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, October 26, 2007

Climbing a Tree Technologically (Metaphorically)

The pace of web development is quickening. A Halloween launch begins to look feasible. The cosmetics won’t all be done; in fact, I’m abandoning much of my custom look in favor of a modified standard template. Shoppers want easy and familiar, not clever and original. I’m fine with that, although I’ll miss the urban look of Curio City 1.0. Maybe I can gussy things up later on.

The transition process is going to be a ton of work, and it’s starting right now. I have to rebuild many product pages to take advantage of what they call “option inventory” – tracking the quantity of each variant of a product (e.g., a running total of how many of each color/size/design I have). I have to plug in all those quantities. And in many cases, that will entail consolidating multiple pages into one. A new HTML editor allows me to use formatting when I build product pages. Imagine that: fonts, colors, even simple graphics! Ultimately I want to revise all of my product pages to fit a template that I’m going to design this afternoon.

In the interest of search-engine optimization, Sunshop has changed the way it builds page URLs. That means that all of my existing product URLs will become invalid. And that means that I have to create a .htaccess file to redirect the old addresses, which are used in literally hundreds of pay-per-click ads, to the new product pages...something I can begin now that the product catalog is being moved over. Ultimately I should revisit both of my PPC campaigns in great detail, replacing old URLs with new ones and generally overhauling the ads. Oh, and speaking of SEO…the new Sunshop allows me to create title tags for each product page, instead of using the automatically generated ones.

If September was low-hanging fruit, I started stretching for higher branches in October. Now I’m grasping at the beanstalk of November, twining up the unimaginably high redwood of December. September finished 73% ahead of LY. Right now October is 16% behind LY; the last two days left in the fiscal month could reduce that to single digits. Year to date, I’m running 22% ahead of LY, but it all comes down to November and December. The last week of October and all of November 2006 were buoyed by my one and only marketing success. This year I have nothing comparable going on. Due to the lack of a mailing list, I only ended up mailing out six copies of my 50 caplights postcards, with predictable non-results. Now I have a pursehooks postcard in production, and I still have no mailing list. My media-savvy, but overextended, wife says that she’s going to supply that.

This years-delayed rollout of Sunshop 4 is my only ace in the hole. If the launch goes without serious bugs, I expect some immediate benefits.

Easier navigation, plus the perception of greater security, will lead fewer shoppers to abandon their shopping carts. If I were smarter, I could probably extract my current abandonment rate from Google Analytics. But I’m dumber, so I just believe some indirect clues that the number is substantial. If I can cut abandonment in half, sales should improve measurably.

Better PayPal integration should eliminate the handful of customers who never actually pay because the PayPal interface isn’t perfectly clear. Introducing Google Checkout will give customers another payment option, and allow me to jazz up my PPC ads with the Google Checkout logo, drawing more attention to them. Together, those changes might be good for another small boost.

Fixed international shipping will enable me to serve overseas customers again for the first time since last May. It’s a tiny fraction of my business, and one that I don’t actively pursue – exports are just too much work and expense. But it should be good for a few bucks, anyway.

Over the longer term, built-in SEO abilities should goose traffic by improving my natural search results. I don’t expect that to make any difference for this Xmas season, though.

Working against me…changing all those URLs will torpedo my natural search traffic in the short term. Natural search drives 15-20% of my traffic. The .htaccess redirect file that I mentioned earlier will keep some of that from drying up. But I do expect a dip until the new URLs get indexed, and my page ranks might suffer in the process. Eventually, the new search-engine friendly features should more than offset the changing URLs. But November and December are not “eventually”, they are now.

Oh. Speaking of exporting…I had my first sale to a military APO address last week. The postal clerk said the package was going to Iraq. And remember how I said that Canada is the most difficult country to deal with? This week a Canadian customer paid nearly $20 to have $60 worth of merchandise sent to him via UPS. Then, for some random reason, Customs assessed him $40 worth of taxes and duties. He ended up spending $60 to import $60 worth of merchandise that I bought from Canada in the first place! Somebody’s getting rich, and it ain’t me.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On the Enduring Appeal of Lighted Camouflage

In contrast to the 5-LED clip-on cap light that’s burning up the bestseller list, my Panther Vision lighted caps went into hibernation some weeks ago. Regular readers will remember that I once called these my “rescue products” and invested a lot of inventory dollars in them, with good initial results. When I found out last week that QVC and the Sharper Image are both selling Panther Vision caps, I figured that they’d gone mainstream and worn out their welcome at Curio City.

