Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City. 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 31, 2007

I Met a Man Who Was Not There

Last week a customer’s order came back as undeliverable (not the first time that’s happened). What’s odd is that this customer had placed a subsequent order just a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough, that second package is being held at his local post office prior to bouncing back to me.

I e-mailed him. No response. I called: “This number is not in service.” Uh-oh. I’ve never had a customer disappear, although some gave me bogus contact info. I guess I’ll sit on these parcels until he contacts me. If he doesn’t surface within a suitable interval, I’ll return the items to stock and try to refund his charge card.

Sales nosedived this week, denying me both my monthly sales plan and my first decent paycheck since last Christmas. I blame Labor Day. August still finished well, overall. Last September was a dreadful month. Will I demolish it this year?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Taking Care of Business

Ho-hum. Another very good week draws to a close. I don’t know if anyone cares, but being a statistics junkie, I can’t help myself: Calendar August contains only three zero-sales days so far; LY’s August-to-date had 12 shutouts. I’ve beaten LY by comfortable margins every week this year. I actually exceeded my weekly sales plan twice. If next week’s sales continue this pattern, I might achieve my monthly sales plan for the first time since last Christmas. (Jan. and Feb. are statistical throwaways because the benchmarks were so weak.)

Eric plans to begin the fabled Sunshop upgrade this weekend. Curio City’s updated look could debut as early as next week. I suppose I ought to work on the merchandise turnover that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. But this sales surge has slain my urge to liquidate. Almost everything will eventually sell, and it’s not like I have hundreds of fabulous new products waiting in the wings.

Only my front page will survive this makeover unchanged. Its bounce rate is a little over 50%. Nearly half the people who come to my front page actually enter the store, which seems pretty good to me. Cart abandonment is a much bigger problem, and the new checkout procedure should improve that considerably.

Miscellaneous rambling:

Google recently changed their ranking algorithms again, knocking a lot of my old keywords out of circulation. Instead of raising them to ridiculous levels, I deleted them. Deep-pocket bidders (you know who you are, eBay and Amazon) continue to monopolize the top spots with their blind ads. I hope they go broke paying 50 cents a click for keywords that literally aren’t worth a dime. But there's no justice, is there?

UPS bounced two shipments this week. One was misaddressed to 30 Grove, rather than 300 Grove; they returned it to the west coast without contacting me or the shipper. The other one had no address problem; I rescued it from their local distribution hub yesterday. OK, so there’s no physical “Curio City” on Grove Street – my address is a UPS Store. The same UPS Store address that I’ve had for two years. UPS? UPS Store? See a connection? Funny, the post office never has any trouble figuring this out.

I might not update this blog faithfully every Friday anymore. I only know of three semi-regular readers, and none of you come by weekly. Only my nature compels me to update every Friday. Let’s see if I can rein that in.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Nose to the Grindstone

Business is still strong relative to LY. I’ve had only two zero-sales days all month, despite being “closed” for several days. The corresponding period LY contained 11 shutout days. Dare I dream of recovering from the poor Spring holidays? Yesterday brought an unexpected sale of $300 worth of clip-on cap lights! I still don’t know where that one came from; neither Google nor Yahoo show a conversion on those keywords yesterday. So: Yes, I do dare dream of making two of my 2007 goals. I won’t double LY sales, but I might very well turn a profit and earn as much in salary as I reinvest in startup money. If this trend holds up, I might even reevaluate the whole Curio City Offline vs. Curio Megalopolis Online issue. (Are you getting the sense that I really don’t want to open a store?)

Right now I feel pulled in at least three distinct directions, and I’m making only fitful progress in any of them as I dip in first here, then there. Rather than do the responsible thing and return to my pre-vacation punch list, I decided to concentrate on merchandise this week.

