Categories and Attributes in Magento: Part 1

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Categories, Products, and Attributes

Products are the items that are sold. In Magento, Categories organize your Products, and Attributes describe them. Think of a Category as the place where a Product lives, and an Attribute is anything that describes a Product. Each one of your Products can belong to one or more Categories. Also, each Product can be described by any number of Attributes.

Is it a Category or an Attribute?

Some things are clearly Categories. For example, if you have an electronics store, MP3 players would make a good Category. If you’re selling jewellery, earrings would make a good Category.

Other things are clearly Attributes. Color, description, picture, and SKU number are almost always Attributes.

Sometimes, the same thing can be used for a Category or an Attribute. For example, suppose your site sells shoes. If you made size an Attribute, then after your shoppers have located a specific shoe, they can select the size they want. However, if you also made size a Category, the shoppers could begin their shopping by selecting their size. Then they could browse through the styles available in their size. So should size be an Attribute, a Category, or both? The answer depends upon what kind of shopping experience you want to create for your customers.

Examples

The hierarchy of Categories, Products, and Attributes looks like this:

  1. Category 1
    1. Product 1
      • Attribute 1
      • Attribute 2
    2. Product 2
      • Attribute 1
      • Attribute 2
  2. Category 2
    1. Product 3
      • Attribute 1
      • Attribute 3
    2. Product 4
      • Attribute 1
      • Attribute 3

We are building a site that sells gourmet coffee, so we might organize our store like this:

  1. Single Origin
    1. Hawaiian Kona
      • Grind (whole bean, drip, French press)
      • Roast (light, medium, dark)
    2. Blue Mountain
      • Grind
      • Roast
  2. Blends
    1. Breakfast Blend
      • Grind
      • Caffeine (regular, decaffeinated)
    2. Afternoon Cruise
      • Grind
      • Caffeine

In Magento, you can give your shoppers the ability to search your store. So if the shoppers know that they want Blue Mountain coffee, they can use the Search function to find it in our store. However, customers who don’t know exactly what they want will browse the store. They will often begin browsing by selecting a category. With the organization that we just saw, when customers browse our store, they will start by selecting Single Origin or Blends. Then the shoppers will select the product they want: Hawaiian Kona, Blue Mountain, Breakfast Blend, or Afternoon Cruise.

After our shoppers decide upon a Product, they select Attributes for that product. In our store, shoppers can select Grind for any of the products. For Single Origin, they can also select Roast. For blends, they can select Caffeine. This gives you a clue about how Magento handles attributes. To each Product, you can apply as many, or as few, attributes as you want.

Now that we have definitions for Category, Product, and Attribute, let’s look at each of them in detail. Then, we can start adding products.

Categories

Product Categories are important because they are the primary tool that your shoppers use to navigate your store. Product Categories organize your store for your shoppers. Categories can be organized into Parent Categories and Subcategories. To get to a Subcategory, you drill down through its Parent Category.

Categories and the Navigation Menu

If a Category is an Anchor Category, then it appears on the Navigation Menu. The term “Anchor” makes the category sound as if it must be a top-level category. This is not true. You can designate any category as an Anchor Category. Doing so puts that category into the Navigation Menu.

When a shopper selects a normal Category from the Navigation Menu, its landing page and any subcategories are displayed. When a shopper selects an Anchor Category from the menu, Magento does not display the normal list of subcategories. Instead, it displays the Attributes of all the Products in that category and its subcategories. Instead of moving down into subcategories, the shopper uses the Attributes to filter all the Products in that Anchor Category and the Categories below it. The Navigation Menu will not display if:

  • You don’t create any Categories, or
  • You create Categories, but you don’t make any of them Anchors, or
  • Your Anchor Categories are not subcategories under the Default Category.

The Navigation Menu will display only if:

  • You have created at least one Category
  • You have made at least one Category an Anchor
  • You have made the Anchor Category a Subcategory under Default.

When you first create your Magento site and add Products, you won’t see those Products on your site until you’ve met all of the previous conditions. For this reason I recommend that you create at least one Anchor Category before you start adding Products to your store. As you add each Product, add it to an Anchor Category. Then, the Product will display in your store, and you can preview it. If the Anchor Category is not the one that you want for that Product, you can change the Product’s Category later

Before we add Products to our coffee store, we will create two Anchor Categories: Single Origin and Blends. As we add Products, we will assign them to a Category so that we can preview them in our storefront.

Making best use of Categories

There are three things that Categories can accomplish. They can:

  1. Help the shoppers, who know exactly what they want, to find the product that they are looking for.
  2. Help the shoppers, who almost know what they want, to find a product that matches their desires.
  3. Entice the shoppers, who have almost no idea of what they want, to explore your store.

