• Olivia Koski

"Build-A-Box" for E-Commerce

One of my recent projects was to create a custom subscription box, a "build-a-box", on an e-commerce website. You probably know what this is; one of the popular subscription boxes in which you subscribe to a variety of products that come in a box. Someone packs it for you and delivers it right to you, and when you open it up you get a nice smorgasbord.

Greetabl Customized Gift Box

I have never worked with an e-commerce website before, so I thought this would be a nice learning experience. However, upon doing my research I could not find any information about how to build a customizable subscription box. The software my client had already been using is called Subbly, and there is very little information out there on how to use this application. It was clearly designed for back-end monitoring so that the small business owner can organize products, clients, and orders very easily. However, the front-end web design functionality was not very user friendly. So my first step was to go about teaching myself how to use it.


Subbly is a basic subscription box e-commerce platform. It did not take long to figure out the workflow, and I added a new button to the home page for the customized subscription box, then created the new page that displayed the first set of options for the customer (in this case, the choice of dress size). From here, I created a new page for each dress size and then had a variable block of products that displayed only certain tags. For example, when the customer clicks size "Small," she is redirected to another page that displays all the size "Small" dresses in inventory.

Subbly Dashboard

Here is where I hit a wall, though. The limited editing features of Subbly really presented a challenge. Subbly only allowed me to go to two places from there: (1) the customer adds one of those dresses to the cart, and then is still on the current page, or (2) the customer immediately proceeds to checkout for the selected dress. What I needed was to enable a button that allowed the customer to choose one of the dresses and simultaneously go to a new page in which the customer then chooses an accompanying piece of jewelry.

Yes, I needed to configure a feature enabling the customer to "build-a-box." I did further research into Subbly and found there is a feature that does allows this. It's called "Survey Builder." I immediately began creating a "survey" comprised of the needed questions: Which dress size are you? Which dress would you like in your box? Which piece of jewelry would you like in your box? Which packaging would you like for your box? However, the implementation of this survey is where I hit another wall. This survey builder can only be applied to subscription products, meaning, you can't make a one-time purchase with your "build-a-box." However, my client didn't want her customers to be signing up for a weekly, monthly, or yearly subscription of vintage dresses and jewelry. This had to be set up for one-time purchases.

Doing further digging into Subbly's mechanics, I unfortunately reached the discouraging conclusion that this feature simply isn't possible on Subbly unless you mess with the coding, at which I am too much of a novice to attempt.

Upon communicating with my client, she gave me the go-ahead to do research into other platforms that would enable this functionality. After contacting a previous associate and mentor, I was quickly directed to Shopify and WooCommerce.

Shopify Landing Page

Shopify comes in 4 different plans: Shopify Basic at $29/month, the Shopify Plan at $79/month, the Advanced Shopify at $299/month, and Shopify Plus starting at $2000/month. Unless you're using Shopify Payments, you are charged a small amount for each online sale you make.

However, a Shopify store is not all one would need to create a subscription box store that includes a feature for a one-time-payment build-a-box. Fortunately, there are many apps, or add-ons, available to make Shopify more specific and functional for your business needs. There were a couple that I explored for my client. First of all, I looked into a popular app called "Bold Subscriptions."

Bold Subscriptions App for Shopify

This app seemed very functional. I believe that if someone owned an online subscription box business, this app would provide incredible features and user-friendly functions. However, my client mostly provides unique, customized boxes that are purchased at a one-time rate, and are not subscribed to for an extended period time. Additionally, I couldn't find any evidence that proved "Bold Subscriptions" could provide the ability to set up a one-time build-a-box feature. It does provide this feature for regular orders, but not for a one-time order. Finally, this app costs $40 a month for the basic plan, and $200 a month for the advanced plan, and this price seemed high for not meeting our exact needs.

Bundle Builder App for Shopify

Another app I found for Shopify is called "Bundle Builder", which I found much more encouraging. This app boasts the ability to "make all different kinds of bundles. You can group a pre-set selection of your products and apply a discount. You can let people create their own bundle by building a product or they could mix and match products in a category – or across different categories." This app seemed to provide exactly the functionality we need. It comes free for stores in development (meaning I could experiment with it before we decided it's a good fit and pay for it) and then for the first 3 Shopify plans, this app is $25 a month. For the Shopify Plus plan, it is $75 a month.

These were the best two Shopify apps I could find for our needs. However, I did find some good options with WooCommerce, as well. WooCommerce is a form of Wordpress, and therefore itself is not a hosting site, so you have to pay for hosting outside of WooCommerce and then connect your site through Wordpress. However, my client had already purchased a domain through a third-party hosting site and so all we would need to do is connect her domain to WooCommerce.

WooCommerce Landing Page

The best WooCommerce add-on I found allows customers to, not only build their own boxes of products, but also design their own boxes. Customers choose what items they want in their box. This add-on is entitled "WooCommerce Product Add-Ons Ultimate" and has a basic plan and a pro plan. However, the pro plan is the only one that enables the features needed for the customized build-a-box. The pro plan is yearly at $109 or lifetime at $279.

WooCommerce Product Add-Ons Ultimate

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© 2018 by Olivia Jo Koski