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 21, 2008

The Day of the DayClock

Business is still booming. Traffic hit 273 visits on Monday, and my conversion rate has climbed over 2%. Sales this week more than doubled LY and blew my plan away again. I wasn’t expecting this rate of sales until after Thanksgiving. I’m having a little trouble keeping up. I think I’m pretty well positioned for these next four make-or-break weeks, even though the benchmark numbers are intimidating. If I skip a blog entry or two, you’ll know why.


The mighty DayClock was one of Curio City’s earliest bestsellers. I’ve sold nearly 200 of them – very good for a $40 item. Other products have surpassed it, but the DayClock always remained a steady performer and one of my favorite products.

Then it died out. I eventually discovered that the manufacturer was advertising them at a discount price in wholesale magazines. New competitors sprang up, all of them offering either free shipping or discount pricing. The few clocks that I had left at the original price threatened to last forever. Well, I’m not going to sell them at a short markup. I’ll wait for these flash-in-the-pan competitors to move on to something else, and then go back to my nice plodding pace with these. But meanwhile, I was still paying as much as $1 per day for clicks on DayClock ads. So I shut down my ads until such time as sales come back.

The very next day I sold one. The day after that, I sold two more. Now I’m on the verge of reordering (they have another, lesser pricing special going this month). And I’m leaving my ads turned off for now, since I apparently don't need them!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Anatomy of a Sale

Business is booming as the make-or-break weeks draw closer. Visits peaked at 270 yesterday. This week has already demolished LY and will almost certainly exceed plan – something I thought was impossible.

My Google Adwords spend has topped a dizzying $15 per day. I’m gradually cutting my per-click bids on my highest-volume keywords and suspending ads for some products entirely. For example, over the product’s lifetime I’ve spent $175 to sell just three record purses. The DayClocks manufacturer cut their wholesale price last summer and didn’t tell me about it, so my competitors are now all underpricing me; I have spent $165 to sell only four DayClocks in the past six months. Some products have been priced out of the advertising market entirely. After a small surge in sales motivated me to beef up my pursehooks selection, I discovered that Google now wants a ridiculous 75 cents per click to advertise them (I had been paying 21 cents). Now I can only hope for organic Google search traffic, plus the few comparatively cheap, low-quality visits I get from Yahoo. How in the world can anyone afford to pay 75 cents per click for a $22 item? Maybe bulk sellers are bidding the rate beyond what retailers can pay.


Ever wonder what happens when somebody places a Curio City order? Of course you didn’t. But that’s today’s topic anyway.

  1. MS Outlook’s email chime signals an order notification (two emails if the sale was paid for with a credit/debit card or Paypal, one if by Google Checkout.)

  1. I crack open the email from my shopping cart to see what I sold. These moments are among my favorites. Will it be a $4 PicoPad, or a $90 globe? (It is usually one or more $20 caps).

  1. I log in to the Admin side of my shopping cart, open the transactions page, and print out the packing list. For some reason my Admin session expires after five minutes of inactivity, and I’m powerless to change that, so I have to log into Admin at least a dozen times every day.

  1. I update my Inventory.xls spreadsheet. This is a tool that I created to keep track of my merchandise flow at every stage from product research through sales. I’d be lost without this database.

  1. I update my Accounting.xls spreadsheet, another invaluable planning and reporting tool that I’ve been using since the day Curio City opened. This is my second-favorite part of getting a new sale. Not only is this spreadsheet rich in statistics, but it also updates my budget numbers for half a dozen variable line items – including my favorite, payroll. I can see my next paycheck grow with each sale that I record. I like that.

  1. I record the sale in Quickbooks. I open the email from Authorize.net to see what kind of credit card was used, because Amex is handled differently from Visa/MC. If it was a PayPal sale, I visit my PayPal account to find the transaction fee, and then record the payment in Quickbooks. (This could be automated if I were smarter, or had serious dev support; Sunshop does contain a rudimentary QB export function.)

  1. I fold the packing list in half to indicate that the order was processed and is ready for fulfillment, and add it to what I hope is a steadily growing pile next to my computer.

