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.
Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, May 30, 2008

Where Are Y'All From?

Where Are You People?

Courtesy of Google Analytics, here’s where 14,257 people came from so far this year.

  • Search engines: 71.5%
    • Google pay-per-click: 30%
    • Yahoo (both PPC and organic): 18.5%
    • Google organic: 14.5%
    • MSN organic 4.5%
  • Referring sites (links): 21%
    • search.ebay.com
    • rs6.net (say what?)
    • turnkeywebtools.com (Sunshop’s tech board)
    • clothing.listings.ebay.com (say what?)
    • radgames.com (the Monopoly Super Add-On)
    • dogpile.com (say what?)
    • octopus overlords.com (now defunct, once my favorite haunt)
    • airandaqua.com (a reciprocal link)
    • amazon.com (say what?)
    • zombiegames.com (obviously for Zombie Fluxx)
  • Direct traffic: 7%

I need to take yet another hard look at the PPC campaigns that drive between a third and a half of my business. Sales are up nicely this year, but so are advertising costs. (See the end of this post).

My blog doesn’t show up until #15. My “new” message boards, Gaming Trend and Popehat, are #27 and #44. But I’ve only been posting there since OO died, so they will probably rise.

Purely for trivia’s sake…my best day so far this year was May 6, with 153 visitors. The low point was March 29, with only 60.

Once a month, I upload a file to Google Base (formerly Froogle). Their online report shows a lot of clicks on various items, but I don’t know where one finds Google Base listings or how those visits are aggregated into the numbers I gave above. Google Base doesn’t cost anything, so I take it on faith that it’s making some mysterious contribution.

This post was inspired by the question of where, geographically, my customers are located. How this question arose shall remain secret for now. I had a hunch that certain cities in New Mexico, Colorado, and California were delivering a disproportionate amount of business. So I went at my database from several different directions.

First I looked at all of my 1,525 customer accounts. No single zip code is home to more than three account holders. The most popular zip codes are:

  • 95648 Lincoln CA (3 users)
  • 95401 Santa Rosa CA (3 users)
  • 90266 Manhattan CA (3)
  • 78664 Round Rock TX (3)
  • 62249 Highland IL (3)
  • 60187 Wheaton IL (3)
  • 60068 Park Ridge IL (3)
  • 49503 Grand Rapids MI (3, including family and friends)
  • 48439 Grand Blanc MI (3)
  • 33496 Boca Raton FL (3)
  • 22124 Oakton VA (3)
  • 22003 Annandale VA (3)

Then I looked at shipments. In terms of the number of boxes sent, the most popular zip codes were:

  • Grand Rapids, MI (8, includes family and friends)
  • Boca Raton, FL (6)
  • Grand Blanc, MI (5)
  • Lincoln, CA (5)
  • Abingdon, MD (5)
  • Burlington, VT (5)

It would’ve been interesting to run a comparison based on dollars, rather than account holders and shipments. But even my patience for number-crunching is finite. Combining those two zip code lists yields these top five:

  1. 49503 Grand Rapids, MI
  2. 33496 Boca Raton, FL
  3. 95648 Lincoln, CA
  4. 48439 Grand Blanc, MI
  5. 22003 Annandale, VA

Because most cities have many zip codes, I also looked at city names. Here are the top 10 cities for Curio City accounts:

  • Chicago, IL (15)
  • New York, NY (12)
  • Brooklyn, NY (10)
  • Dallas, TX (9)
  • Silver Spring, MD (8)
  • Grand Rapids, MI (8)
  • Los Angeles, CA (8)
  • Wash DC (8)
  • Portland, OR (8)
  • Houston, TX (8)

If I had the knowledge and patience to combine suburbs and exurbs with their parent cities, the list would change. But no matter how you slice it, my hunch about New Mexico, Colorado, and California did not pan out. Are you disappointed that your community didn't make this list? Don't despair! Just place a few orders, and get your neighbors to do the same. ;)

***************

More reason to hate Yahoo: After receiving another email about keywords going inactive, I deleted 10 of the 12 affected phrases...all of them from campaigns that I deleted ages ago anyway. WTF? Thanks, Yahoo! A few days later I got a report of 30 more words whose minimum bids now exceed my offer. I deleted half of them, raised the ones that only rose by a few cents, and let a couple go idle (in case the minimum drifts back down someday). From May 1-22 I paid $87.74 for 718 clicks that yielded a whopping four conversions. Yes, four. My Yahoo results went downhill dramatically after their last upgrade/stealth price hike. I really ought to shut it down completely, at least until Microsoft buys them. Nobody in their right mind would pay 40-50 cents per click for these keywords. They must be deliberately trying to make small advertisers drop out.

