Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, April 27, 2007

When Good Merchandise Goes Bad

The well-known 80/20 rule says that 80% of retail sales come from 20% of a store’s merchandise. Four out of five new items that I bring in are going to end up in the “tail”. After nearly a year and a half in business, I’m starting to understand why things end up there. Let me illustrate.

Hand-painted ceramic tile jewelry boxes and serving trays from Tile Craft are drop-dead gorgeous works of art when you see them in person. I was drawn to them at last year’s Boston Gift Show. But they don’t present well online. No photograph can capture the depth of color or the 3D texture that makes them so beautiful. I’m glad that I bought them conservatively, because I have not sold a single piece, even at bargain pricing.

I’d previously sold just enough ceramic tile designs by Sybil Shane to hint at a market for them. I expected Tile Craft’s functional items to do better than Sybil’s purely decorative tiles. When I saw another very nice ceramic line from a company called Basheer Art Tile at the spring gift show, I was sorely tempted to try a few styles. But I can’t gamble on this category until I understand why Sybil’s tiles sold (however modestly), and Tile Craft’s didn’t. The Basheer rep opined that the subject of the art matters most – cats always sell, for instance. My bestselling Sybil tile was the black cat. Yet, my favorite Tile Craft jewelry box is a cute cat picture. Basheer has no minimum order quantity and I have still not ruled out experimenting with a few of their subjects. I just can't afford the inventory money right now.

I originally expected wine accessories and wine-themed merchandise to be another blowout category, and I do sell some wine merchandise reasonably well. The occasional mention from The Cork Jester always perks up interest. But no wine product has ever made it into my top 20%. Maybe there is simply too much product out there, and it’s hard to get people’s attention. The Life With Wine software should have been a breakout product. Marketed right, maybe it still could be. Most recently, I thought these wine facts towels would break out. So far, no such luck. I’m still searching for that unusual, useful, interesting item that isn’t widely available.

Sea Stone Bottle Stoppers theoretically fit that bill. They’re beautiful. They’re different. They’re practical. They aren’t widely available. They have all the hallmarks of a successful product…yet they haven’t sold at all, even at a discount. This time, I think I understand why: Each stopper is unique. People want to choose one specific stone, not have one picked out for them. This is another item that would do well in-store, but that dies online.

For all that I try to learn from my failures, sometimes they're just plain mysterious. Light switch plates should have been a sure-fire hit. I spent a big share of my startup inventory dollars on them and put a lot of time into photographing them and creating their product pages. And they didn’t sell at all. Since marking them down to cost, I have slowly recouped maybe 75% of my original investment. I still sell one every now and then, but eventually I’ll have to dump what’s left at a big loss on eBay. I have struggled to understand why these failed. Maybe they are too complicated (Do you know how many single, double, and rocker switches your home has?). Maybe they’re too mundane or too mainstream to be a “curio”. Maybe they would work as an in-store impulse item. For whatever reason(s), I couldn’t sell them online at all.

Finally, some generalizations: Products whose function is easily described, and that are identical from one to the next, and that boast some obviously clever feature, sell the best. Products whose appeal is primarily visual or tactile, or that are unique from one piece to the next, or whose most interesting aspects are subtle, don’t sell online. It is very difficult to describe beauty, or any other subjective quality, in a compelling way. Photos don’t get it across. Products with a lot of variety -- like refrigerator magnets or greeting cards -- don't do well in limited selection. If I can't afford to offer scores or even hundreds, it makes no sense to offer a dozen.

The amount of disposable income that most people can spare often surprises a low-income person like me. Moderately expensive merchandise -- $40 and up – sells better than cheaper items. People will sometimes toss in a magnet or a Flashmouth with a larger order, but they seldom order these small items alone. Shipping costs are probably the driving factor here. The more valuable the order, the more willing people are to pay for delivery.

Sometimes circumstances knock a 20-percenter into the 80% tail. I’ve written previously about Typewriter key jewelry, the Neverlate Clock, and other fallen stars, so I’ll just reiterate that the top 20% is always a moving target. (Incidentally, DayClocks – maybe my favorite product -- have come back from the dead since I wrote that column.)

