We used WooCommerce to build the world’s largest online vintage pencil store. (Yes, pencils.) Here’s what we learned.

Jeff Jimerson
Feb 20, 2019 · 7 min read

Madison Ave. Collective recently completed the development of an enormous online store built on WordPress with WooCommerce. The site has more than 6,000 unique products, however, only about ten percent of the items listed are actually for sale. The rest of the “products” are vintage artifacts on display at an e-commerce museum known as BNP — BrandNamePencils.com.

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The backstory

I first met Bob more than twenty years ago while studying graphic design at Oregon State University. At that time Bob was assisting with Oregon State’s wrestling team, and my girlfriend (now wife) and his girlfriend (now wife) were college roommates. We ended up being in each other’s weddings and our families have stayed in close contact ever since.

Around 2005, armed with an iMac loaded with Photoshop and Dreamweaver, I designed and built Bob’s first pencil website. Database development and structural CSS were over my head back then, but I made do with a generous supply of HTML tables and server-side includes. Everything was then handed over to Bob, and for the next 14 years he laboriously maintained and expanded the site following a prescribed method: each pencil added would require a new HTML page and another PayPal button. Eventually this gallery of digitally scanned relics would grow into a colossal website containing many thousands of static, linked pages. And it was all maintained within Dreamweaver — there was no CMS.

While the coding behind Brand Name Pencils 1.0 was primitive by today’s standards, it was a visual symphony to behold. The sheer volume of rare and antique pencils on display attracted international attention — from collectors to history buffs to artists and authors who just had to have that model. (Pencil enthusiasts will proudly declare John Steinbeck’s fondness for the ultra-smooth Blackwing 602.) It wasn’t long before BNP caught the eye of bloggers and began appearing on “best of” collector sites.

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What can 70 bucks get you these days? How about a 60-year-old Blackwing 602.

Needless to say this aging, circa 2005 website wasn’t even pretending to be mobile friendly, nor was SSL ever enabled (or any security best practice, for that matter). These factors, among others, contributed to a steady decline in its Google search ranking. Pencil sales were also way down.

Together, Bob and I explored a variety of ideas for how he could right the ship, but in the end I offered to take the project on with my team at the MAC. This was both a way of helping out an old friend and it would also provide our younger developers with an interesting project to cut their teeth on.

Why we chose WooCommerce

Woo’d you like fries with that?

In fact, we learned it’s not even possible to download customer purchase history without installing, and paying for, a $79 extension. Funny, I don’t recall seeing that in the brochure.

Fortunately, we were able to find no-cost work-arounds for most of our desired functionality. But as experienced WordPress developers we also know it’s best to keep the number of plugins down to a minimum. Haphazardly installing plugins and extensions can lead to unwanted conflicts and even security holes.

Pick a number, any number

After some Googling I learned that, by default, Woo’s order numbering is based on the amount of items in your store’s database. Every new product created, or image uploaded, is another item to be counted. When a customer makes a purchase, that order number slides into the sequence. It’s odd and confusing from a UX standpoint, and I’m sure Automattic has received thousands of questions and complaints about it. Their solution? Charge you $49 to fix it.

Woo plays nice with our process

Our firm follows a tried and true process when we develop custom websites for our clients. We always start with Sketch and InVision to design and present our UX/UI recommendations, get client input and buy-in, and only then will we proceed to development. WooCommerce fit seamlessly into this process. Our developers were able to easily modify Woo’s templates to match the mockups created by our designers.

Part store, part museum

Typically, an individual model of pencil is listed for sale only when Bob has a duplicate — the original stays in his personal collection. For this reason we needed a system that would give him two options: showcase an item, or both showcase and sell it. WooCommerce allowed us to hide all shopping-related details — the price, inventory, “Add to cart” button, etc. — for those products not for sale. However, in the fortuitous event that Bob scores a box of rare Tom-A-Hawk 1275 №2 at some point in the future, he can instantly enable those features in the back-end simply by entering a price. Either way, the pencil is always there for the world to see.

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Above: Some models are for sale, while others aren’t

This was an important detail for the overall user experience, as we didn’t want visitors to be distracted by five thousand items labeled “out of stock,” or worse yet, hidden altogether because they aren’t (yet) for sale.

Final thoughts

On the downside, while we don’t fault Automattic for charging for upgrades, we were a bit disappointed that some of the most basic features (e.g. logical order numbering and the ability to export customer information) are not included in the standard installation. When you add up the price of even a few necessary extensions, plus the separate cost of hosting, the total could easily surpass the annual cost of using an all-in-one package like Shopify.

The winning difference, however, is in Woo’s flexibility. We were able to confirm that a WordPress + WooCommerce solution provides virtually unlimited ways to customize the interface and display products, working well with our design process.

In the end, Woo proved itself ideal for selling vintage and ultra rare pencils that may — or may not—have a price. The main takeaway: Sales are way up since the new website launched. Indeed, Bob Truby’s spirits are soaring, too.

Further reading

Madison Ave. Collective

Strategic thinking on branding and UX/UI design.

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