More reason to hate Google: Google Checkout is still undercharging for UPS shipping two full weeks after they acknowledged the bug that I reported. I have now lost at least $25 to shipping undercharges, versus the $9 that they have saved me in payment processing fees. Every single GC customer is choosing UPS. That makes me suspect that the old parcel post bug returned to GC after the USPS rate hike (just as it did in Sunshop). I can’t generate GC test transactions without setting up a complicated way around their prohibition on selling things to myself. And why am I the only merchant in America doing QA for Google, anyway? GC is supposed to be saving me money. Instead it’s costing me money, time, and aggravation. Get it together, Google.

Finally, the monthly sales wrapup: May was phenomenal. I credit the economic stimulus checks that everybody’s receiving. Sales more than doubled LY, and I blew my plan out of the water. YTD total income is up 97.8% over LY. Gross profit is up 105.7%. Payroll (that’s me!) is up 93%. The bottom line profit is up 388.4%! As always, I must remind you that the actual dollars involved remain small. But I could not ask for a better trend. My chronic open-to-buy hole is down to three figures again; I can reorder some lighted caps before they run out. My buying strategy for the rest of this year is to replenish stock when absolutely necessary, and bring in new merchandise only when I can do it without deepening the OTB hole. I hope to claw my way back up to zero in time for the Christmas season.

June will be a lot more challenging.

Coming Attractions:

  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • The Zombie Store
  • Legal Extortion

Friday, May 23, 2008

Welcome to MyFace

Marketing gurus say that a business should be on MySpace and/or Facebook. But none of them tell you what you’re supposed to do there. Make ads? Just hang out and try to make “friends”? Visit other people’s pages and pimp products? Do you create a page for the business, or for yourself, or both? Why would anybody care? I really have no clue.

Which site is more important? As I understand it, MySpace is for children and Facebook is for networking yuppies. Both of those impressions are probably entirely wrong, but since they’re interchangeable in my mind, I’m just going to use “MyFace” to mean both of them.

Almost a year ago I created a page at something called Squidoo. Google Analytics says that it has sent me two visitors. Neither one bought anything. I have a feeling that MyFace would go about the same way. I’m not at all sociable. I don’t even use IM.

Message boards, OTOH, have been a great source of traffic for me. The Turnkey Web Tools tech support forum is my #8 referrer. Before it went indefinitely offline, my erstwhile favorite hangout, Octopus Overlords (at this writing, it's still down after nearly two months), ranked just below this blog as a source of traffic. As long as I have my URLs in my signature, every message board that I visit sends me at least a few clicks – 115 visits altogether in April. The prodigious amount of time that I “waste” posting on message boards is more productive than it might appear.

Would MyFace turn out the same way? I imagine that you have to pour a lot of time into these networking sites to get any results at all. You might even have to interact with (shudder) actual humans. Still, I do have the time to pour. I only need to know what my objective is supposed to be. If you know how businesses typically represent themselves on MyFace – what I should create and how I should spend my time – please leave a comment, or contact me through my site's Contact page.

********************

Speaking of time…Memorial Day ushers in my “summer hours”. That mostly means that I ship orders within 48 hours rather than 24, cutting my parcel runs in half. With business at its low ebb, Curio City goes into maintenance mode and personal chores come forward. I need to plant the veggie garden, deal with some minor car problems, paint our new back porch, re-mount my weather station sensors, do a little simple landscaping, install a rain barrel, hire a carpenter to fix the squirrel hole, etc. – there’s always something. The freedom to tend to one’s personal chores is one of the great benefits of being self-employed. I won’t make any progress toward my macro goals, it’s true, but I’m not making much progress there anyway. I’m sick of banging my head against the same old intractable obstacles.

Business sucked last week, btw, although not quite as badly as expected. Traffic and paid clicks both remain robust. People appear to be shopping, but not buying.