We would like to organize our store so that our Categories accomplish all these goals. However, these goals are often mutually exclusive.

For example, suppose you create an electronics store. In addition to many other products, your store sells MP3 players, including Apple iPods. A Category called iPods would help the shoppers who know that they want an iPod, as they can quickly find one. However, the iPods Category doesn’t do much to help shoppers who know that they want an MP3 player, but don’t know what kind.

On the Web, you usually search something when you know what you want. But when you’re not sure about what you want, you usually browse. In an online store, you usually begin browsing by selecting a Category. When you are creating Categories for your online store, try to make them helpful for shoppers who almost know what they want.

However, what if a high percentage of your shoppers are looking for a narrow category of products? Consider creating a top-level Category to make those products easily accessible. Again, suppose you have an electronics store that sells a wide variety of items. If a high percentage of your customers want iPods, it might be worthwhile to create a Category just for those few products. The logs from the Search function on your site are one way you can determine whether your shoppers are interested in a narrow Category of a Product. Are 30 percent of the searches on your site for left-handed fishing reels? If so, you might want to create a top-level Category just for those Products.

Attributes

An Attribute is a characteristic of a Product. Name, price, SKU, size, color, and manufacturer are all examples of Attributes.

System versus Simple Attributes

Notice that the first few examples (name, price, and SKU) are all required for a Product to function in Magento. Magento adds these Attributes to every product, and requires you to assign a value for each of them. These are called System Attributes.

The other three examples (size, color, and manufacturer) are optional Attributes. They are created by the store owner. They are called Simple Attributes. When we discuss creating and assigning Attributes, we are almost always discussing Simple Attributes.

Attribute Sets

Notice that the Single Origin coffees have two Attributes: Grind and Roast. Also notice that the blends have the Attributes of Grind and Caffeine.

  1. Single Origin
    1. Hawaiian Kona
      • Grind (whole bean, drip, French press)
      • Roast (light, medium, dark)
    2. Blue Mountain
      • Grind
      • Roast
  2. Blends
    1. Breakfast Blend
      • Grind
      • Caffeine (regular, decaffeinated)
    2. Afternoon Cruise
      • Grind
      • Caffeine

In this example, the store owner created three Attributes: Grind, Roast, and Caffeine. Next, the store owner grouped the Attributes into two Attribute Sets: one set contains Grind and Roast, and the other set contains Grind and Caffeine. Then, an Attribute set was applied to each Product.

Attributes are not applied directly to Products. They are first grouped into Attribute Sets, and then a set can be applied to a Product. This means that you will need to create a set for each different combination of Attributes in your store. You can name these Sets after the Attributes they contain, such as Grind-Roast. Or, you can name them after the type of Product which will use those Attributes, such as Single Origin Attributes.

If each Product in a group will use the same Attribute as every other Product in that group, then you can name the set after that group. For example, at this time, all Single Origin coffees have the same Attributes: Grind and Roast. If they will all have these two Attributes and you will always add and remove Attributes to them as a group, then you could name the set Single Origin Attributes.

If the Products in a group will likely use different Attributes, then name the set after the Attributes. For example, if you expect that some Single Origin coffees will use the Attributes Grind and Roast, while others will use just Roast, then it would not make sense to create a set called Single Origin Attributes. Instead, create a set called Grind-Roast, and another called Roast.

Three types of Products

In Magento, you can create three different types of Products: Simple, Configurable, and Grouped. The following is a very brief definition for each type of Product.

Simple Product

A Simple Product is a single Product, with Attributes that the store owner chooses. As the saying goes, “What you see is what you get.” The customer does not get to choose anything about the Product.

In our coffee store, a good example for a Simple Product might be a drip coffee maker. It comes in only one color. And while the customer can buy drip coffee makers of various sizes (4 cups, 8 cups, 12 cups, and so on), each of those is a separate Product.

A bad example of a Simple Product would be a type of coffee. For example, we might want to allow the customer to choose the type of roast for our Hawaiian Kona coffee: light, medium, or dark. Because we want the customer to choose a value for an Attribute, that would not be a good Simple Product.

Configurable Product

A Configurable Product is a single Product, with at least one Attribute that the customer gets to choose. There is a saying that goes, “Have it your way.” The customer gets to choose something about the Product.

A good example of a Configurable Product would be a type of coffee that comes in several different roasts: light, medium, and dark. Because we want the customer to choose the roast(s) he wants, that would be a good Configurable Product.

Grouped Product

A Grouped Product is several Simple Products that are displayed on the same page. You can force the customer to buy the group, or allow the customer to buy each Product separately.

The previous definitions are adequate for now. However, when you start creating Products, you will need to know more about each type of Product.

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