Why you should use SKUs in your store

Written by Nicole Kohler on August 9, 2016 Blog, Managing products.

Using item numbers or stock keeping units — better known as SKUs — might seem unnecessary for your store. Stop us if any of this sounds familiar:

“My store’s really small, so I don’t need SKUs — I know everything by sight.”

“I don’t sell to anyone other than my customers, so why would I need item numbers?”

“My products don’t have any variations, so SKUs aren’t required.”

These are valid objections… sort of. But they’re also excuses that could hinder your relationship with partners, cause logistical issues for for your store, or — worst of all — keep you from reaching your full sales potential.

No matter the size of your store, what you sell, or who it is you sell it to, you should absolutely be using SKUs. After all, WooCommerce makes it so quick to add them that you don’t really have an excuse… but we understand that you might need a little more convincing. 😉

Here are five reasons why SKUs are useful for eCommerce.

Customers who are ready to buy a specific item will get to your store via search

Whether you sell products you’ve handcrafted yourself or those you’ve meticulously sourced from other manufacturers, getting these items to pop up in search engine results is critical. Potential customers use tools like Google to find out where they can buy what they need, plus get the best price or fastest shipping.

When shoppers have narrowed down their choices to a specific item, it’s not uncommon to see them copy some identifying information into Google to do a final price check or find a store they like. And therein lies the need for you to have (or use) SKUs: if you don’t, your store won’t show up among the results.

Customers will search by SKU when they've narrowed down their choices. Don't make the mistake of not coming up among the results.
Customers will search by SKU when they’ve narrowed down their choices. Don’t make the mistake of not coming up among the results.

This is especially important if you’re selling products supplied by a manufacturer. If customers get wind of a product’s SKU, they might realize they can search for it elsewhere to find a better deal. And if your store pops up among the results — with a better deal — you’ve just made yourself some money.

If you’re selling your own products, or if the items you’re stocking don’t have SKUs, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t create some to use. Other stores might eventually pick up on the SKUs you’re using (more on that later), which means you might not be the first store they find your product on. So it’s still best to get in the habit of using product SKUs now — that way you’ll be prepared for what happens in the future.

Repeat customers can use SKUs to find and purchase products faster

Pretend for a second that you’re already using SKUs on your store (even if you aren’t). Imagine a customer buys a few products from you and absolutely loves one of them. They want to come back and find it again — quickly. What’s the fastest way for them to search for it?

They could type the product name or a description of it into your store’s search box. But a faster way to go directly to the item they want would be to copy and paste the SKU from their email into search.

A SKU saves time for repeat customers who want to re-buy that item fast. Bonus: it's extra convenient for mobile shoppers copying and pasting from those tiny keyboards.
A SKU saves time for repeat customers who want to re-buy that item fast. Bonus: it’s extra convenient for mobile shoppers copying and pasting from those tiny keyboards.

Repeat customers who have access to SKUs can utilize them to get to your product pages much faster than those who don’t. All they have to do is search for that little string, which they can usually copy and paste from their order or shipping confirmation emails, and they’ll end up right on the product page they want.

This is especially convenient for mobile shoppers, who have the challenge of re-buying products from you on smaller screens and typing in queries on little keyboards. Copying and pasting a SKU is far easier than jumping between apps to get the right name to manually type into a search box.

Want to start displaying SKUs in WooCommerce’s order and shipping emails? Here’s a tutorial that’ll come in handy.

If you ever sell to another store, you’ll be expected to have SKUs

Just a bit ago, we mentioned that if your products ever show up on another store, you might not be the first place shoppers see them (or their SKUs).

Many small stores expand their reach by selling their products to others via wholesale. And if you go this route in the future, you’ll more than likely be expected to have SKUs tied to your products.

Multi-vendor stores rely on item numbers to tell their products apart. This goes double for stores that might have multiple green T-shirts, red oven mitts, or orange pillow covers — they need those unique letter and number combinations to figure out which one the customer actually wants, and where they can get more from.

Putting SKUs in place now helps you prepare for a future where you might be supplying your products to someone else who definitely needs them to operate their store properly. You won’t get much of anywhere if you respond to a vendor’s request for SKUs by saying “um, well, I don’t have any…”

Retailers use your SKUs to search for product information, answer questions, and more

Speaking of working with vendors and other stores, SKUs are often used by these companies as shortcuts to find product information, wholesale pricing, images, and other tidbits online.

Much like your returning customers, it’s faster for a busy retailer to search by SKU to look something up. If you act as a wholesaler to another store and one of their customers is asking “how big” or “what color,” they can use your SKU to quickly get that information from your store (or any other source of information linked to it).

