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There are quite a few ways to make a catalog using WordPress. Your levels of success will depend on how competent you are with developing on PHP. For the sake of brevity, I will be making an assumption that you understand PHP well enough. Even though I make this assumption, In the real sense, due to the nature of WordPress, knowledge of PHP is not necessary. Confused? I will explain in a moment.
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Developing the Product Catalog
Assuming you know PHP, still, the most difficult way to create a catalog in WordPress is to go in and directly modify the actual code. This is quite a complicated process that will eventually lead to frustration and is way beyond that scope of any single article or tutorial. If you refer to the WordPress API documentation you will see the amount of material you would need to be conversant with to get this done. The good news is there are other ways which do not require any knowledge of PHP.
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Using Custom Fields and the Post Editor
Without having to rewrite a huge chunk of WordPress, you can go in an add your catalog items just the way you add normal article posts. Items in a product catalog tend to have additional meta data based on the nature of the product. A shirt may have size and color attributes attached to it while, a DVD movie would have a genre and year attached to it. These attributes can be placed optionally in your posts using the custom fields. This is strictly not necessary as this information can be added directly in the body of the post. Therefore a product catalog item can be treated as a normal post including an image.
The problem with this method is that your layout may be a little bit restrictive in terms of the number columns you might want your display to show. This problem can be solved by installing a template that caters for multiple columns on the home page such as a gallery template. Clicking on a product on the home page which would effectively act as a category view would take you to the single post page which would act as the product detail page. This would be fine as long as your catalog does not have more than one categories. The information to appear on the grid on the home page or category catalog would have to be entered into the excerpt field found under the post content area in the editor.
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Plugins solve all the problems encountered above. For one they have already taken care of the PHP programming complexities. Secondly they take care of the creation of multiple categories for the catalog. They also eliminate the need for creating custom fields and they even add additional functionality to cater for the whole online shopping experience should you want your WordPress Catalog to contain purchasable products.
There is no single method of configuring all plugins other than placing the downloaded plugin in the the wp-content\plugins folder in your WordPress installation then going to the plugin menu to activate it. Configuration and other installation tasks are strictly left to the Individual plugin to manage. Read this article to learn how to install WordPress plugins.To get you started off, I have provided three references below to plugins you can use to make a catalog with WordPress, you can read their documentation and see which on suites your needs.
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Wordpress Codex, codex.wordpress.org
eshop plugin, wordpress.org/extend/plugins/eshop/
Dukpress plugin, wordpress.org/extend/plugins/dukapress/
Ecwid plugin, http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/ecwid-shopping-cart/
Author’s own experience
Screenshots provided by writer