Online Shop with WooCommerce: What Beginners Should Look Out For [Interview]

Is it really that easy to create an online shop on WordPress and WooCommerce basis? What should you look out for, and what plugins have others had good experiences with? We asked Adrian Wackernah, who has been running Bildmanufaktur Wackernah, a webshop for photographs and eBooks with his wife since 2012.

Our post A WooCommerce Shop in Five Minutes caused quite some uproar. So: How easy is it really to create an online shop using the WordPress extension? And what kind of ongoing work to what extend will then await the new shop operator?

It really only takes only 5 or 10 minutes to install WordPress and WooCommerce. But that is when the fun begins: configuring all the individual components. Anyone with some experience in working with WordPress will have the basic shop configuration done in about half an hour. I am talking about things like permalinks, titles, and subtitles for the pages. Then you will need a couple of basic plugins for the creation of a sitemap, protection against comment spam, etc.

The WordPress theme selected should ideally support WooCommerce directly, otherwise you will be creating a lot of unnecessary work for yourself. The setup of WooCommerce will take a bit longer. After all: you have to experiment to find the right settings to suit your purposes. I myself have changed the shipping costs settings three times already, because each of the previous settings have proven to be less than perfect for my products. (You will find relevant instructions here, editor’s note.) And there is plenty more to set up, which you will find out over time, and each new addition will need an adjustment of existing options.

The WordPress theme selected must support WooCommerce directly

You can read about all the different problems you can run into in terms of the configuration alone in the WGM Forum (WooCommerce German Market, editor’s note). The more products you offer in your shop, the bigger the workload in terms of adjustments if things change in WooCommerce after an update, or if WGM adds new functionalities. The most work I had to put in was after upgrading to WooCommerce 2.0, and then in June 2014, when the new EU consumer protection rights came into force.
Your webshop is really diverse – it contains really everything from standard products to variable and digital products. Which plugins are you using for which purpose?

Simple products are particularly easy to get online. I enter the price, optionally specify stock management and the quantities in stock, and then upload an attractive product image. That’s it. Adding digital products using the existing WooCommerce functions is relatively easy. Our eBooks in PDF format, for example, are created as simple products with the options “Virtual” and “Downloadable”. Enter the price, upload the file for download, add a product image, done.

I created our “Hanging Pictures” as variable products. Customers can select the finish, size, and frame type they want. That is why I added them as variable products, where each variation has its own price. The product images show the product as a photo on canvas. One of the variations would be the same image with a caption in a wooden frame. For that variation, I simply added another product image showing the photograph in a wooden frame. The customer will see exactly what he’s getting, and what the product looks like.

Last but not least, I also operate a tiny photo lab. I wanted to integrate that into the shop as well. The lab products photo on canvas, copy on photo paper or matt paper was added as a variable products in popular sizes. I could have found a different solution for it, but this approach was sufficient for my purposes. Now I also wanted customers to be able to upload files for photo printing. That is exactly what the plugin WooCommerce Product Add-ons is meant for. The uploaded files are safely stored in a separate directory, and I as the shop operator have easy access to it via the order.
What procedure would you recommend: Should shop operators try and do as much as possible with WooCommerce own tools, or will it be no problem to add several extensions at the same time? What would be the risk when using third party extensions?

Less is definitely more. The more extensions – as the WooCommerce plugins are called – I install, the more performance will I need from the server. Most things can actually be done with WooCommerce’s own tools. I actually only really needed the “WooCommerce Product Add-ons”, so I could allow customers to upload files.

Beyond that, I installed a number of other WooCommerce extensions. Using these will virtually guarantee that they function properly in my shop. Be that as it may – I have also experienced some shipwreck situations with WooCommerce’s own extensions. They simply didn’t fit together, or the promised additional functions were so meagre that they did not justify the price.

Updates should always be tried out on a tests server

Luckily I was able to return those extensions to WooThemes and got my money back right away. As a general rule, you should never install updates right after they have been released. It is advisable to either try out the updates on a test server, or to wait for forum reports and comments from other users. There are always some adventurous spirits, who implement each update immediately, but they are also the ones that will then complain if something isn’t working right.
In your opinion, how would you judge the quality of plugins and extensions for WooCommerce?

Most of the WooThemes plugins are good – or at least those I have tried out or bought. You should, however, take your time and read the plugin description in detail to find out which one is right for you. To be fair, though, there are a couple of extensions where I wonder how the price is justified. I had bought the “Vendors Plugin”, for example, because I wanted to offer products from some artist friends in my shop, just like on “Amazon Marketplace” or in an ebay shop. It didn’t work very well at all, had bugs, and most importantly: you needed to add some more extensions to get the solution running smoothly. There were just too many “i”s to be dotted and “t”s to be crossed. Much too many. I returned the plugin.

You should always make sure to know exactly what it is your shop really needs. The more functions an online shop has, the more complicated it becomes for the customer if there are simply too many choices for him to make.
What would be important to note when selecting a WordPress theme suitable for WooCommerce or for a shop?

Adrian Wackernah
Adrian Wackernah
Oh dear, that is a very hot topic for me. I started out with the free Theme MyStile by WooThemes. That was perfectly sufficient for testing. I then went and bought a theme from a German theme developer. She was really friendly, the theme was contemporary and not pricey at all. The problem was it just wouldn’t work with WooCommerce! And the developer couldn’t help either. I then went and bought three themes at WooThemes, one after the other. Integration was great. But all the text was in English, I had to create my own texts in German. As it turned out, translating all the texts contained in a theme can easily become a day job!

