WordPress and eCommerce

July 3, 2014

When it comes to eCommerce, you will find a strong duality streak at its core.

The web-based technology that I would normally recommend to a client for eCommerce changes regularly as products evolve and update. On the other hand, some of the fundamental questions and problems that owners, users and developers have faced connected to eCommerce have remained surprisingly consistent over the years. And as technology and user expectations both continue to increase, those problems seem to become more entrenched: How can an independent eCommerce site provide a safe, secure and well-functioning storefront that will work consistently across all devices?

With mobile becoming more and more important when it comes to website usage and conversion, eCommerce website owners are facing a even more complicated development situation. Now, you have to take into account different screen resolutions to determine basic layout of your key landing pages and how these will be able to effectively convert visitors into customers.

Another big factor is that online customers have become more used to shopping on online over the past five years, and after using large online retailers like Amazon and Zappos, people’s expectations for ease of use and design have dramatically increased.

Also, apart from very specialized fields, most online retailers will be facing strong online competition, which day by day is only increasing. So ease of use and quality of shopping experience will be of great importance for both new and returning customers.

With all that in mind, you need to choose a platform that will provide the most value and ease of use over time and across devices. It is a difficult choice, and in this blog I’ve set out to explore the differences between using a fully hosted eCommerce system, or building a self-hosted site on the WordPress platform.

STRENGTHS OF HOSTED ECOMMERCE SYSTEMS

A year ago, I wouldn’t have recommended WordPress to a client who was looking at either a medium size product range (25 individual products or higher) or an medium- to high-traffic eCommerce site.

I would have recommended that the client look at either using a fully hosted eCommerce solution like Bigcommerce.com or my personal favorite Shopify, or a self-hosted solution like Zen-Cart or Magento.

When you are not hosting the website yourself, security is not your responsibility (this is a big plus). Just think about that one for a few minutes.

With some hosted solutions (not all), integration with third party provider services is available. A good example of this is QuickBooks integration, which is a fairly common feature. Unfortunately Shopify still has problems in this particular area of effective integration with Quickbooks.

WEAKNESSES OF HOSTED ECOMMERCE SYSTEMS

Being that your website is being fully hosted you and your developer will not have excess to the core-code of the shopping cart system. This can be extremely complicated to set up and re-skin (customize the design). Correspondingly, many of them have very clunky administration backend systems and limited ability to setup non-shopping cart type pages. Most offer some form of internal tagging language, but in my experience they still have strong limitations when it comes to customization.

This can have quite serious consequences for setting up pages that are SEO friendly, and for building a truly effective funneling page structure that leads to conversions/sales.

You normally have to purchase a number of third party plugins that give you extra functionality. Some of these I would call key functionality, and in some cases they should have been part of the core of the platform in the first place. This can lead to the monthly fees increasing quite dramatically from the initial low quoted prices.

A good example of this is Shopify, which can quite quickly become an expensive solution thanks to the number of additional third party plugins you have to use and pay for.

Most of these hosted or self-hosted eCommerce solutions have very poor blogging or other non-shopping-cart page tools. The situation is improving, but none of them can compare themselves to WordPress’ ease of use and flexibility at the present moment.

ECOMMERCE SOLUTIONS: ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

Your level of customization will be limited depending on which hosted solution you use. You be strongly advised to have a totally clear idea of what key functionality your eCommerce website really requires before you start building.

Fundamentally, unless you’re using the simplest eCommerce solution, you will need a web designer, developer or agency to help you develop a detailed breakdown of key functionality, which your Ecommerce solution requires. This normally requires some “detail discovery sessions” and a details specification document; most freelance developers or agencies will charge you for these services.

You likely need a detail specification document with either a hosted or self-hosted solution. However, with a fully hosted solution, not having a specification document could be really be problematic and expensive: Without doing this level of research, you may discover after signing a contract that a key part of your core functionality is not possible with the solution you have chosen. This can really become a very frustrating and painful situation, not only for the client but also for the development team.

SAMPLE WORDPRESS SOLUTIONS

Over the past 18 months, there has been an explosion of WordPress eCommerce plugin solutions. I will look at the leading three of these plugins and point out some of their strengths and weaknesses (any more, and this article will turn into “The War and Peace of WordPress”).

I did a quick Google search for “The best WordPress eCommerce plugins.” One of the articles that came up was the “20 Best WordPress Ecommerce Plugins!”

I’m only going to look at three of the most popular plugins here; there are a lot more to choose from. Here are the top three I’ve chosen:

WooCommerce

WP e-Commerce

Cart66.com

All of these plugins are free or offer a “light” free version in the great tradition of WordPress and its GPL license.

However, the reality is completely different! This is especially true when it comes to Ecommerce: where nothing is truly free.

