Clutch spoke with Mitchell Callahan, the CEO of SAU/CAL, about the strengths of WooCommerce – one of the most popular and well-known e-commerce platforms to consider when building an online store.
Introduce your business and what you do there.
I am a co-founder and CEO of SAU/CAL. We’re a dedicated team of WooCommerce experts helping owners build and maintain their stores. We’re very much about open source technology and don’t work with any other platforms.
What is the typical challenge a client will have when coming to you?
People with existing stores are one type of client. They will typically run a bootstrapped website until it starts doing well and then the need to upgrade it arises. The sites will usually be patched together in whatever way possible with the technology at the time, so the client will come to us wanting to rebuild it in order to make it more scalable and well-performing.
We also have clients starting from scratch. This comes with a new set of problems, including figuring out who the audience is, what kind of design is required, and how to perfect the product offering. It’s a much more exploratory process for figuring out a client’s business and their needs.
A third type are clients building WooCommerce extensions. We’re currently working with a couple of big payment gateways, building plugins.
What factors should people consider when building an e-commerce site?
The primary driver for choosing a platform is determining the client’s product structure. For simple ones, I often recommend DIY-style platforms like Shopify. They can also provide all the technical assistance needed for someone without an internal team.
The people we work with take the ownership of the platform into consideration. For certain businesses, it’s important to actually own the platform, eliminating the possibility that a provider will shut it down without a reason. This is one of the big advantages of open source, but, more importantly, WooCommerce is flexible. In cases where there are many moving parts and internal software systems, the integrations can be done right away, without having to wait for a company to make them available. This provides a lot of flexibility.
It all depends on the particular business needs and how much commitment the client is willing to put into the technology side of things. There are many great options out there.
Could you give a brief introduction into WooCommerce, mentioning what makes it stand out from other platforms?
WooCommerce is a plugin for WordPress. Given that WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS, even though adding e-commerce to it may seem crazy, it makes a lot of sense. It’s a platform that people are comfortable with.
WooCommerce is open source, which makes it highly customizable and flexible. Compared to software like Magento, it’s also quite lean, without a lot of technical debt. Magento is very good, and it has a lot of functionality out of the box, but there are many improvements and fixes in its backlog. WooCommerce doesn’t have much of that. It may not have many capabilities out of the box, but this can be a good thing—it’s not a bloated software stack, and we can add things to it as we need them. It’s still a young platform—having been released in 2011—but it’s already a massive part of the e-commerce market. More than 30% of all e-commerce sites are using WooCommerce.
Is it necessary to have a WordPress site prior to implementing WooCommerce?
Yes, WordPress needs to have been installed in order to use WooCommerce.
Who is the ideal user for WooCommerce, and who should avoid using the platform?
A strength of WooCommerce is its open source nature. We have built a video-on-demand subscription service for a client, which, at the time, was difficult to deploy on any other platforms. Since WooCommerce was open source, we could simply start building it. The platform works very well with Subscriptions, a plugin that we use very often.
Another one of our customers is a desktop music software developer. We needed to build an integration between their desktop platform and the e-store. Because WooCommerce has open APIs, we were able to do that integration seamlessly.
On the flip side, WooCommerce provides a lot of power, but it can be daunting for non-technical people. Since there are so many extensions available for it, installing a badly written one can easily take an entire store down. People without a lot of good technical talent, or ones who don’t want to invest too many resources in the technical side, should use something like Shopify. For truly basic stores, Squarespace can be an option. These eliminate technical hurdles and keep things simple.
Would you recommend WooCommerce to someone looking to maintain a site themselves?
It depends on the scale of the store. The implementation is definitely something that a person could do on their own, and it doesn’t take too long to learn. They simply have to be diligent and keep some good practices like testing updates on a staging server before deploying them to a live site.
After reaching a certain size, an owner would need to dedicate all their time to the management of the site, and this is where an agency can bring its experience on update management, making sure everything is streamlined.
Are there any special or unique features within WooCommerce?
I love the subscriptions module. We’ve also been playing around with the AffiliateWP tracking software, which is fun. Multivendor marketplaces are useful for people looking to build their own Amazon or Etsy alternatives.
Are there any services which haven't performed up to your expectations, or is there any tool which you'd like to see implemented within WooCommerce?
The WordPress Foundation is very much dedicated to backwards compatibility, and I can understand why. They want to make sure that updates won’t break everything, but, at the same time, there are some very big leaps which need to be made with WooCommerce in the coming years, in order to optimize it. These are slowly but surely coming, but some of us would like to see them sooner rather than later.
What measures can someone take to make sure their WooCommerce site is as secure as possible?
Often, if a site gets hacked, it will be because it was running an old codebase. The number one thing I recommend it keeping plugins up-to-date. Secondly, I recommend making sure a reliable host is used. Many of the good WordPress managed hosting providers will perform security checks for the client. They will harden their servers and do many things in order to help sites remain secure.
What payment integration options are available with WooCommerce?
Stripe and PayPal are built into WooCommerce, and I find them to be the most popular payment gateway for most online merchants. There are tons of other plugins that we can get, including Klarna Checkout for the Scandinavian market and multiple options for the U.S. If someone is using an established gateway, it will likely have a WooCommerce extension.
Could you talk about the search and filter capabilities of WooCommerce?
A popular program that we like to use is FacetWP, which provides a faceted search functionality. The built-in WordPress search could use some work, so we’ve seen a lot of people using Elasticsearch—which is built into Jetpack, a very popular WordPress plugin— and Algolia, which will have a deep and affordable WooCommerce integration using NeuralSearch.
Could you talk about the WooCommerce community, as well as any interactions you’ve had with their support?
One thing that sets WordPress apart is its healthy community. WordCamp U.S. and WordCamp Europe are two large annual events. At a local level, many major cities have WordPress- and even WooCommerce-specific meetups where we can learn a lot. In addition, there are dedicated Slack channels and discussion forums.
Do you have any advice for people looking to build an e-commerce store, or any final comments?
E-commerce comes down to the basic requirements—whether someone is selling physical or digital products, figuring out shipping, payment and tax options and so on. It requires a bit of planning upfront, but, as with anything, we need to dream big and start small. It’s a different story for bigger companies, but those may be the ones who need to take the biggest leap of all—adapting to the paradigm of online selling, versus retail locations.
We have 5 additional questions. For each of these, we ask that you rate WooCommerce on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score.
How would you rate WooCommerce for its functionality and available features?
4.5 - Being open source, we can really do anything we want with it.
How would you rate WooCommerce for ease of use and ease of implementation?
4 - Implementation is more difficult than with solutions like Shopify.
How would you rate WooCommerce for support, as in the response of their team, and the helpfulness of available resources online?
4.5 - I don’t have to go through the support channels too often, but people who do use them have had good experiences.
How likely are you to recommend WooCommerce to a friend or colleague?
5 - We always recommend them.
How would you rate WooCommerce for overall satisfaction with the platform?
4.5 – There are always a couple of hurdles, but the clients who’ve chosen WooCommerce are happy about their decision.