If you didn’t provide those SKUs — or, at the very least, make them public on your site — you’d be bombarded with questions from retailers who couldn’t find the information they needed. Sure, you could give them an FAQ or guide of some kind, but Google is always faster.

Again, SKUs are handy shortcuts that lead to answers and other resources. Without them, you’ll essentially be stranding your (current or future) retail partners… and potentially damaging your relationship with them.

How to add SKUs in WooCommerce (plus a free plugin to help)

SKUs can be added in the Product Data area of any WooCommerce product page:

The first field in this area is where you'll place your SKU.
The first field in this area is where you’ll place your SKU.

Just think something up and throw it in this field. You can use any combination of letters and numbers that you like, but it has to be unique and can’t match any of your post IDs.

SKUs aren’t required for simple products in WooCommerce because product page database entries (and their URLs) are generated based on the backbone of WordPress. This means your product page URLs will have their names in them, which are easier to read, plus way more search engine friendly; this is different than some other eCommerce platforms, which require SKUs to create a simple product.

You will need to add a SKU if you’re creating a product with variations, because the SKUs help differentiate the variable products from one another. An example would be a shirt that comes in five different colors — the “master” product (a shirt without a color selected) won’t need a SKU, but you’ll need to define individual item numbers for each of those five colors. This is the one case in which WooCommerce will require SKUs to be created.

Even though SKUs aren’t always required, we still recommend adding them for the reasons listed above. Even if you don’t absolutely need them now, you might find them necessary in the future, and don’t want to spend hours backtracking to add them.

If you’ve already created a ton of products and are dreading going back and editing everythingwe found this free plugin from SkyVerge that automatically creates SKUs for your products in WooCommerce. Give that a shot and see how it goes!

There are multiple benefits to using SKUs in your WooCommerce store

Though it might seem annoying to think up and add SKUs to your products, as we’ve just shown you, there are good reasons for you to use these item numbers. SKUs don’t only make your life easier — they increase your earning potential, and help customers of all kinds find and purchase your products faster.

We hope this post has given you a little insight into why you should be using SKUs (if you aren’t already). Have any questions for us? We’re all ears — just leave a comment and we’ll gladly answer it ASAP.


21 Responses

  1. AMC Question Bank
    August 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm #

    I’m selling services and not physical products (like educational subscription). DO I still need to consider defining SKUs?

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 10, 2016 at 2:44 am #

      Hey there – if you’re selling services, probably not. SKUs are most helpful and relevant for products (including physical and digital goods).

      A good way to tell if a SKU is needed for you is to ask “will anyone else ever sell this exact same item, manufactured/provided by me, on their own site?” If the answer is no, then you probably won’t need one. But if your educational subscription program might be offered elsewhere (say, through another partner, via another store, even in another form) it can’t hurt to have a SKU just in case.

      Of course, as I mentioned, SKUs can help even if your answer above is “no” and you use them in emails — repeat customers can find your items/services faster when they come back to buy again. But if that’s the only thing you sell, having a SKU might be unnecessary 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  2. TMB
    August 10, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    “Even though SKUs aren’t required, though, we still recommend adding them…”

    Actually, SKUs ARE required for variable products which are also physical products which have stock.

    This should be included the documentation as well as the user interface itself.

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 10, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

      Aha! Good catch, I wasn’t thinking about variations when I wrote that, clearly. 🙂 I’ll correct myself.

      Per your last note there, are we making it clear enough on the docs side that you need SKUs for variations, or could we do a better job? Maybe we should make that clearer in our docs, too.

      Thanks so much for the comment 🙂

      • TMB
        August 11, 2016 at 6:12 am #

        No worries…just hoping to save others some time/hair-pulling.

        Both the documentation and the SKU field tooltip say you can “…leave blank to use the parent product SKU.” This is inaccurate, unless it is a Virtual product. If it is a physical product that has stock, it’s required.

        Perhaps the next update could include, “Required for variations with inventory” in the field’s placeholder text?

  3. Randy Hunt
    August 10, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    Something I am having trouble understanding in a SKU is why Woo Commerce doesn’t have a built in search for SKU’s on Variable Products. This seems SO important.

    Example – You sell T- Shirts

    So your T-shirt comes in 3 sizes and 3 colors:

    Sizes: S, M, L

    Colors: Red, White, Blue

    The T shirt itself, does not have a SKU, because it is just an intangible (fake) item. (you can’t order the shirt without specifying a size and color).

    The individual sizes and color have the SKU.

    I am building our kitchen, flooring, bath store, and we have thousands of SKU’s. When I create a Vanity Cabinet product, it does NOT have a SKU, but the different sizes (variables) that it is available in, do have SKU’s.

    I am worried that a plug-in is not the solution for long term, and wish Woocommerce would enable “Variable Searching for SKU’s”. (please do this) 🙂

    Plug-in problems are:
    The developer gets bored with product and moves on to something else, or never updates, or just not a good plugin to begin with.

