-ins are add-on programs, created by a variety of developers, that allow online store owners to exercise fine-grained control over shipping and other key ecommerce functions.

Plug-ins are one of the big advantages of WooCommerce. For instance, as I was writing this, one was released that enables sellers to import their listings from eBay. But many of the most powerful plug-ins cost money. The eBay importer I just mentioned costs $99. The most powerful shipping option, Table Rate Shipping, costs $199. And, as I discovered when I started researching extensions, there's no such thing as "trying out" such software. You read about it, you buy it, you install it, and cross your fingers.

For the simple shipping adjustment we had in mind, $199 seemed excessive. So I tried another, simpler option for $17. I tried to contact the developer, but she didn't respond to my inquiries. I made the mistake of purchasing the package anyway; it did absolutely nothing. Frustrated, I contacted the company that distributes the software, Envato, to ask if I could get a refund and try another extension called Bundle Rate Shipping, which only costs $12. Happily, they said yes. This time, I emailed the developer to ask if his program would do what we wanted; he confirmed that it would, and when I installed the software, discovered that he was correct.

Bundle Rate Shipping adds a new Bundle Rate option just under the WooCommerce Shipping tab (see Figure 1). You can configure many types of shipping options. In our case, I created two shipping costs, $9 and $12, and specified that each subsequent item should add on $1. This is only scratching the surface of what the extension can do. We can also offer free shipping, add a handling fee, vary the shipping cost by destination, and much more.

Such extensions are essential for WooCommerce users who want to configure shipping, taxes, and other options. They give you flexibility while saving you money: you only pay for the extensions you need and don't have to waste money on bloated software with features you don't need.

I also had to fix a problem on an Upcoming Events page which, for some reason, had been set up as part of WooCommerce. On this page, multiple dates were being displayed at the top of a page. Without going into too much detail, I initially spent a lot of time investigating the code for the page, which is written in the language PHP. Luckily, I found a workaround; I was able to edit the form that was used to create upcoming events and delete the dates there.

The point is this: It's much easier to create an ecommerce site from scratch to begin with than to add ecommerce to an existing site or (worse) to edit a site someone else set up.

If you are just starting out and want to use WordPress and WooCommerce, spring for one of the paid WooThemes ecommerce themes (they start at $99 at WooThemes.com). Your pages will look like an online store to begin with, and you can customize them to fit your own taste or to incorporate existing elements like logos.

If you already have an existing design and don't want to change it, consider linking to an external shopping cart. That way, with the cart and checkout system totally separate from your website, you won't have to worry about making the catalog pages look a certain way.

But if you are committed to a particular design for your WordPress site, you can add ecommerce to it using WooCommerce. That's one of the reasons why WordPress and WooCommerce are so popular: they give you flexibility and lots of options, so you can build your ecommerce presence the way you want - and even edit it and do some problem-solving if necessary.


About the author:

Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.


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