Of course, a well-placed advertisement or a lucky media mention can quickly overturn these rules. Don't even get me started on marketing. As you can see from my subject labels, that topic comes up over and over again.

A final lesson reluctantly learned: I can’t afford to bring in new products that I expect to end up in the 80% tail. “Maybe I’d sell a few” won’t cut it for future merchandise choices. I won’t order anything that doesn’t have a reasonable shot at making the top 20%. Sadly, the 80/20 rule is not easily fooled.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Happy Mother's Day

Personally, I always resented Mother’s Day and all of the other Hallmark Holidays. Even though they’re just blatant commercial opportunities, you can’t ignore them without seeming callous. So, like everyone else, I grudgingly bought cards and small gifts for these annoying non-holidays. Don't get me wrong; I loved my mom. It was the obligation to shop for some token thing that I didn't like...and making that process easier was one of my main motives for founding Curio City. Anyway, I no longer took any note of Mother’s or Father’s Day after my parents died.

Professionally, the nice little spike in last year’s sales graph puts Mother’s Day in a whole new light. This May 13 is the second major milestone on the gift store calendar. Determined to avoid repeating The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, I started marketing to Mother’s Day last Sunday.

These "Mom" golf balls are really the only thing I have that directly targets mothers. Curio City isn't really about blatant holiday themed merchandise, so I don’t expect much from them. Their main purpose is to tie together my Mothers Day landing page. The landing page is an important concept in search engine marketing. You don’t want your ads to dump visitors at the front door and make them hunt for whatever prompted their click – rather, you want to take them directly to their object of desire. I may not get many shoppers drawn specifically to mom-themed merchandise, but I certainly benefit from the general up-tick in online shopping.

My pay-per-click ads at Google, Yahoo, and MSN are variations on “Is your mother ordinary? If so, go shop somewhere else. Curio City sells unusual gifts.” These ads link to my landing page. I updated the signboard on my main page to mention the holiday. Soon I’ll start updating my news page with shipping info. It isn’t much, but it should goose sales a little bit. Anyone who arrives via a PPC ad should know that they won’t find cliché gifts at Curio City.

The death of typewriter key jewelry is going to hurt. I’m negotiating with another company to test their jewelry. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull that together in time for Mother’s Day or not – we have an agreement in principle, but there are some logistics to resolve.

My ad in Gentry Magazine came out about a week ago. This is a quid pro quo for a favor that I did their publisher last year. I just went thru the digital version of their May issue, and my ad is definitely there on page 100, with a working link to my front page. The ad cost me around $150 out of pocket, and a few hours’ time. My overall traffic is up marginally, but the only solid result so far was an advertising sales call from a competing magazine. What a disappointment...I expected at least a few sales from it. I guess I should’ve advertised a specific product, rather than my site in general. Oh well, another opportunity missed is another lesson learned, and their second edition isn't out yet. There is still some potential.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Newsletter News

Statistics are one of the aspects of retail that I enjoy the most, and Constant Contact is a great source for new stats. Before I started using this service (see last week’s post), I could not even see how many newsletter subscribers I had. Now I’m getting precise reports.

The first issue went to 434 addresses. Twelve of those bounced. Ninety-four of the remaining 422 e-mails (21.6%) were opened. (Many of those are multiple opens by the same people. I think that displaying in Outlook’s preview pane counts as an “open,” so some of those multiple views are probably just people who haven’t deleted it. Perhaps they still intend to act upon it later in the month.) Six recipients opted out, and two people who apparently don’t understand what “spam” means filed spam reports with their email providers. Spam reports are bad. If I rack up too many of those, Constant Contact will suspend my account.

The opened emails generated 41 clicks, for a 43.6% click-through. Two of my product links got no clicks at all, which surprised me – maybe readers don’t realize that the photos are links, or maybe those products are a whole lot less interesting than I thought. I'm not going to share actual conversion results with you, except to say that the number of sales fell short of my hopes.