    I love WooCommerce with a PASSION!!!

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 10, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

      Hey Randy, thanks so much for leaving your (passionate!) feedback and thoughts here 🙂

      I totally get what you’re saying. This no-SKU-for-the-master-product setup is the same way I’ve seen variations handled on other platforms as well, but if our search isn’t supporting finding those variable SKUs, that’s something I agree we should update. 🙂

      If you have a sec, would you mind dropping some more information/your idea onto our ideas board here: http://ideas.woocommerce.com/forums/133476-woocommerce I’ll be sure to upvote it/mention it to our developers as well.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

  4. Lisa Olberding
    August 11, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    One thing that I have been having trouble with in the variations is that some of my SKU’s are not unique. We have several products (guards) that cross to other bikes brands and skid plates and it makes it hard that you cannot overwrite the “unique” SKU. I’m still trying to figure out a fix for this. Temporarily, I just add/delete characters within the SKU so that I know what they are and I know what to ship out to our customers.

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 11, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

      Hey Lisa! Just to clarify:

      One thing that I have been having trouble with in the variations is that some of my SKU’s are not unique.

      By this do you mean that the products are coming from the manufacturers with the same SKUs? Or do you have variations that work between multiple products, so they’re actually the same product set up as a variation between multiple master pages?

      Trying to wrap my head around this to see if I can come up with a solution for you. 🙂

      • Lisa Olberding
        August 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

        Thanks Nicole! I’m working on one right now . . . so I have 2 different guards (these are motorcycle guards that we sell to help protect the linkage on dirt bikes). These guards will fit several different bikes – and the way that I currently have them listed on the product page of the website is KTM 2016/2017 4-Stroke Linkage Protection for 250-350-450 XC-F/SX-F – 6 different bikes but they all have the same frame. Then, within my attributes/variations I have it set up for the guys to pick their Model, Year and Skid Plate Brand to fit a particular guard. So, the product I’m working on currently has 2 different guards but 7 different skid plates that might attach to and it only depends on the skid plate. How do I set up the variations so that I don’t have to put in a different SKU for each one? I hope this makes sense 🙂 Thanks Nicole!

        • Lisa Olberding
          August 11, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

          I think I misspoke on that last sentence – How do I set up the variations so that I can put the same SKU in a couple of different times. Currently, I have to put in a unique one for each and this is where I’m having to take out parts of the SKU to make it different (ultimately, I know on the back end which guard it is that they need with the variant SKU).

          • Nicole Kohler
            August 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

            Thanks for the extra info Lisa! So currently, offhand, I don’t think it’s possible to reuse that SKU for the variations on the same product page, at least not with “out-of-the-box” WooCommerce. Traditionally a variant would have a different SKU, even if the base model is the same, which is why we have that requirement in place.

            Having said that, it MAY be possible to do some modifications or to customize things so you can override the limitation… or there might be some other creative way you can tackle this. I’d suggest opening a ticket with our support ninjas (you can just link them to our comment thread here!) to ask if they have any suggestions or have seen anything like this before.

  5. Kelly M
    August 12, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

    SKUs definitely seem irrelevant for our online store. It’s small, and there is only one product that we would sell to another store for resale – a book. The book already has an ISBN number that a customer or retailer would look for if they were doing an online search, and it’s the only number I see listed by other online retailers. Does that make a SKU unnecessary?

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 13, 2016 at 3:00 am #

      Hey Kelly! Great question 🙂

      The book already has an ISBN number

      So in this case I’d say nope, no SKU needed UNLESS you plan on growing your inventory (and you can add a SKU in later) and/or selling more than this one book online. Books have some of their own rules, maybe that’s something we could have a guest post about by someone in the know? 🙂

  6. Sojib Rahman
    August 17, 2016 at 7:02 am #

    Thanks for details about SKU’s. I have questions. Right now I’m selling Digital Products like theme and plugins. How much it’s worth if I used SKU’s?

  7. Ben
    August 17, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

    The inability to link to variable SKUs as up-sells from a given product is a very surprising limitation in WooCommerce. The further we’ve gone implementing product variations the less benefit we’re finding.

  8. Colin
    August 23, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    If the sku’s are so important(which i rhink too), why does the woocommerce search functionality does not include results based on sku’s?
    It is related to something i am working on now, i have to add this manually now.

  9. Paul
    August 23, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

    Unfortunately, WooCommerce product search doesn’t offer search by sku for variable products. I have found a workaround using Google Custom Search Engine (CSE) however. Maybe I’ll write a post about it if it would help anyone?

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 23, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

      Would love to see some info on this — if you write a post we could definitely link it from here 🙂


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