WOOCOMMERCE

WooCommerce(from WooThemes) has become the 800-pound Gorilla of WordPress eCommerce plugins over the last 12 months. This plugin has a slightly controversial history, which you can read more of here.

The plugin is free, which in itself is quite amazing. However, you normally have to buy a number of the WooCommerce extensions (which are not that cheap) to get a truly workable eCommerce website. For example, if you want to use WooCommerce with the very popular payment gateway provider Stripe, you have to buy this plugin extension for $79.

There can be a lot of different moving parts when it comes to eCommerce websites, so you probably will need to buy additional extension plugins. Costs can quickly build up. Also remember that you have to either spend the time setting up all of these moving parts yourself, or hire a developer.  You may also need custom PHP coding to usecore functionality of the mother plugin or any of the extension plugins.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and flexible mature shopping cart plugin system with a very large library of extension plugins, which is growing by the month. For this reason, it is now the leading WordPress shopping cart plugin system.

Another strong reason to use this plugin system is its documentation, help and support, which are all quite good barring a few documentation limitations.

One of the slight worries using WooCommerce is that the parent company WooThemes has a slight reputation in the WordPress development community for being heavy handed when it comes to its general business practices.

The controversy stems from the fact that this plugin is a semi-complete knockoff of JigoShop, which WooThemes can completely legally do under the terms of the WordPress GPL license. However, the whole way this was done has left a bit of a “bad smell” in the WordPress development community. Joost de Valk has posted a great article about all of this on his website.

WP E-COMMERCE

WP e-Commerce is one of the oldest WordPress eCommerce solutions, and is still a powerful contender.

If you research online, you will see a number of posts documenting problems with this plugin; however, I think a lot of these posts are slightly out of date. WP e-Commerce is developed and supported by a much smaller team than WooCommerce, and I think this team has had some growing pains.

I personally have not used this plugin system. However I have a friend, David Westbrook (owner of Dew Point Production) who built his consulting and development business based on doing complicated customization and consultation of WP e-Commerce.  He has shown me some amazing eCommerce websites that his team has built for clients based on this plugin.

One of the basic limitations of using this plugin system (which has nothing to do with the quality of the plugin) is that the amount of themes that have been built to work with it is much more limited than the themes collection under WooCommerce.

Obviously if you having a fully customized theme developed for you this will not be a problem. In fact, my takeaway on WP e-Commerce is that it is a good choice for heavy customization on a custom built site.

One last note: I do have some minor concerns about upkeep. If you go to the WP e-Commerce main website and click “support WPEC Consultants,” this link is dead and has been dead for months, which in my mind is not very professional. On the other hand, documentation seems very extensive. I would recommend doing your own research before you invest in this plugin.

CART66

Cart66 is in some ways completely different to the two other plugins we have talked about: it is what they call a “hybrid hosted solution.”

However, it is a very clever and interesting plugin system: Basically it gives you all the flexibility of using WordPress, but when it comes to paying, the customers are transferred to area that is directly controlled by Cart 66.

The benefits of this system are that you don’t have to deal with all the security stuff connected to SSL certificates and PCI compliance.

I’ve never used this system, however it looks really interesting and seems to offer some real benefits to a website owner who is looking for a simple eCommerce solution. I like that this keeps all the flexibility of using WordPress and links it to a modern eCommerce experience, without having to look to a third party solution like Shopify.

However, I would really need to investigate this system in a lot more detail before I could personally recommend it to anybody who was looking at anything more than a small, basic shopping cart solution.

SUMMARY

Clearly, there are a lot of things to think about when it comes to selecting your eCommerce solution. Like I said at the beginning of this article, 12 months ago I probably wouldn’t have recommended a WordPress eCommerce plugin as a real solution for anyone looking to build a “real” online business.

However, the hosted alternatives have their own problems: almost no ability to build attractive and SEO-friendly pages that are not part of the shopping cart; very hard-to-use administration sections of the backend system; and all the problems of trying to re-design/re-skin the shopping cart system, which could quickly turn into a small nightmare.

Now, I might recommend a WordPress plugin for small to medium sized sites. This is a big change, as I previously would have recommended Shopify. This system did have some lovely design templates that could be easily adapted to the clients’ needs and (this is an important point) to the usability of their website, which of course is directly linked to their conversion rates.

Unfortunately, fully hosted eCommerce solutions have some deep flaws connected to their ability to be customizable to the real requirement of clients. Meanwhile, the plugin community is doing a lot of great work that makes use of WordPress’ fantastic platform. While I will still weigh the options carefully for each individual client, I recommend that we all pay close attention to the range of solutions now available, and how they can truly address specific needs of each eCommerce website.

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