Then I found the theme I was currently using at, an Austrian developer team. Now I have all WooCommerce templates at hand, and I also have lifetime support with free updates, which means the whole thing only has to be paid once. Plus the scope of available functions is enormous, and the theme comes with a range of language packages – including German. Support is great as well, they even helped me with the integration of a third party plugin for WooCommerce.

To summarize: really important are native language text, good support, quick updates for new versions of WordPress or WooCommerce, compatibility with WooCommerce and WGM, and all the features you think are important for your blog or shop.
What do you particularly like in WooCommerce? And what do you think should be improved and why?

Back when I started building my first shop with WooCommerce, things were still pretty simple and clearly structured. More functions are added with each update. But the multitude of functions seems to give rise to more and more issues, as you can read in many forums. Or the other way around: the more complex WooCommerce is becoming, the harder it is to work with. Creating products is pretty easy and quick, and I particularly like the data set duplication function. It saves me the repeated input of same parameters for products. The only thing I have to change is where it actually differs from the original product.

I would wish for a little more comfort for variable products

And making changes to previously created products is also pretty convoluted. I can only change very few things in “Quick Edit”, which means I will have to open the product in “Full Edit” mode most of the time. It all becomes even more difficult for variable products. I would really wish for a little more comfort in that area. It would already be a great help if there were a “Forward” button on the “Edit Product” page, which would allow me to move to the next product after I finish editing the current one.

For the buy-in extensions, I would really like a complete multilingual availability. And if it is available in one language only, then I can at least translate the .po and .mo files myself, which for the most part is still feasible in the extensions.
Online shop operators in Germany and Austria are faced with a pretty specific challenge: The legal framework conditions, which haven’t exactly become simpler lately. Do you use the support of an attorney for your T&C and other shop texts? How do you protect yourself against possible legal issues?

Up to now I have always trusted the texts provided in WGM. With some small additions in specific places, they should be airtight enough. And I simply delete those options that don’t apply to me or I don’t need. On the other hand: my shop is probably not important enough yet to merit a visit from the legislator. After the new consumer guideline has come into force, however, I have noticed more frequent visits to the legal texts in my shop.

I recently setup a website for an artist friend of mine, using the same components as for my own homepage. The supplied legal texts weren’t specific enough for her liking, so she asked an attorney to look into that. In the end she had two shorter texts with only minor differences in terms of content, in my opinion because her attorney interpreted or formulated things slightly differently.
Being a photographer and artist yourself, you are obviously not an expert developer – and yet you managed to implement your WooCommerce shop on your own. You have even started giving other users advice, for example in our Support Forum. How did you come by the necessary know-how? What sources of information would you recommend?

I need to feel enthusiastic about everything I do. Then I learn really quickly all by myself. I simply try things out and do my best to implement the new things I have learned. There is no one source. Every new bit of information has its own source. Of course there is always the support for each theme, usually in the form of a forum. You can also find a lot of information on Google if you define your problem exactly. All you have to do then is work your way through all the hits until you find something interesting. I also like checking the Smashing Magazine Website from time to time, where there is plenty of interesting stuff to read. Beyond that – I simply keep myself curious and I enjoy experimenting.
Your tip for beginners: What would be the most important things to look out for as a complete online shop newbie?

Once a decision has been made in favor of WordPress and WooCommerce, the first step would be to think about the type of products that will be available in the shop, and what kind of structure the shop operator wants to employ. Then you have to think about the viewpoint of the customer: How will navigation in your shop be simple for your customer, how quickly can he find exactly what he is looking for? Only then should the actual setup of the shop be attempted. I did all that exactly the other way around, which earned me a lot of unnecessary hours of extra work.
Let’s talk a little bit about you and about how your image agency came to be?

I always dreamed about becoming a famous photographer. I started out with a tiny studio in my three-room apartment. In the 1980ies I then managed to add a photo lab to the setup. I bought my first Mac in 1985, and got to know the digital world. In 1996 I created an image shop online using the Canto Cumulus Server software. The shop was accessible via a double ISDN line. That was quite an adventure. Ever since then, we always had an own website.

About ten years ago I tried working with WordPress for the very first time, and have never looked back since. We have had quite a bit of ups and downs over the years. In 2003, we were among the very first to have a professional online shop for photo lab services. Demand was so overwhelming that by 2008 I brought between two and ten packages with finished lab products to DHL and UPS each day.

All that hype is over now. I do photography, which I love, and my wife and I organize exhibitions of our photographs. I print photos for loyal customers, which they use for their own customers or for exhibitions, I am an active member of my local art club, and I help other artists and friends in the creation of their own homepages. And of course I like sharing my humble knowledge with others, just like I always got and still get help from others. Together, we get things done.

We would like to thank Adrian Wackernah for this interview and hope that he will continue to feel enthusiastic about WordPress for a long, long time. He will be happy to answer any questions you may want to leave in the “Comment” section.

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Editor at MarketPress. Passionate blogger, corporate blog expert and book author (e.g. "Blog Boosting"). Co-organizer of WP Camp Berlin.

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