Tuesday morning I awoke to an order for five of my remaining six camouflage caps. Somebody bought the last one later that morning. Then I took two phone calls from people wanting more. One caller pre-ordered four caps. Nobody could quite tell me how they found Curio City or where they saw the caps advertised, but one customer said that QVC no longer sells them at all. Another mentioned that hunting season is starting. In the hope that I'm not closing the barn door after the horse is gone, I racked up more debt to order 48 of the camos at Panther Vision's second-most attractive price. (The best possible price requires an order of 144 pieces!).

I’m still using my American Express card for everything, btw. Ordinarily, I use my MC for merchandise and supplies, and my Amex card for operations. Some vendors won’t even take Amex because processing is so expensive (almost as bad as Discover). But the rewards programs are my main concern. Mastercard pays cash back. Amex pays card rebates. Since I’m ordering heavily right now, I’m racking up account credits (which help the business) instead of cash rebates (which go directly into my pocket). I hope the replacement MC gets here soon. I like cash.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Orange is hot

The Sunshop upgrade that began on August 25 is progressing nicely. The cosmetic changes are mostly done. After some functional fixes, I can import the catalog and start updating items. This will inevitably uncover more bugs. I still hope I can open this thing by Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween...What’s up with orange? I noticed it all over my new store templates: orange text, orange buttons, orange accents. It’s not a very appealing color, yet it’s pervasive on the web. Is it a fashion trend? Is there some functional reason to use orange? My wife tells me that it’s all the rage in women’s clothing this season, and I’ve even seen a disproportionate number of new orange cars. Orange is hip. Orange is now. Orange is happening.

Orange is ugly. It will look dated a year or two from now. I’m having all the orange removed from my design.

Reasons to hate UPS: The charge that appears on my statement often differs from the nominal charge at the time of purchase. Sometimes they credit me a few cents, sometimes they surcharge me a few cents. Altogether, it makes little to no difference in the monthly spend, yet this practice makes my charge statement difficult to balance.

Christmas Merchandise: I recently pushed my open-to-buy deeply into red ink with a Fascinations levitating globe order. This is one of a handful of vendors with whom I bothered to establish credit, so the bill doesn’t go on my credit card. Christmas sales will be pouring in – or had better be – when it comes due in 60 days. It almost shouldn’t count against my OTB at all.

Nearly 50% of my annual business will come in November and December. So I am continuing to order despite a dearth of current sales to recharge my budget. I might even carry a credit card balance for a month – heresy!

Speaking of my credit card...yesterday Advanta called to tell me that Mastercard had informed them that my card number was compromised. My corporate MC account is on hold and a new card is being sent. Luckily, I have a fallback Amex card.

You could just visit my New Arrivals page to see where the money’s going…but since one purpose of Curious Business is to create links for the benefit of search engine spiders, here they are:

PurseHooks were one of the two products that I found at the fall Boston Gift Show. I have since seen them everywhere. I think they’re going to be like lighted caps -- a cool novelty just six months ago, they’re now sold at Sharper Image and the QVC shopping channel. I can see this being an ongoing problem for Curio City: When products reach a certain level of success, they’re no longer appropriate for my store. If I’m right, the purse hooks are at the beginning of that arc. They’ll do well through xmas, and maybe into Valentines Day if I’m lucky, before they attract the Walmart crowd.

Record purses (the other product that I found at the Boston Gift Show) are a natural companion to purse hooks. These also tie into my Vinylux line, which sells steadily if unspectacularly. Vinylux has achieved fairly wide distribution over the past few years and may have lost its novelty. The record purses, OTOH, are brand new and exciting. If their creator can supply them consistently – and especially if she can accommodate special orders in a timely way – they could become the Next Big Thing. Alternately, supply vagaries could send them the way of my late lamented typewriter key jewelry. Customers like these recycled art products, but their very authenticity makes it very difficult to supply the most popular designs. Just as each typewriter keyboard had only one “M” key, there’s also a finite number of surviving copies of any given LP. Selling them online adds another familiar challenge: It’s going to be very difficult to reorder the best-selling titles, and I’m not sure that photos will be enough to drive impulse sales. If I have to make new product pages every time I restock, they might not be practical for me.