Remember a product called “Ultra Bright Finger Lights”? Last weekend, while taking advantage of a special discount from the supplier of my bestselling 5-LED clip-on cap lights, I happened across these new “Rocket Rings”. It looks like the old finger lights have returned at a much lower price. Despite being burned by the quality of the older product, I decided to take a chance on these new ones. I ordered aggressively to earn their quantity discount on top of the one-time incentive, producing an outrageous markup on this little item. It’s a gamble, having not actually seen the product yet. I’m hoping that they’ll blow out before the batteries can go bad. If the novelty of LEDs ever wears off, Curio City is sunk.

Speaking of LEDs, it was time to reorder Temperature-Controlled Faucet Lights -- a steady, if unspectacular, seller that surges around holidays. I put off dealing with this vendor because they aren’t set up for online orders. Because my office is two sizes too small, I have to fold up my computer desk, crawl on the floor to an inaccessible cubbyhole, and dig through an unsorted pile of moldering paper catalogs. Paper price lists are always inaccurate or incomplete, and their Left Coast location means that shipping is expensive and their hours are inconvenient. I visited their website anyway, on the off chance that they’ve come into the 21st century. No such luck. But I did find a potential new product: the Peeramid Book Rest. They aren’t crushable, so I’d need to lay in a supply of boxes especially for shipping them. They might be too expensive – even my wife balked at the price, which is a red flag. On the plus side, they are not widely available online; the only other store that I found is selling them for full retail. I’ve asked for a sample. If the quality is there, they could be a nice niche product. They don't have LEDs, so they're risky.

Then I had to deal with the Panther Vision (the lighted cap people) again. This company has an awful website, a very confusing product line, Byzantine pricing, and spotty e-mail communication. I think my willingness to bulldog through these obstacles gives me a competitive advantage -- many of my vendors are difficult to work with -- so I persevere. Most of my questions were answered yesterday, and I can now work up an order (another task that I’m procrastinating on at this very moment). I’ve got a lot of money in this line now.

As long as I’m writing orders, I did the preliminary work on some expensive new Christmassy products from Fascinations and Can You Imagine – “preliminary work” meaning price comparison, grabbing images, and creating the items in my databases. Their new products are coming out of startup money (my “rescue cash” plus the remainder of my Phase 2 money), so I can place these orders anytime. Reorders have to come from my normal open-to-buy budget.

I’ve got my eye on about $450 worth of new globes from Fascinations, plus a $500 reorder. Their globes always do well around holidays. CYI never quite lives up to its promise. The few products of theirs that’ve done really well became unavailable. The rest of them just dribble out. I came up with about $500 I’d like to spend with them, and that’s speculative. I think I need some new vendors. The always-disappointing Boston Gift Show is coming up in a couple of weeks.

Finally, I needed to reorder some boxes and shipping supplies. I hate wasting money on crap like that. (I hate spending money on anything, but especially on consumables…except for alcohol and tobacco, that is).

In the midst of all of this ordering, the long-delayed Sunshop 4.0 upgrade was finally published. My contract developer (Eric) has made the time to install it for me. Since it comes with no documentation whatsoever, I have to pore over their features list, figure out which new features I want to use, figure out which of those will automagically work and which will require some development assistance, and figure out which old features (like Google Analytics) the upgrade will break. In other words, I’m suddenly looking at Web development again.

Next week, unless Sunshop takes over my life, I intend to get busy on my markdown project – clearing out the old crap so that I can overhaul my Bargain Bin department and hold a real sale. My first effort at that – selling off light switch plates in a lot on eBay – went nowhere. I don’t know whether to try those again, or stop wasting the listing fees.

From the MORE REASONS TO HATE YAHOO Department: Today I got an “Editorial Status Update” saying that “Ads and/or keywords you submitted were reviewed to ensure that they comply with the Editorial Guidelines. Keyword results: Pending: 1 Declined: 0 Removed: 1.” That’s weird; I haven’t submitted any new Yahoo keywords lately. I must’ve edited an old ad, as I routinely do. Investigation showed that “The keywords referenced by this alert no longer have an editorial status of removed, so there are no results to display. These items may have been resubmitted for editorial review or deleted.” WTF, Yahoo? Not only will they not tell me how I transgressed; they won’t even tell me what they removed. Arrogant bastards.

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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