More and more self-employed people, freelancers, and agencies are thinking about using WooCommerce. But what can the free WordPress-based shop system do? When should you use WooCommerce and how much does a typical online shop cost? We've got all the answers for you.
WooCommerce has become the leading software for online shops within just a few short years. According to industry analyst BuiltWith up to 22% of all shops currently use WooCommerce. The well-known services Shopify or Magento are only runners-up behind WooCommerce. If you use WordPress in your company, startup, agency, or as a freelancer, then there's no getting around WooCommerce. There are several reasons for this:
Free shop system
WooCommerce is, like WordPress itself, open source. Not only does this save operators paying for expensive licenses fees, it also makes it easier for small to medium-sized shops to get started. At the same time, it allows agencies and freelancers to concentrate on developing additional components and services. The open source concept is ideal for trying out an eCommerce business model for the first time. For example, as an additional source of revenue for an already existing portal. Working with WooCommerce reduces your entrepreneurial risk as an operator or service provider.
WordPress revolutionized the simple creation of websites. To a large extent, WooCommerce is just as easy to use. This also saves costs - both in the initial setup and shop maintenance and in the training of employees. If you already have experience with WordPress, you'll be able to navigate your way around WooCommerce easily.
With the WooCommerce product blocks for the WordPress Gutenberg editor the development team continues this trend. Their plugin allows you to drag & drop your products into pages and posts. This way you can place product categories, special offers, bestsellers, or new products in prominent positions on the page:
The product block elements are continually expanded and new blocks are being added all the time. In the future, the design of product descriptions will also become much easier - up to now WooCommerce had still relied on the old tried-and-tested editor.
For a long time WooCommerce was only considered a suitable option for small online shops but this is no longer the case. WooCommerce performance has been getting better and better since version 3.x with optimized product tables and integrated caching functions. WordPress shops with thousands or even tens of thousands of products are now much more commonplace and I'll show you an example of such a site later on.
Compared with other shop systems, the scalability of WooCommerce is especially good. This means that it grows with the size and requirements of your online shop. At the beginning you start with the standard version, which is relatively quick to set up. Later, depending on your requirements, you can activate or remove additional extensions (so-called plugins). With the right maintenance your shop system remains as lean, performant and manageable as it can be.
WooCommerce is now a tool for professionals
In the last update, WooCommerce introduced a wealth of new features aimed primarily at professional shop owners and agencies. These range from integrated payment solutions to better control of shipping costs. Even in the standard version, WooCommerce now covers the most important applications. Unless they want to deal with it themselves, shop owners still need to have a solid configuration and ongoing maintenance from an experienced service provider.
If you are looking for special functions like product catalogues, B2B shops or auctions, there are plenty of (mostly paid) plugins available. The annual license fees for each of these plugins usually remain in the double-digit range so you can still keep your outgoings in check.
A good example of how the recent changes have been implemented in practice is the online shop from Quagga for image licenses. The shop has been growing with WooCommerce for many years and now contains 40,000 products:
While this might not sound very spectacular at first, sophisticated technical planning in the background is required to achieve this scale. A gigantic database full of thousands of images, optimization of the image sizes for thumbnails, price calculations for the different licenses as well as the import of extensive product data are all challenges that needed to be overcome. But now the portal is running at high-performance and the shop will be made multilingual soon.
Basic requirements for professional online shops include, first of all, suitable WooCommerce hosting, i.e. the space your site takes up on a service provider's web server. In addition, regular speed and load tests (for example when using extensions for AJAX search) are needed as is a cleanly configured system. If components are hastily bundled together for WooCommerce, they can quickly start working against each other.
Such uncontrolled growth can occur, for example, when the calculation of individual shipping costs is based on numerous rules and different functions. All the more important is a separate test environment, so your live site isn't in danger from any plugin updates and other changes. Further technical development should only be done by a person or an agency that really knows about WordPress and WooCommerce.
WooCommerce is future proof
WooCommerce was acquired by Automattic, the creators of WordPress.com, in 2015. As a result, considerably more resources are now available for further expansion. This can already be seen in the frequency of the release cycles: at least twice a year the developer team releases a major update that includes important new core features. Minor adjustments are made on a monthly basis and central bug fixes more frequently.
WooCommerce has gradually optimized the areas where they'd performed worse than the competition in the past. This included, for example, introducing a workable solution for settings up shipping zones, efficient management of products or even new features related to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Particularly with regards to the last point, it is easy to see how Automattic is now reacting quickly to developments affecting the European market. With the wide reach of WooCommerce and WordPress and the huge developer community in the background, these trends are likely to continue in the future.
All of this means an exciting market is awaiting agencies and freelancers. Portal and shop owners report time and again how challenging it is to find good service providers and external employees. Developers for WordPress and WooCommerce are in high demand. Their expertise can be marketed well and they can charge appropriate hourly fees.
There are countless users and independent developers around the world providing their own WordPress solutions. Or they help fellow users with guidance and resources in blogs and forums. In Europe there is a vibrant community, which helps to organize events such as WordCamps or the local WP Meetups. WP Meetups can now be found in almost every major city.