Coming Attractions:

  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • The Zombie Store
  • Where Traffic Comes From
  • Legal Extortion

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 2)

After spending hours deconstructing my categories one-by-one, I ended up with one of the most mind-numbingly boring posts ever written. Still, the work will prove useful if I really do restructure my store one day. So here you go. If it’s still not a riveting post, at least it’s mercifully short. Compared to the first draft, I mean.

If you just plain don’t care, skip to the end of this post for a couple of new entries in the ever-popular “reasons to hate” series. I won't be offended.

New Products, Specials, and Bestsellers are no-brainers. They’re built right into Sunshop, and everybody expects them. Those all stay.

Games, Toys, & Puzzles has always underperformed expectations. Games that are genuinely fun and well-produced become popular and get wide distribution, which takes them off Curio City’s radar – why would I sell something you can find at Kay-Bee Toys? The more obscure games have cheesy production values and/or lousy markups. A few products like Fluxx hit that sweet spot of being great games with good production and poor distribution. Such games keep the category alive.

Kites & Other Outdoor Toys just ought to be Kites. I sell just enough bird kites to justify the category, and it's only one or two new products away from awesomeness. They’d do better if they were more visible.

Gadgets & Gizmos is my most popular category and the heart of my original Curio City concept (before I learned that the evil ThinkGeek already owns that niche). I would like to strengthen it.

Timekeeping is also very strong, thanks to two of my inaugural products: DayClocks and the Stonehenge Watch. The Bicycle Parts Clocks subcategory only exists to provide a targeted landing page for PPC ads and improve my search engine results. There is no rational reason to separate them out. I should give DayClocks a landing page, too, purely for SEO.

Living Spaces was always an awkward, nearly meaningless catch-all. Sweep it away! Night lights have sold well thanks to two things: the Lava Lamp nightlight (another of my original products) and the entire Switchables line. I’d probably make Nightlights a top-level category, and give Switchables its own landing page.

Incidentally, while researching this paragraph I discovered that none of my Switchables appear in Google’s first 20 pages, even though the basic fixture is my #5 all-time bestseller! That’s horrible. My product titles and descriptions consistently used “Switchable” (singular). So I changed all references to the plural. SEO comes down to details like that. Such a silly simple thing should improve my placement a few weeks or months from now. (Another SEO footnote: people search for “nightlight” and “night light” just about equally. “Nite light”, “Night lite”, and even “nitelite” come up occasionally. I therefore use both “nightlight” and “night light” on my product pages, even though the inconsistency offends my sense of style.)

Bed & Bathroom currently holds only the Big Schnozz line and the Periodic Table Shower Curtain. I think I still need this category, even if the name is generic. Living Spaces is another nonsensical name. I could rename it “For the Home” and make it a catch-all, or I could obliterate it and distribute its products elsewhere. Not sure what to do there yet.

The Art of Sybil Shane is a relic of my wife's push to carry "nice things". Fine arts didn’t work out so well and are on the way out. Bzzt! Sorry, Sybil. Sorry, Anne.

I like the idea of pet products, but I haven’t found enough unusual items to support it. I thought that the dog Frisbee would be a sure thing. It wasn’t. I can't even sell them at a deep discount. The AntWorks did OK at first, then died. Maybe being buried under a non-label like “Living Spaces” killed this category. I’d like to elevate it, and see what happens...but I’d need more product to justify that.

Kitchen & Grill is very difficult. Although there are gadgets aplenty, price competition is fierce. The Microwave Popcorn Bowl was one of my inaugural products, and one about which I felt strongly. But there are competing products for less money, and the wholesale pricing is just awful. Last spring I got briefly enthused about high-tech grilling accessories, like a solar-powered LED grill light and a remote temperature sensor, until I discovered just how competitive that market is. Home Depot and Target can have it. I still want to keep this category, even if I lack a good rational reason for it.

Vinylux is only there as a landing page. After multiple requests finally got me a link directly from the company’s website to my subcategory page, I’m sure not going to change it now.