My last major investment went into levitating globes. These big-ticket items sell steadily when I can afford to keep them in stock, and the manufacturer has several new models for this Christmas. They don’t sell them to big retail chains -- hooray! On the down side, complaints about defective units leave me anxious about their quality. They’re bulkier than most of my products and getting them here from California is quite expensive. The closely related Floating Ideas has never sold a single unit. The number of variations on each design, plus chronic stock shortages, makes it difficult to present a coherent, reliable line of floating globes. Despite these concerns, I restocked four older styles and introduced three new ones.

The order just arrived yesterday. This afternoon I need to unpack it and photograph the new styles. I need to see a copy of the invoice to ensure that I got the special pricing on Zero G Sports. The Golf version has sold slowly at a discounted price. Fascinations is offering the rest of the line at a special discount, so I’m bringing those in, too.

Friday, October 05, 2007

He's an Important Exportin' Man



-- The New Riders of the Purple Sage, “Important Exportin’ Man”

I did not grieve when the USPS broke my international shipping module last May by changing their rate structure. I’ve sold to customers in countries ranging from Canada to Japan and Brazil. As much as I welcome every sale, foreign addresses always make me cringe. Canada is the worst. Besides the usual complicated Customs forms, NAFTA countries require me to testify in a “certificate of origin” that my made-in-China products originate in the USA. Lying always makes me uncomfortable, but I'm told that the form must be fudged to avoid scrutiny and tariffs.

Importing from Canada is a pain, too. Big Schnozzes take more than two weeks to get here from the wrong side of Canada. My last reorder was mis-addressed, got returned to Vancouver, then reshipped to me. It took six weeks and two pieces arrived damaged.

Besides paperwork hassles, I also lose money on payment conversion and processing fees. Not only are export sales extra work…they’re also less profitable.

Last winter, a Chinaman tried to buy a Neverlate clock. He couldn’t put a charge through because his Mastercard and address information were in Chinese characters. We tried to arrange manual payment via money order. His bank wouldn’t sell him dollars, and Citizens Bank would not accept “renminbi” (“the people’s currency,” or "Commie yuan"). After I finally gave up on the sale, I tried to find him a local source. After all, American Innovative gets their Neverlates from China. But of course they would not tell me where their clocks are actually made. Not that it matters; the Chinese factory makes them exclusively for export. My would-be customer couldn’t have gotten one if he’d lived next door to the Neverlate factory.

Is there enough irony in that paragraph for you?

Imagine how I laughed last week when somebody tried to pitch me foreign-language website optimization. “I have noticed that your website cannot be found on foreign search engines…” Thank the gods! Sure, I need every scrap of business I can get. In spite of the hassles and expense, I will be relieved when the Sunshop 4 upgrade brings international shipping back online. But I’m sure not going to spend money pursuing foreign sales!

On the importin' side.... There is real money to be made by importing directly from China, rather than buying from wholesalers as I normally do. The products themselves cost next to nothing, allowing very attractive markups even after shipping and tariffs. So I thought I'd found the gravy train when I stumbled upon a couple of websites that enable small companies to import manageable quantities – hundreds, rather than thousands -- of products from China. That didn’t pan out. Two inquiries via one portal went unanswered. Another Chinese exporter who supplied two of LY’s popular products ignored six separate inquiries about a large reorder. Even if I’m too small to be worth their bother, you’d think that they’d at least acknowledge their own Contact form.

From where I sit, globalization is a one-way street. Products from China flood in, and they don’t go back out.

Despite all that griping, I would welcome some international sales right about now. Thanks to a $50 returned item, this week is on track to be the third-worst of 2007, and my fourth-worst of all time. My paycheck for this week is struggling to reach $20.

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