The community around WooCommerce isn't quite there yet. Communication mainly takes place among the shop owners themselves, for example in specialist WooCommerce groups on Facebook. However, eCommerce topics are becoming increasingly important at WordCamps and other WordPress events. The first purely WooCommerce developer and user meetups are slowly starting to appear. RAIDBOXES regularly sponsors WordCamps and meetups so please come by and have a chat with us at the next event!
The WooCommerce developer community is built almost entirely on the basis of WordPress. On the whole, developers who create plugins and themes for WordPress can develop for WooCommerce too. There are also now plenty of free tutorials on WooCommerce and its extensions available in every country. These resources include blog posts, e-books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. All of these points make it much easier for beginners to get started.
Revenues from eCommerce continue to rise rapidly. In Germany alone, the revenues are estimated at around 58 billion euros for 2019 (Source: Statista). Shops such as Amazon, Otto or Zalando make up the majority of revenue but small and medium-sized webshops are catching up, as we can see from our own user numbers.
A pattern can often be observed in small WooCommerce shops: Most start off with a manageable number of products and then some substantially increase their portfolio, sometimes within just a few months. The market for paid WooCommerce plugins is also growing and the scene overall is becoming increasingly professionalized. As a result, more and more agencies and freelancers are broadening their services to include technical and consulting services geared towards WooCommerce.
Tip: You offer services for WooCommerce? Then use the arguments above in your acquisition.
One main reason WooCommerce is so popular is that you can get installed and setup very quickly without needing much background knowledge. A setup wizard guides you through the most important settings for the basic configuration, shipping options, and payment methods for each new shop:
In fact, creating a simple shop you can use straight away only takes a few minutes.
But the devil is in the detail. WooCommerce now covers all shop functionalities, you only need additional plugins for a few areas. But this also means there are WooCommerce functions hiding in the backend behind inconspicuous submenu items that can really jumble up way your shop works. Vouchers are suddenly not working? Taxes for your products or shipping costs are calculated incorrectly? Individual customers no longer see certain payment methods? The cause of all of these issues could be one single checkbox that is set incorrectly.
All the more reason for you to get familiar with WooCommerce settings from the beginning. In order to get started with your first WooCommerce shop, WordPress needs to be installed on your web server or on your local test system. It serves as a basis and the primary Content Management System (CMS). You can find more about the technical requirements in this blog post.
As mentioned above, WooCommerce is, like WordPress, open source. You can use them free of charge, even if you're running a commercial enterprise. Are you new to the world of WordPress? Then I recommend getting a good textbook for beginners. These are now available in almost all languages.
Tip: For questions about WordPress, the forum on WordPress.org is a good first port of call, as is the forum on wp.org. However, be sure to search for existing answers before opening a new topic. The forum members will appreciate you taking this step first.
The longest part of creating on online shop is adding and maintaining your products. This is not because of WooCommerce itself but rather the other tasks involved; the creation of product texts, image processing, creation of product features and product variants, assignment of meta information for search engine optimization, etc. The shop system provides you with relevant fields for all of these tasks:
You'll already know the basic process for this from WordPress. Publishing and editing are done in the same way as editing blog posts and pages in WordPress.
WooCommerce comes with a set of demo data for you to install. This is especially useful if you want to try out WooCommerce first, or if you don't have any existing product data available to you when you set it up. Many functions can only be tested with "real" products, the same as with your WooCommerce theme. The screenshots in this article were created using the WooCommerce demo data.
If you already have your product or customer data to hand, either from another shop system or as a CSV file from other databases, you can also import it into WooCommerce. While WordPress does come with its own import tools, for rather complex shop data you usually need to use more comprehensive tools. In practice, the tools WP All Import or the Product CSV Import Suite from WooCommerce have proven particularly useful. Many developers prefer the former because of its many functions:
You can find more free tools for importing and exporting product data here.
There are special tools for individual shop systems to make migrating to WooCommerce easier. For example, the plugin FG Magento to WooCommerce for switching from Magento. In the full version, it automatically transfers the most important data such as products and product texts, product categories, customer and metadata, vouchers, product ratings, post and category images, and their previews. WordPress content, posts and pages for example, can also be transferred. A very useful function is being able to delete any test data in WooCommerce at the push of a button.
Despite the comparatively quick setup, you shouldn't underestimate the effort required to maintain your online shop. The same can be said for all other shop systems, however. Among other things, you have to thoroughly plan and calculate the following work packages, either for yourself as a shop operator or on behalf of your customers:
- Regular updates for WordPress, WooCommerce, plugins and shop themes. Themes regulate the design and appearance of your online shop.
- The update itself is done at the push of a button or partially automated in the background. It is much more time consuming to install each new update on a separate system to test: Are there undesired interactions with other plugins or the theme? Are the shopping cart and the checkout working as normal? Does the new version lead to a loss of speed?
- What new functions may need to be added or exchanged, for example, due to legal requirements such as those in the GDPR? As a rule, there are different responsibilities for content and technical implementation.
