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

Jeff Jimerson
Feb 20 · 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.

The backstory

BNP showcases the personal collection of one of the world’s foremost pencil enthusiasts, Bob Truby, a middle school art teacher who manages the whole kit and caboodle from a tiny upstairs room at his home in Nampa, Idaho. Wooden cabinets with dozens of little drawers, and shelves chock full of old pencil boxes, line the room’s walls from floor to ceiling.

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.

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

This was our team’s first experience with WooCommerce, and prior to beginning development we took a close look at other popular shopping cart platforms, including Shopify. We settled on Woo for a few reasons. For one, its huge number of installations gave us peace of mind that the code was stable. The UI design was also highly customizable, and it had an attractive price tag: Free.

Woo’d you like fries with that?

Of course, as the saying goes, only birds sing for free. While it’s true WooCommerce doesn’t require a credit card to install the core shopping cart system, we learned there would be a price for “adding on” even some of the most basic features. Automattic, the company behind WooCommerce, currently lists 286 available extensions, about 90% of which require payment to install. For example:

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

We were surprised to discover how seemingly random WooCommerce order numbering works. Curiously, soon after the site launched, the very first order wasn’t #1 or even #00001 as you might expect. Instead, it was labeled Order #43972. The second order came in as #43973, but then the third jumped to #43992. Following that, the numbers seemed to jump and skip and hopscotch ahead without a care in the world.

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

Despite the missing basic features, there are some things we really like about what WooCommerce offers out-of-the-box. As mentioned above, one of the main reasons we chose Woo was because it allows full customization of the front-end product page templates (and the shopping cart, and the checkout pages, and the…).

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

Woo’s built-in flexibility enabled us to solve a unique challenge of integrating and displaying thousands of products which, ironically, aren’t currently for sale and may never be.

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.

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

After an honest tire kicking, we now have a good understanding of what’s possible with WooCommerce. It’s a solid system, and we’ll continue to use and recommend it.

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. // www.madcollective.com

Jeff Jimerson

Written by

Principal and Creative Director at Madison Ave. Collective

Madison Ave. Collective

Strategic thinking on branding and UX/UI design. // www.madcollective.com

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