When to use a plugin for product options in WooCommerce (versus variations)

Choice of yes or no

WooCommerce has a built-in way to add additional options to your products. A good example is selling T-shirts: You’ll typically offer your visitors various colors (e.g. gray or blue) and the T-shirt sizes (e.g. small or large). You can do this by creating a variable product in WooCommerce and adding variations for each combination of options you want to offer. So for our T-shirt example, you’ll need to create 4 variations.

On the other hand, you may have seen “product options” or “product addons” plugins (like this one or this one) that allow you to add extra options (often called addons) to your WooCommerce products.

So why would you need such a plugin, if WooCommerce offers this feature out-of-the-box? Good question! Let’s explain the differences by exploring the advantages & disadvantages of both methods.

Advantages of using WooCommerce variations

  1. WooCommerce can control the stock per variation and hide variations that are currently sold out.
  2. In line with the previous item, each variation can have a separate SKU code.
  3. It’s built into WooCommerce, so no additional plugin is needed.

Disadvantages of WooCommerce variations

Using WooCommerce variations is a great way to add additional options to your product, but it can be limiting. Let’s explore the disadvantages of using a variable product + variations:

  1. Creating and managing variations is time consuming. For each combination of options, you’ll need to create a variation in WooCommerce. To illustrate this, let’s use our earlier example. If you sell a product in 2 sizes (small and large) and 2 colors (gray and blue), you’ll need to create 4 variations: “small & gray”, “small & blue”, “large & gray”, “large & blue”. Imagine selling tailor-made trousers with 4 options: length, waste length, waste type, and trouser type. If each of those options has 3 possibilities, then you’ll end up with 81 variations!
  2. Variations take up space in your database. This isn’t really a dealbreaker as databases can handle a lot of records with ease, but you should still be mindful that WooCommerce creates a few records for each variation. If you’re planning on selling a lot of products with many options, your database will fill up quickly.
  3. Variations only display as drop-down lists. This is probably the biggest limitation with variations. They only appear on your site as a drop-down list with predefined choices. What if you want to display clickable images instead? Or display an option where the user has to type something? That’s not possible. Here is an example of how variations look on your site:
  4. Some users report longer page load times when using many variations, though this is something we’ve never encountered ourselves.

Advantages of a product options plugin

Now that we know the ins & outs of WooCommerce variations, what are the advantages of using a plugin to add extra options to your products? To keep things simple, we’ll talk about features included in our Advanced Product Fields for WooCommerce plugin.

  1. Setting up & maintaining product options is less time consuming. The plugin allows you to create options and then assign them to multiple products in one go. For example, you could create your options once and assign them to the whole T-shirts product category. Any T-shirt you make in the future will automatically have the options attached to it. With WooCommerce variations, you have to create every variation separately.
  2. Configurations take up less space in the database. Thanks to the advantage discussed above, your database is not polluted with multiple records for every product.
  3. Multiple option types. We discussed how WooCommerce variations only display as drop-down lists on your website. Well, with a product options plugin, you can add many different options: from input fields to date pickers, etc.
  4. Supports complex products & calculations. Just like with WooCommerce variations, our Advanced Product Fields plugin allows you to change the product price depending on the options the user selects. The difference is that our plugin allows complex calculations, supports conditional logic, etc. So you can create configurators, calculators, and other complex products. This is something WooCommerce variations are not meant for.

Disadvantages of a product options plugin

  1. Such a plugins can’t control stock per option. Instead, the stock is controlled on the parent product.
  2. You can’t give each option a separate SKU.

When to use a product options plugin or variations

Going over the advantages and disadvantages, it’s clear that WooCommerce variations can be used for fairly simple product configurations or when you need to control the stock per option.

For more advanced usage, the Advanced Product Fields for WooCommerce plugin is a good choice!

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