- The regular and comprehensive backup of all data in the online shop and, if necessary, restoring your system from a backup after an outage or failed update.
- The control and management of data, texts, and images for products, stock levels, delivery times, product links for bundles and cross-selling etc.
- Ongoing review: What new legal framework conditions exist and what content, designations or technical systems need to be adapted as a result?
A note on the last point above: In Europe, the legal frameworks for eCommerce change very frequently. The resulting work must be carried out promptly to minimize the risk of a legal warning.
Tip: An online shop without a test environment is like climbing a cliff face without safety equipment. If you've already experienced one or the other bumpy WooCommerce update, you'll know what errors can occur. For more details on doing it safely, check out our staging solution.
As you can see, running an online shop is no walk in the park. It requires technical expertise and know-how in the areas of online law, logistics, online marketing, usability, and web design, search engine optimization (SEO), performance measurement via Google Analytics & Co., dissemination in social media and content marketing. Content marketing denotes advertising your products with high-quality texts, blog posts and newsletters. This way you will also draw the attention of Google and potential visitors to your shop.
You will not become an expert in all these areas. Ideally, you'll concentrate on a few areas, such as technical operations and web design. You'll then leave the adding and managing of products, online law, and online marketing or SEO to suitable employees. Or have a specialized agency take care of these tasks. Do you want to offer services related to WooCommerce? Then think carefully in advance which of the services mentioned you can offer and which you would rather leave to other professionals.
Without seeing a project in detail, one can only make a rough estimate of the costs involved in setting up and running a WooCommerce Shop. As is the case for every shop system the costs depend on many different factors. Here are just a few:
- Do you already have a technical infrastructure (domain, web hosting and also third party systems for accounting, dispatch handling or customer administration)? Does this need to be further developed?
- How many and what types of products will be included in the short, medium and long term?
- How many visitors per month and page views per minute are you expecting? This is particularly important for hosting. Could there be peaks that go well beyond that estimation? For example seasonally, during sales campaigns or after press coverage? We explain how you can prepare your shop for these types of peaks in this article.
- What technical knowledge and other know-how do you have as a shop owner? How much time can you invest yourself and what do you need to outsource?
- Can your product range be distributed via standard sales processes or do you need special solutions for personalized goods, auctions, subscription models, etc.? Are there already ready-made plugins that can cover your workflow entirely or will the plugins need to be developed individually?
- Can you rely on off-the-shelf WooCommerce themes or do you want a completely independent and distinctive shop design?
There are also questions to consider regarding the organization and marketing of your online shop:
- Who will manage the products? Do you already have product texts and images ready or do these need to be edited or newly created?
- Can the data be transferred from other systems, perhaps even with an automated transfer? Or should the data be integrated into other marketplaces and portals with WooCommerce as a basis?
- Do you operate in a niche market with few competitors or do you sell very generic goods with low margins? The latter usually requires a significantly higher marketing budget.
- Following on from above, who takes care of online marketing and search engine optimization? Which social media channels should be used? What level of support is required to answer customer queries there?
- Who is responsible for online law and data protection? Depending on both the industry and the target countries, considerable resources are required for this. Disregarding regulations leads to legal warnings and fines.
Agencies and freelancers must ask their customers exactly the same questions in order to calculate the size of the project. The requirement analysis for an online shop is often considerably larger than that for a classic WordPress site.
The resources involved in creating new WordPress and WooCommerce sites are usually underestimated and, as a result, the work is offered too cheaply. There are three main reasons for this:
- A fair number of freelancers, and even some agencies, working in the open-source environment ask for hourly rates significantly lower than the usual rates in the IT branch. After expenses and taxes are deducted, these rates are not always economical or profitable.
- Shop and portal owners often don't include their own working hours. For a realistic view, however, this is absolutely essential.
- A professional online shop usually requires paid plugins, at least some individual development, legal support and also high-performance hosting. All of these things cost money but are all too easily overlooked at the beginning.
While WooCommerce does offer many free extensions for important functions, other plugins need to be paid for. The more specific the requirements of your online shop are, for example booking events or having an extensive member area, the higher these costs will be:
So when you're starting a commercial project, "open source" doesn't mean "free". As soon as you (rightly) include your own working time in the calculation, costs will run into low five figures before the first version of your online shop can go live. This would be significantly more for larger projects. It sounds like a lot of money at first but it's a pretty small investment compared with most startups, however.
Besides the initial project planning, you should also keep an eye on the running costs of your online shop. The cost of updates and maintenance depends mainly on what type of products you sell, how often they need to be updated, and who is responsible for the system and maintenance:
- Is your online shop just an additional sales channel for an existing retail shop?
- Is your product range manageable? Do your products have a long life cycle?
- Can you automatically transfer the product information from other systems?
If your answer is yes to one or more of these, it'll be straightforward to calculate your running costs. In all other cases, you'll usually need external help or additional staff, at least temporarily.
Get more WooCommerce tips in our 70-page e-book WooCommerce for Professionals: Online Shops with WordPress. This book is aimed at freelancers, agencies, WordPress professionals as well as beginners.
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Picture: Bench | Unsplash