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, August 10, 2007

Did You Miss Me?

Vacation was too short.

Last year, I took 10 days off at the end of July/beginning of August. This year, we were gone for only seven days during the same period. In both years, I suspended my pay-per-click advertising and posted messages about delayed shipping on my front page and my news page.

Rather than drying up entirely, business only fell by about 35% from recent weeks. Sales were nearly double LY’s vacation level. I think this means that my customer base is getting large enough (over 1100 unique user accounts) to make repeat sales more significant, and that my organic search engine rankings are finally improving. In other words, my core business is growing.

Sales perked right back up when I revived the store last Saturday. I’m cautiously optimistic that August will be as good, relative to LY, as July was. Today's business news said that July retail sales were disappointing overall, so once again Curio City is off in its own little world.

It might not surprise you that I re-thought a few things during my downtime.

For one thing, I’m less enthused about blitzing the lighted caps. The cheaper clip-on unit is selling much better. The two products have generated about the same number of dollars, but the clip-on’s superior markup makes it much more profitable. The wholesaler will even dropship them, reducing my inventory needs. It makes sense to promote the more expensive caps and enjoy the splash effect on the cheaper clip-ons. But I’m less inclined to put big money into advertising and inventory. Maybe I’ll try the free-sample route instead, and hope for some review ink. If I seek editorial instead of advertising, I’m probably already getting too late for Xmas. Magazines have crazy long lead-times.

I’m more focused now on overhauling my store, a process with two components.

First, the incredibly-delayed Sunshop 4.0 is finally available. Today a Turnkey representative suggested that I can avoid potential havoc by running a copy of my existing 3.5.1 store while Eric tweaks the new version. Why didn’t I think of that?! It would be most awesome to step smoothly from my current version to (ta-da!) a polished install of the new version – especially if I can include some cosmetic updates.

Second, now that I have stronger ideas about my merchandise selection, I’m more eager turn non-conforming items back into cash. That’s going to involve setting up some eBay auctions to get rid of entire categories of merchandise at fire-sale prices. I have to be careful not to panic-sell stuff that might do well in a physical store. And I need to remember that I still don’t have it figured out. The cap lights worked as I expected. The dog Frisbee didn’t, yet, although I just announced it to 450 newsletter subscribers yesterday. The rain gauge didn’t work, even on sale. The barbecue thermometer went nowhere. My new jewelry line is disappointing. I’m working toward a better focus, but I sure don’t have a formula for success yet. Despite all of this hedging, I want to liquidate entire categories – such as Travel, Pets, and most of Home Decor – that don’t fit my plans. At most, maybe 100 of my 385 active products are really on track.

I still have cold feet about opening a store next year. Financially, I still believe that it’s necessary. At the rate the web business is growing, it could be another five years before it starts paying the bills, so I need to up the ante. But personally, I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for a store. In fact, I dread it taking over my life.

In the wake of our Berkshires vacation, I’m reviving the “Exile on Main Street scenario: Opening a low-rent store in the Berkshires. The stakes would be lower, failure is less catastrophic, and I could still keep the focus on my online business while solving the commercial space problem. I don’t know if my urge to live out there will hold up a few weeks or months from now. But let’s play with the idea again.

The southern Berkshires – Stockbridge, Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington – are the logical place to establish a new gift shop. They already have thriving commercial areas, and most of their focus is country kitsch, so Curio City would have a niche. There are two problems with this. First, I don’t want to live in that touristy moneyed area; I like Williamstown. Commuting down Route 7 each day would be unpleasant and impractical, thanks to Pittsfield squatting worthlessly in the middle. Second, that touristy moneyed area is high priced. The financial stakes would not have much advantage over the Boston metro area.

The Williamstown area is too sparsely populated to support a gift shop unless it’s right in the commercial district on Spring Street or Water Street. And then I’d be competing with Where Did You Get That?!. You might remember that this Williamstown gift shop was one of the early inspirations for Curio City. WDYGT has changed a lot since then – they’re much more child-oriented and mass market than they were in their old location – so I don’t think we’d be direct competitors. But I doubt that Williamstown can support two novelty-type gift shops. And being the immigrant newcomer would be a disadvantage in insular New England.

This brings me back to North Adams again. It fits my strategy and is close to Williamstown. But could I really cope with working every day in a depressed, decaying, low class community? It dilutes the attraction of the Berkshires. Why go through all of the relocation upheaval just to end up in North Adams?

I suppose there are other options, like Lanesborough. Superficially, it’s just a commercial strip on Route 7, but maybe it has more going for it than meets the eye. Most likely, this discussion will peter into silence as our vacation recedes in memory. “Exile On Main Street” is still my least likely future.

BTW: I’ve decided to make my blog labels more descriptive, so some of the generalizations are giving way to specifics (e.g., "planning" becomes "moving elsewhere" and "opening a store"). I am not, however, going to recategorize every old post. Navigation might get less useful before it improves.

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