As digital channels play an ever-greater role in connecting retailers to customers, having a powerful ecommerce platform underpinning your online presence is vital. With a number of specialist solution providers on the market that can deliver the functionality needed to run a successful online store, the leader in the space is WooCommerce – an enterprise ecommerce plugin for the WordPress Content Management System (CMS), which powers more than 3 million sites across the globe.

WooCommerce logo

Of course, supporting the end-to-end ecommerce journey requires a multitude of moving parts, working together as part of a holistic technology ecosystem. Fortunately, WooCommerce is able to leverage the power of an extensive WordPress developer community, including a vast library of plugins that can be integrated with your platform to provide the additional capabilities you need.

In this article we’ll explore some of the key areas you’ll need to address when building your ecommerce solution, and cover some of the best WooCommerce plugins, to support you in designing and building an effective ecommerce platform.

What is WooCommerce used for?

WooCommerce is a plugin for adding ecommerce functionality to the WordPress framework, enabling retailers to quickly set up an online shop on an existing or new WordPress installation. It provides a wide range of standard ecommerce functionality as standard to manage products, orders, payments and shipping, and its flexible platform can support physical goods, digital goods, memberships, subscriptions, appointments and more.

Person using a smartphone and scrolling through a clothing retailer website

Is WooCommerce free?

Yes, the WooCommerce plugin itself is open source and can be added to any WordPress installation free of charge. Payment providers may however add charges to transactions, and certain other plugins can also add costs, as can additional requirements such as hosting, domain ownership and infrastructure – so be sure to consider these when budgeting for your ecommerce solution.

Is WooCommerce good for ecommerce?

WooCommerce is built specifically for ecommerce, making it the ideal solution if you’re looking to create an online store using the WordPress CMS. It’s highly configurable and extendable, with an overridable template library that allows for the full customisation of a shop’s display, and can scale to support your business as it grows and evolves.

As WooCommerce is maintained by Automattic – the company that owns WordPress, and has created the enterprise managed WordPress hosting solution WordPress VIP – it’s also incredibly well-supported, with an active codebase that has frequent security and feature updates. The WooCommerce and WordPress community provides further support, contributing a wide range of online resources as well as the plugins and extensions we’ll be looking at in this post.

WordPress logo

These plugins and extensions can be added to WooCommerce via its impressive REST API, which opens the solution up to a wide range of third-party integrations (WooCommerce also comes with a powerful action scheduler, which allows you to create custom actions which run in the background on a schedule outside of HTTP requests).

It’s important to note though that there can be a significant difference in the quality of code between work done by the core WooCommerce team and authors of third-party plugins. In subsequent sections we’ll be looking at proven and popular plugins, including those we’ve used on some of our own development projects at Box UK, but it’s important that you thoroughly vet any WooCommerce extensions to ensure their quality before they are integrated, as well as their suitability for your particular ecommerce solution.

What WooCommerce plugins do I need?

The WooCommerce plugins you add to your site will of course be dictated by your specific needs, and it’s important to define your requirements at the outset so that you can design a solution architecture plan that will inform the types of plugin and system integration you’ll need to assess. Below are some of the fundamental capabilities you should consider, along with leading WooCommerce plugins in those categories – many of which we have implemented for our clients, although there are some we are still exploring.

Payments

Providing customers with the ability to use their preferred currency and payment method can have a huge impact on conversion rates and help drive repeat orders, so it’s important to take a flexible approach here and ensure you’re responding to the needs of your audience.

Back in May WooCommerce launched WooCommerce Payments as a core feature of the platform, supporting credit and debit card payments directly within WordPress stores, and allowing vendors to manage payments through an intuitive dashboard.

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WooCommerce Payments is powered by the Stripe WooCommerce plugin, which we have implemented for clients including OKdo and RS Components to provide access to a wide range of local payment methods and digital wallets including Alipay, WeChat, Apple Pay and Google Pay. Payments can again be taken directly within the platform via Stripe’s API, and as a verified WooCommerce partner you can be confident in the quality and security of the plugin.

Both WooCommerce Payments and the Stripe plugin also accommodate recurring payments, with the former supporting the dedicated WooCommerce Subscriptions plugin. This is particularly useful if you offer a membership or subscription service and want to streamline the process of taking payments, renewing orders and managing subscribers, and allows you to set up free trials, discount rates and more for further flexibility.

If your business operates a service-based model, for example offering classes, consultations or property/equipment rental, there is additionally a dedicated WooCommerce Booking plugin. Customers can easily make appointments and reservations through a central calendar that keeps all activity highly visible, and the plugin is supported with a range of additional functionality including a deposits and payment plans feature, reminder emails and product add-ons.

Social selling

As digital channels become the primary means of shopping for many users, it’s important to meet them where they naturally are, and provide a seamless experience that matches those they’re used to across other digital touchpoints. This demand has driven a rise in social selling, as social media apps increasingly offer shopping integrations to effectively become the modern-day shopping mall. WooCommerce has naturally responded to this, with plugins available for Facebook and Instagram among others, to enable checkout directly within these apps.

Tax

Ensuring the correct tax is applied to products and orders is crucial, and can be a highly complex process, particularly if you’re operating across multiple regions and markets. Integrating a tax engine into your ecommerce platform can help manage this process, ensuring the consistency and accuracy of tax calculations while removing potential cognitive effort from the user (which may prove to be a barrier to purchase).

