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, November 30, 2007

Hold On To Your Seats, Kiddies

Here We Go….

Xmas sales exploded this week. Office workers came back on the job – where they do all their shopping -- after the Thanksgiving lull. I did two weeks’ worth of summertime sales on Wednesday alone, and then (thanks to a humongous telephone order) set a new one-day sales record on Thursday. Together, those two days exceeded my individual monthly totals for March, April, and May. It’s really an astonishing feeling to do a month's worth of business in two days.

With a day and a half left to go in the fiscal month, I am already comfortably ahead of last November. You might recall that I was very worried about that going into the month. I sure can’t relax – every day counts during these next few weeks – but I’m feeling happy and confident now. I am currently showing a YTD operating profit, before taxes, of about 7% of gross sales – without December! If I can keep this up for three more weeks, I might finish slightly in the black even after paying my web development costs. I am so giving myself a raise next year!

As much as I’d love to stay and crow about numbers, there’s a ton of work to do.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sunshop's Broken Promises

Although I mention Sunshop frequently, many readers probably don’t know about shopping carts. I didn’t, until I started up Curio City. Herewith, then, a quick primer.

The shopping cart is the software engine that handles product display, inventory tracking, sales, payments, shipping…pretty much everything except the database (customer info and the product catalog). Curio City is a shopping cart, a database, and some graphics.

You can build an e-commerce engine from the ground up for big bucks, or you can license a commercial shopping cart for a very low fee. You have to pay it annually if you want ongoing support and upgrades (which I do). Back in the mists of time, before I had any clue about this stuff, I test-drove a couple of carts and chose one called Sunshop, from a company called Turnkey, because I liked their documentation and support – which will turn out to be ironic.

As a web store, I can’t get away with using an off-the-shelf display template. I need customizations, and that’s where the money starts to mount. Between configuring the original Curio City website and performing this recent upgrade, I’ve spent at least 50 times the base license fee on developer support. And yet, because our focus in this upgrade was on functionality, I have only a fraction of the visual customization that distinguished my earlier store. Curio City 2.0 actually looks comparatively generic. That might be a good thing, if it means that shoppers will know intuitively how to use it, but I would like to eventually restore some elements of my previous look.

You’d think, since this is a commercial software package, that operating it would be straightforward. It isn’t. I spend large amounts of time and treasure just trying to make things work as designed.

Google Checkout is a prime example.

Google Checkout (hereafter called GC) is a new electronic payment system comparable to eBay’s PayPal. PayPal takes about 4% off the top of every transaction. Credit card processors are even worse, skimming more like 5% of gross when their many hidden fees are taken into account. That’s a pretty bad haircut. You have to do a lot of volume before you can qualify for reduced fees.

GC appeals to merchants because it reduces the expense of payment processing. You can link your Google AdWords spending to your GC account, and earn credit toward transaction processing. I spend enough on PPC ads that my GC business would cost me nothing. If GC sales were to become a significant fraction of my total sales, I could lower my overall processing costs by a point or so. That’s a big deal. It’s a percentage of gross that could go toward payroll, for example. So the integration of GC into Sunshop was a major reason to spend the bucks on this upgrade.

I installed and configured GC. I didn’t test it thoroughly – too much else to do – but it looked fine superficially. When we finally got everything else up to speed, I linked my GC and AdWords accounts and applied for the GC badge to make my ads more visible, which would goose my traffic a bit further. Good deal all around, right?

On the new site’s first day, I got my first GC transaction. Score! Oh, wait. It didn’t charge shipping! WTF? Turns out that Sunshop doesn’t support GC with realtime shipping lookups. Turnkey neglected to mention that you must use a fixed shipping table if you want to offer GC. I’m not going to change something as fundamental as my shipping structure just to offer a new payment method, however tempting that is. (I hit a few other glitches, too, but they turned out to be simple configuration errors that I could solve.)

Reluctantly, I turned off the GC module. A few hours later I got an email from Google informing me that my pay-per-click ads are now displaying the GC badge. Curses! I has to ask them to undo that, and put the whole GC program in suspended animation. I’m still getting two email notices per day about communication errors, which I assume are happening because the module is turned off.

GC could have been big. Instead, as far as I’m concerned, Sunshop does not support it. Will it be added in the next update? They won’t say. Will it ever be supported? They are mute. Even if it is, their update process is too techie for me to handle without developer support, and I am about to lose mine as Eric becomes a first-time father. The developer who had expressed interest in taking over got a fulltime job and is no longer interested. Because he is kind and responsible, I’m sure that Eric will help me out as he can. But beyond basic troubleshooting, I am effectively without developer support for the foreseeable future. (That, btw, is why I had to perform this upgrade going into the xmas season – the worst conceivable timing).

Don’t even get me started about PayPal Express – another selling point for Sunshop 4 that turned out to be an empty promise. Today I discovered that the cart makes rounding errors when applying discounts, so I’ve had two transactions come out a penny off. The free shipping coupon that I've long offered to my local-pickup friends didn’t work at all. After a full day’s work by Turnkey’s support, it now sort-of works. Shipping is technically free, but it doesn’t disregard the handling fee. So “free” shipping now charges people that (small) previously-invisible markup.

