Meet Geoffrey Reiff, designer, developer, and tea connoisseur. He is the Business Development Manager for Verdant Tea. We took some time to find out how FoxyCart was able to meet their e-commerce needs while being flexible and powerful enough to handle a quickly growing retail website.
Hello! Who are you? What’s your company? How’d you get started in web development?
My name is Geoffrey Reiff, and I am the Business Development Manager for Verdant Tea. We are an importer and online retailer of high-end specialty teas from China. Our business sells some of the finest loose-leaf Chinese tea that has ever been made available on the western market.
I began working as a freelance web designer/developer about three and a half years ago. I started at the profession with almost no prior training or particular interest in it. I’d previously studied studio art and creative writing, and worked briefly in interior design, so I knew something about aesthetics. Once I started working on websites, programming became a self-directed study along the way. For the most part, I was doing this out of necessity because it was the only work I could find, and it came to me without too much difficulty.
About a year ago, my friend David (the founder of our business), started importing tea from the friends he made during his years living in China. It was initially supposed to be a one time thing. He wanted to get some tea of the quality he’d enjoyed in China for his personal collection and a few interested friends. When word got around, people kept asking him to add another pound of this, and another pound of that, and the shipment took on a life of its own. All the tea he ordered in that first shipment was sold to friends within two weeks of arriving here. People kept asking David how they could get more of this tea, and he saw that there was a need to fulfill. Verdant Tea pretty much started there.
Around the end of last year Verdant Tea grew to the point where David couldn’t handle it on his own anymore, and he asked me to join him full time to help develop the business. I had loved tea before meeting David, but he took my awareness and appreciation of tea to levels that I couldn’t have imagined. By the time David asked me to work for him, appreciating tea had become a fundamental part of my daily existence and one of my great passions. So joining Verdant Tea was a perfect fit, and quite honestly I wanted an opportunity to do more than web development work, which only accounts for a small portion of my skill set. I enjoy strategic development and the problem-solving involved in all aspects of building something as complex as a business. The role I have at Verdant Tea utilizes a much broader range of my skills, and it’s been more fulfilling for me. That I love and believe in the product also helps immensely, making it much easier to call upon the inspiration and enthusiasm to do great work. Sometimes I like to joke that I just had to become a dealer to support the hopeless case of my tea habit. But that’s only partly a joke....
Could you describe this project? What was the goal? What was the vision?
One of the first goals we established when I started at Verdant Tea was upgrading the website that was in place at the time. David had designed and built the first website on his own, with practically zero programming experience. It was a maze of free Wordpress plug-ins with your basic PayPal website payment buttons handling the e-commerce. In short, the site was borderline functional, but still managed to sell a good amount of tea, thanks to the quality of the product and some great word-of-mouth exposure. Honestly, what David managed to accomplish with that website was actually quite decent for someone with no experience. In any case, this was a necessary first step given meagre capital resources to get the business started.
Fortunately, David had a very clear vision of what he wanted from the beginning, and we’ve complemented each other very well in our work to see it realized. The vision and goal that we defined together had many aspects, but it’s probably best to begin by describing the problem we needed to solve.
The online market in specialty teas is quite competitive. There are many, many retailers, and almost every one of them claims to offer the best tea available. Naturally, no retailer is going to advertise their product as being less than the best. But in reality, there is a rather broad range of quality being offered among these retailers. In our case, we believe that our teas actually live up to the claim that everyone makes, and that we offer some of the finest teas that have ever been made available outside of China. The feedback we’ve received from our customers and in the online tea communities has only affirmed this over and over.
So a very large part of the goal for this project was to make the presentation of our teas match and fulfill the promise regarding their quality. We needed every aspect of our website to display the tea we offer in a way that truly does justice to the experiences of enjoyment we have when we drink it.
Additionally, we wanted to achieve a design aesthetic and ease of usability that distinguished us from other e-commerce websites. For this we needed full customization. Readymade templates would not cut it. Another aspect of the goal was to make back-end inputting and maintenance of the site content very easy for David or any other non-programmer to handle. We also wanted to have a data integration between the shopping cart, Quickbooks and our shipping service to make accounting and order fulfillment more streamlined.
What were your roles and responsibilities in this project?
My roles and responsibilities were primarily designing and developing the website. David and I deliberated on the overall vision for a few weeks before we started designing. I then worked to translate that vision into design mockups, and with moderate guidance from David we finished the design phase in about two weeks. It came together with surprising speed. From there I dove into the programming and integrations, while David worked on producing all the content and inputting it on the backend.
How’d you find FoxyCart, and what need or problem drove you to choose FoxyCart over other options?
I found Foxycart at a very trying moment in our process. Initially, I had spent about a week researching what would be the best shopping cart platform for our needs. This was actually before we entered the design phase. The trouble I encountered was that all the searches were returning a lot of noise from affiliate blogs that were pushing big-box hosted e-commerce options as if they were the only realistic choices. I primarily ran into a lot of affiliate advertising for [BC] and [Shfy].