For comparison’s sake, the average mailing has an 18% bounce rate, 37% open rate, and only a 9% click-through.

What does this tell me? On the plus side, my mailing list is nice and clean. The

high click-through indicates that those who did open the newsletter were interested in its content. On the negative side, nearly 80% of my messages were not opened. My subject line was not exactly compelling. Sending it out on Easter weekend probably didn’t help; most people do their personal email and web surfing from their jobs, on weekdays. I’m going to send my next issue on a workday, and see how that affects the open percentage.

Is Imitation Sincerely Flattering?

“Gifts for the Curious”.

That’s a new slogan for Where Did You Get That?!, the store in Williamstown that was one of Curio City’s original inspirations. Do you suppose they read my blog? It’s just possible that they adopted that slogan against the day that Curio City comes to their turf. Not that I ever expect that to really happen. It’s curious, though, that they would use that word. My word. I am half tempted to retaliate. What do you think of this new slogan? “Here’s Where You Can Get That”. :)

Friday, April 06, 2007

The New Curio City Chronicle

See the newsletter signup box to the right? There’s a story behind that.

I was going to send out one more newsletter using the Sunshop routine, as I said in last week’s post. On Sunday, I dutifully popped open Nvu (my freeware HTML editor) and put the finishing touches on the last issue of the old-style Curio City Chronicle. As per my routine, I copied the source code into Sunshop’s newsletter box and sent out a test message.

Virtually all of my HTML formatting was stripped out. None of the links worked. The three custom variables available to me ($name, $username, and $password) were all blank. It was a near-complete technical malfunction.

All of this just automagically worked for the first 11 issues. I’ve gotta figure that this mysterious turn of events is yet another consequence of the server move (Adventures in Moving). MochaHost’s tech support was understandably unhelpful; they don’t know how Sunshop works, so they punted me to Turnkey. Turnkey’s tech support was even worse. In long-delayed replies whose brevity resembled haiku, they concluded that this is a hosting issue.

Well, duh. What hosting issue?

Now I was trapped in the nether zone between Mocha and Turnkey, neither of whom could understand this, or cared very much to try. Eric (my contract developer) is very good at puzzling these things out, and I’d copied him on everything. Surely he could ride to the rescue, as he has so many times before. But as I said, this was going to be my last Sunshop newsletter anyway. With a revamped newsletter function already coming in Sunshop 4.0, why would I invest time and money in an effort to define and fix the old one to get out one last issue?

Well, because it bugs me. I hate unexplained malfunctions. Who knows what other weirdness awaits discovery?

That signup box is there because I moved up my Constant Contact agenda item. I’ve already set up my first “new” newsletter. Their templates aren’t as customizable as I would like, but the end result looks pretty good. Topica is more powerful and more spam-tolerant (I need to send unsolicited email to media lists, which is a no-no at Constant Contact), but it’s also $50 per month. Bzzt! Another company (Bronto) that was recommended to me doesn’t look better than CC, nor do they list their pricing on their website. So my decision was easy. As soon as the Periodic Table Shower Curtain arrives, I’ll upload my mailing list and send out my first New Curio City Chronicle, which begins a new era in marketing to my customer base. CC's free trial ends as soon as my mailing list exceeds 100 addresses. At the moment, I have 434. It jumps to the next pricing tier at 500, so I'll be managing my bounces pretty carefully to make sure bogus addresses don't put me over that limit.

Speaking of "other weirdness"... Yesterday I discovered that the video links in my bird kite pages had stopped working. The double-quote marks in the link code are being converted to invalid text. I’m sure this is another “hosting issue.” I discovered this morning that the links work OK if I just delete the quotation marks, so that’s a battle I probably don’t need to fight.

Finally, speaking of Sunshop 4.0… RC1 finally came out last week. My own background in software development leads me to believe that the Gold version is probably still a month away. Maybe installing that major patch will clear up my “hosting issues”. I'm starting to suspect that the Sunshop software needs to be properly installed on the new server, rather than simply copied over to it as Mocha must have done.

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