  1. If I sold out of something, I log into Admin again and change the product page – either to take it off display, or to add an out-of-stock notification option.

  1. At some point before the 2 pm cutoff for the day’s shipments, I take the accumulated orders downstairs, root through my stacks of boxes, and pack and weigh each order. This generally doesn’t take more than 5 minutes per order. I mark the weights and box sizes on the packing slips and take them back upstairs again. (This is a function I’ll eventually need to farm out or delegate to an employee).

  1. The most complicated and time-consuming step is actually creating and printing out postage labels for the boxed orders. I use the PayPal shipping interface to print out labels for my PayPal orders. I use UPS’s website to prepare any UPS shipments. I use the USPS Click-n-Ship website for Priority Mail orders. And I use my Endicia program for First Class and Parcel Post orders. Each order takes a few minutes. International sales take as much as 20-30 minutes (you can see why I hate them). As each label comes off the printer, I log into Admin again and change my transactions from “Pending” to “Awaiting Shipment.” Update my accounting spreadsheet with postage expenses. (This is another function that will eventually be outsourced, automated, or delegated; for now, I do it all manually).

  1. Take the labels and packing lists back down the cellar, match them with the boxes, seal them up and apply the labels. This is my most error-prone step. Three times I’ve had to straighten out mis-shipments. Once, I never got my mis-shipped merchandise back, and had to write off $65 worth of merchandise.

  1. Haul the boxes upstairs. Check my email once more for any last-minute orders. If any orders came in, I decide whether to include them in today’s shipments or start making tomorrow’s pile. I determine this by the lateness of the hour, the complexity of the order, and my own whim.

  1. Drive the boxes to the post office (and the UPS Store when necessary).

  1. Come home, log back in to Admin, and mark the orders Shipped.

  1. Ta-daaa!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Here We Go Again

This is it. My third Christmas. Curio City should collect literally half of its annual income in the next seven weeks. Half of November’s business will come during Thanksgiving week alone. LY’s sales numbers are formidable and plan looks insurmountable. Every day during this period needs to pull the weight of five non-Christmas days.

It’s too late now to affect the results very much. All I can do is strap myself in and manage the wild (I hope) ride. I pulled out all the stops this week, taking my open-to-buy back into deep red ink, raising the spending limits on my ad campaigns, and increasing many keyword bids. Traffic obligingly rose from a post-move nadir of 121 visits to peak at 213 on Tuesday.

Wheeeee! How’s it going so far? It depends on what you expect.

If maintaining my YTD growth rate and reaching plan is the goal…not so well. I’d need to do an impressive amount of business to do that. The economic news keeps getting grimmer by the day. Expecting dramatic year-over-year increases is not at all realistic right now.

If matching LY’s results is a reasonable goal, then things are going better. I might squeak that out this week. Then the targets for the next two weeks get a little bit easier.

My wife still intends to send out the product-announcement email that I created for newspaper gift guides. If she does that, there’s a slim chance that one of the 50-or-so recipients will give me a little ink. Even one small media mention would be a huge deal…assuming that I can get stock. Two of my new vendors are having trouble filling orders.

Reasons to hate Yahoo: A Yahoo muckety-muck sent out an email reassuring advertisers about Yahoo’s strengths in light of their collapsed agreement with Google. She does not explain, for us in the peanut gallery, exactly what that agreement was – a merger, I suppose. But messages of reassurance from on high almost invariably mean that a company’s circling the drain. Lo and behold, the minimum bids on another 25-30 keywords rose last week to ridiculous heights. I deleted most of them. It looks like they’re milking the biggest players for all they’re worth, and everyone else can go hang -- who the hell can make any money while paying 75 or 90 cents a click? I still regard 30 cents as an absolute ceiling, and anything over 25 cents is a hard sell. And yet, rather than fold my Yahoo tent once and for all, I instead increased my daily spending limit (see “pulled out all the stops” above) and nudged up a few bids. If I’m going to hit my numbers, I need every click I can get. Even the expensive ones.

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