I could list half a dozen more annoyances and outright bugs, but you get the idea. And so I am inaugurating a new subject tag: Reasons to hate Sunshop. I could probably apply this tag to a dozen old posts if I had the patience to go thru them.

Ironically, the money that I ultimately spent customizing and upgrading and fixing Sunshop probably would’ve been enough to build a custom engine.

* * * * * * *

It’s a week now since the new Curio City debuted. How's it going?

Sales this week were in the toilet. I don’t have enough experience to know why: Thanksgiving? Lack of publicity? The new cart? The change in my URLs? The eroding economy? It could be any or all or none of those things. But I am not panicking. Not yet. It’s just one bad week, and it's not even over yet; a couple of big sales could still pull it out. The next four weeks will determine much about Curio City's future, and there’s no longer much that I can do to affect them.

So it's nail-biting time. This is harrowing. And kind of fun.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Meet Curio City 2.0

What a strange week. Led by three very big orders, Sunday was my third-best day ever. Yahoo pay-per-click ads led two shoppers to clean out my pursehooks. Sunday’s sales alone were enough to beat the corresponding week LY.

On Monday (Veterans Day), my sales total was $6. On Tuesday, I issued a refund and ended the day $3 in the hole. Wednesday, no business at all. The week utterly died after this incredible Sunday, at a time of year when I should be doing at least $100 a day. It is as if my site disappeared entirely. With all the work we’ve been doing on the new site, maybe it did. Who knows?

Wednesday night we launched. I turned off my PPC campaigns. All of the delays and anticipation for the new Sunshop finally paid off, almost exactly two years after Curio City’s original launch. This upgrade cost almost as much as creating the original website did.

It did not go smoothly. We didn’t get the bugs out and bring the site back up until Thursday evening. And then, within half an hour of going live, the new site recorded its first sale. What a relief! Another followed a couple of hours later. I’ve still got plenty of tuning up to do, and then a newsletter to send out. But I think I’m back in business.

The launch party consisted of me, a growler of Opa-Opa Brown Ale, a shot of Seagram’s, and a cigar. Iggy (my cat) sent his regrets; he had to go out and nap under his bush. He missed a good time.

In vaguely related news…I placed an enormous pursehook order that pushed my open-to-buy very deeply in the red. I am counting on those pursehooks to blow out of here. If I gambled wrong, I’m going to be in some real trouble. I hope they will arrive today.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Pursehook Postcard Fiasco

Pursehook postcards went out as I left for the Berkshires, and started hitting on Monday.

Hitting my own mailbox, that is.

I printed the address labels with my return address above the recipient’s address, as I always do on packages. The post office scanners read the first address they encountered, so that’s where my cards went. I mailed them to myself.

At first I thought the whole batch would bounce. As of yesterday, though, I’d only gotten four cards back. Did the others get through alright? Or are they rattling around the delivery system somewhere, waiting to trickle back in?

I don’t know. It was a long shot anyway. Right now I’m up to my earlobes in the Sunshop 4 upgrade, which I dearly hope will occur this weekend. So, FWIW, I will just re-mail the four cards that came back...without return addresses on the label this time! Maybe one of them will be the magic card that gets attention and saves Christmas.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Oooooooo Scary!


We’re going to the Berkshires today to see Nosferatu at MassMoCA and cash in a couple of free nights at the North Adams Holiday Inn. I think the hotel has WiFi, but I want to minimize the work hanging over me this weekend, so I’m posting a little early today, and writing short.

October sales finished only 5% below LY. The month ended with a small profit, and I’m still in the black YTD as I go into the busy season. Not bad. Web upgrade costs will soon revive the red ink...but that's ok; YTD sales don’t mean much in the face of the next two months. It all comes down to Christmas, and a very good one could pay for the web upgrade without making me hit startup cash. I’d love to get through 2007 without infusing any more funds.

November is a scary, scary month. It came out of the chute very strong, then fizzled for Halloween. I can’t imagine how I’m going to match LY’s intimidating sales. It seems impossible, to me (with my tiny token paychecks), that so many people could really have so much money to spend on non-essentials. And yet the consumer orgy somehow spools up for Christmas, as it does every year. It is the central miracle of capitalism, and it is already underway. People grumble about retailers starting to promote Christmas after Halloween, but I assure you that I’ve been seeing Christmas shopping since the beginning of October.

The web upgrade is progressing well; it should go live next week, at long last. Thanks to Anne’s work with the mailing list, the pursehook postcards that I told you about last week will go into the mail before I leave town tomorrow, and I’m going to send out some of the remaining caplight cards a few days after we get back. None of these media mailings have borne fruit yet. But it will just take one success. Media feeds upon media. One mention leads to another.

Here’s something odd: After going nearly six months with no international sales, I’ve shipped three packages to Canada in the past week. The USPS rate tables are still not working, so Canadians can only choose (overpriced) UPS delivery. If three Canadians placed orders despite that disincentive, others almost surely abandoned their carts when they saw the shipping cost. I wonder where this apparent surge in Canadian traffic came from. Did repeatedly mentioning Canada in my last several blog entries somehow raise Curio City’s profile in Canadian web searches? Search engines work in mysterious ways. If there is anything to my theory, this paragraph should continue my sudden and unexpected surge in Canadian business…about which I’m ambivalent; as I said earlier, export sales are more effort and expense than they’re really worth, but Curio City is too lean and hungry to discourage them.

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