I initially had reservations about both of these options, but we were under time pressure to make a choice quickly and [BC] seemed on first inspection to be suitable enough for our needs. We signed up at the basic level, and after some minimal poking around we left it untouched for a few weeks to focus on design. When all our designs were finished, I went back to look at how [BC] was put together and realized that it most definitely would not allow us to achieve what we planned to do in our designs and in my vision of the backend content management.
There were some incontrovertible problems with the [BC] platform that prevented it from meeting our needs. I outlined these problems to them in my request to cancel our service subscription. One is that their theme templates do not allow any real programming logic. That alone was a deal killer for us, but it was something that we couldn’t easily discover without signing up for the service, or knowing the right question to ask. Related to this, there is no way to customize the backend interface with custom input fields for whatever our needs may be, and we needed a lot of custom fields to make the data entry simple and consistent across the site.
Another problem with long-term implications was that they offered no native sandbox/testing environment for testing and rolling out site changes. I had to call our account representative to explain that we needed a testing environment, and he told me he could temporarily setup an additional free trial account for us to use in this way, so long as I gave him a definite timeline for how long we’d need it. Honestly, I was really rather shocked to discover this. I read in the official forums that they are “planning” to introduce the feature of a sandbox environment at some undetermined future time, but the fact that it wasn’t already there really didn’t sit well with me. Not only that, from what I could see, there was no way for us to even preview basic content updates and edits on the site before actually publishing them.
So recognizing that this option was not going to work for us in either the short-term or the long-term, I had to scramble to find something else. Given the ambitious timeline we had set for launching the website, I decided that it might be worth making another search for e-commerce integrations with WordPress. From a templating standpoint I knew I could accomplish what we wanted in WordPress pretty quickly, and David was already familiar with the backend interface of it. I needed an expedient option more than anything, but I had been a bit wary of WordPress shopping cart plug-ins from having been less than impressed (putting it kindly) with [WPe] – which someone had asked me to integrate on a previous project, and with [C66] – which David had been using on the first website.
I saw FoxyCart on a list of WordPress e-commerce integrations and remembered that I had heard mention of it a year or two ago. The same evening we determined that [BC] would not work, I looked at your website and felt like you guys were talking directly to me and had the answer to our problems. I could accomplish the necessary template logic and back-end customization, create a redundant testing environment for long-term development and be able to integrate all of the peripheral features that would be necessary for the order fulfillment workflow we envisioned. On top of this, it would all be much less expensive to do what we wanted with FoxyCart and 3rd-party integrations like ConsoliBYTE.
Foremost, I needed much fuller development control than what other platforms were offering, and I found FoxyCart to truly deliver on this point. As an added bonus, and good portent, I noticed that your default one-page checkout was very, very close to the one-page checkout I had already designed for our site.
How was FoxyCart able to meet the need or problem?
It’s allowed us to use our own fully customizable CMS, while still handling the PCI security compliance side of things for us. We could accomplish all of our objectives on both the front-end and back-end design.
What was your experience with using FoxyCart?
I’ve appreciated FoxyCart’s approach as an e-commerce platform, being able to have the ample design and programming control we need to suit our purposes, rather than having to force the presentation of our business to fit a standard cookie-cutter theme. The general flexibility of this approach has served us very well.
While I think that Foxycart could be improved in some ways, I’m happy to see that development of it is definitely moving in the right direction to make it become even better. I have in mind here the ability to more easily and fully customize the cart and checkout templates that are hosted on Foxycart’s servers. I was able to accomplish what we needed there with some creative jQuery DOM manipulation, but I think this process could have been made much easier with the ability to directly edit the code behind the cart and checkout placeholders. When I asked about making such edits in the FoxyCart forum, I was pleased to hear that there are plans to make the stated process easier in future versions.
On another note, I’ve had an overall excellent experience working with the FoxyShop plugin for quickly integrating FoxyCart with WordPress. David Hollander, who developed the FoxyShop plugin was profoundly helpful to us in answering our questions and responding to support requests. I was also very impressed with his code, which had a clarity and elegance (not to mention extensive notation) that really made me feel like it was carefully written with other people in mind.
The support I’ve received from FoxyCart admins has been equally responsive and helpful, and I’ve been more than pleased with how you’ve all helped us through our development process.
What surprised you about working with FoxyCart?
Very good support and documentation. And you guys really deliver on what you advertise. It’s clear that you understand all the big pain points that developers encounter working with other e-commerce platforms, and have gone to great lengths to address those points in providing a clear path to real customization control.
What would you say to other Developers/Designers/Merchants who are looking for an ecommerce solution?
I would most certainly recommend FoxyCart if your needs include ample customization of front-end and back-end design. From what I’ve seen, I think FoxyCart may also deliver the best value for cost of any solution currently available. That has certainly been true for us anyway. I have not encountered another platform that allows as much customization, while also making the PCI compliance aspect of things easy through your hosted template system, and offering it at a price that is very, very competitive. I can’t stress that last point enough. The pricing on FoxyCart was a breath of fresh air after looking at so many other options and feeling quite dismayed at how much a lot of services in this area are charging.