Example product page showing a BBC micro:bit Go starter kit

For OKdo, which serves seven country sites from a single WordPress/WooCommerce installation, we integrated the Avatax WooCommerce plugin from Avalara, a robust tax engine for sites with complex tax requirements that automatically calculates and applies sales tax at point-of-sale. As a paid-for extension it is important to understand whether it’s worth integrating this WooCommerce plugin into your solution, and a good starting point is to use Avalara’s free manual compliance calculator to help you make an informed decision.

Responding to Brexit

Many retailers have of course been significantly impacted by Brexit, and UK businesses now need an entity within the EU to collect tax on their behalf if they wish to continue trading. While these businesses register within the EU – an expensive and complex process, with a backlog of applicants – short-term solutions can be configured directly within ecommerce platforms, which is something we’ve supported OKdo with.

These short-term setups involve using courier companies to collect tax on behalf of the retailer for an additional handling fee. To ensure this information (including the correct costs with and without tax are clearly displayed to the customer), we have built new functionality within WooCommerce including:

  • Notice blocks that can be populated/amended to notify users of the extra charges.
  • A way of displaying product prices with tax, despite temporarily disabling charging tax throughout the EU sites.
  • Configurable labels on basket and checkout to display charges to be paid to OKdo, and charges to be paid to the courier on receipt of the order.

All of which means the OKdo can continue to operate in their EU markets without disruption, while they and other UK businesses find a permanent solution that will enable them to continue to trade in the EU.

Shipping

A fast and smooth shipping process – with good communication throughout your product’s journey – is crucial to ensuring a positive customer experience. And if you’re dealing with a large volume and variety of products, or are sending goods to numerous different territories, then having tools in place to support this process can be hugely beneficial.

WooCommerce comes with a number of shipping options – flat rate, free shipping and local pickup – as standard, which can be configured further with additional plugins such as the WooCommerce Locations Pack.

There is also a WooCommerce Shipping plugin available that allows retailers to purchase and print discounted shipping labels directly within WooCommerce, although as this currently integrates with USPS and DHL it is aimed largely at the US market. WooCommerce has however written a number of additional shipping plugins for individual providers, ranging from Royal Mail to Australia Post, with further plugins available from third-party providers to cover additional regions.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

Before your customers can interact with your products, you first need to ensure that they can find them – which means optimising your site for popular search engines.

Tablet device open on Google search, with cup and saucer in the background

We’ve found the Yoast WooCommerce SEO plugin to be incredibly powerful in supporting this activity, handling a number of common SEO requirements as standard and allowing you to add structured data for products so that search engines can find, interpret and display product information, along with supporting content such as customer reviews.

Yoast is straightforward to install, but be aware that it does add metadata to each product and runs tasks to update this metadata which can increase database size and cause performance issues. Taking an SEO-first approach to development is therefore vital, to help minimise this negative impact and provide you with a strong foundation to underpin ongoing search engine optimisation activity (and if you want to learn more about optimising your site for SEO, register for our upcoming event, where we’ll be discussing the subject in more detail).

Transactional and marketing emails

Providing clear communication at every stage of the purchase lifecycle is crucial to ensure client satisfaction, while personalised follow-up emails can help drive return visits and repeat orders. WooCommerce does have email functionality built into its core, giving you high levels of flexibility and control over your email templates. However, there are many reasons why you might want to integrate a separate email plugin for WooCommerce, particularly if you already have email marketing software in place and want to consolidate your systems.

WooCommerce offers a range of email integrations, but the one we have the most experience with at Box UK is Mailchimp for WooCommerce. This is a free integration (although it does require a Mailchimp account) that allows you to manage which of your ecommerce mails pass through Mailchimp, and create email layouts and content within Mailchimp itself.

Ecommerce-specific functionality offered through the plugin includes automated welcome mails, abandoned cart follow-up emails, and requests for customers to leave a review following purchase. The integration also allows vendors to build up customer data in Mailchimp for better targeted marketing, with automated product recommendations and retargeting capabilities, digital advertising integration, and built-in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools. It also includes mechanisms for A/B testing, to help inform your wider email campaign strategy based on what works best.

Administration and reporting

For administrators of ecommerce platforms, being able to report on performance is crucial. WooCommerce has made its WooCommerce Admin plugin part of its core to support with this, providing an intuitive administrative interface displaying order summaries and an analytics dashboard for evaluating shop performance.

You can also enhance the analytical capabilities of your WooCommerce platform with plugins that integrate market-leading tools such as Google Analytics, for detailed insight into site traffic, customer journeys, and trends across different products and markets.

Summary

WooCommerce offers powerful ecommerce capabilities as standard, and at Box UK we’ve seen how it can unlock valuable new revenue channels, product offerings and target markets for a wide range of retailers. As integration specialists we’re also experienced in leveraging the wide range of plugins available to enhance and extend the platform, developing end-to-end ecommerce ecosystems that allow customers to find, purchase and receive products with ease.

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If you want to explore how WooCommerce can support you in launching or growing your online commerce presence, our software consultants can help you get to the bottom of your requirements and design an ecommerce solution to meet these – which our team of software developers can then translate into a high-performance platform capable of supporting enterprise levels of traffic, transactions and products.

Take a look at our case studies to see how we’ve helped organisations like yours, or get in touch now to find out what we can do for you.

About the Authors

Jonny Bull

Jonny has over a decade of web project delivery, both from an internal and agency perspective, and brings a penchant for problem-solving to the team. His diverse experience includes websites for leading Russell Group Universities, Six Nations Rugby and multiple national sports teams.

Andrew Taylor

Specialising in back-end development, Andrew also has a great deal of front-end experience and is always exploring the latest cutting-edge technologies. He is passionate about writing quality code, and during his career has delivered software solutions for prestigious clients such as OKdo.com, Investec Asset Management and Monmouthshire County Council.