Office & Workspace should be among my stronger categories. Except for the Mini-briefcase (another very early product) how do business card holders fit the Curio City concept? Right now I’m down to 10 mini-briefcases left, with no replacement waiting in the wings, so this subcategory is going to die soon unless I luck into something new. Even ordinary business card holders have sold well, so I just need to bring in enough to keep a pulse in the category until I find another great one like the mini-briefcase.

Magnets belong in the “WTF was I thinking?” category. It took me a while to learn that people won’t pay for shipping on small, cheap items. I think I would need to stock hundreds of designs to make them a viable impulse item, and their Curio City connection is weak anyway. Mark ‘em down and get ‘em out.

Outdoors & Travel serves only as an umbrella for its subcats. For Beach or Poolside is just a handful of beach towels. They have sold slowly, but reliably, and the markup is good. Main problem here is that my supplier is erratic. I haven’t decided whether to expand it or kill it. For the Garden fills a personal interest, so it lives. It would sell better if more prominent.

I thought golf-themed stuff would do very well. It doesn’t, except for the golf balls. For Travelers started because my wife was looking for a particular Travelon jewelry case that she couldn’t find. I sold those out fairly quickly, then couldn’t get more. I just don’t like this company for various reasons. I know that I have an audience for Travel, but I lack sufficiently unusual products.

After Hours helps define Curio City as an adult-oriented store. You would think that wine accessories would sell well, but the marketplace is flooded with products, few of which are clever enough to fit the Curio City concept. The category lives on more for its promise than for its performance. Smoking accessories have a more interesting history. In one very early concept, Curio City was going to be a mainstream head shop. Most of the stores that sell paraphernalia are pretty seedy looking, so there was (is) a niche for a more respectable seller. My first sale was a stash jar for a cancer patient’s medical marijuana. Tobacco is so discredited now, and smokers are such pariahs, that few stores court them anymore. I can buy some smoking keywords for as little as two cents per click. So this category stays. In fact, I need to reorder my bestselling cigarette cases and commit to remaining in stock on them.

I’ve struggled with Jewelry ever since supply problems killed off Typewriter Key jewelry. That was a perfect Curio City product – quirky, very individual, artsy, and recycled. Jewelers who will dropship enable me to offer a wide assortment without owning any inventory. I won’t repeat what I said in the Comments section of this post about my current jewelry lines. Suffice it to say that I am still actively trying to develop a new line that fits my store’s theme.

I created Apparel & Fashion specifically for lighted caps, because calling them “gadgets” is a stretch. This category lives on that strength alone. I’d like to expand it, eventually.

Seasonal is a weak name, but necessary as a catchall for holiday-themed items. I’d like to elevate each individual holiday collection to a top-level category and activate it only at the appropriate time, but that is a SEO no-no – if I want those theme pages to be indexed by the search engines, they have to be permanently active. And given the prohibitive cost of buying holiday keywords, I do need whatever organic ranking I can get. Do you have any idea what it costs to get on the first page with popular phrases like “Mothers Day gift”?

I don’t know if The Mayor’s Choice has ever convinced anybody to buy a product. It does support my Mayor character gimmick, and it has probably drawn attention to products that shoppers might not have noticed otherwise. There is no reason to kill it off.

Giftwrap and Greeting Cards might be two ideas whose time has passed. I planned Curio City as a one-stop gift shop. Customers would have their purchases giftwrapped, add a personalized card, and ship directly to the recipient. It still sounds like a reasonable concept, but it never worked out that way. In 2007 I sold all of $67.50 worth of giftwrapping, down from $103.50 in 2006. It’s a trivial amount of money, and it imposes extra work during my busiest season (virtually all giftwrap jobs are for Christmas sales). Due to poor software design, adding giftwrap options to new products is more time-consuming than it has any reason to be. More important, you can’t add products that have options to your shopping cart from the category page – you have to enter the product page to take the default “No giftwrapping”. That imposes an extra click to buy most of my merchandise. In favor of giftwrap: I still have about half of my initial giftwrap purchase left. The occasional giftwrap sale is pure profit. And the very few people who do take advantage of the service must appreciate it. So my executive decision is to keep this category alive until I sell out of one or more paper styles, and then end it.

Cards are a much easier decision. They hardly sell at all. This is another category, like magnets, that would require a much, much larger selection to become viable. I’m going to mark them down and get rid of the category when most of them are gone.

So that’s how I’d dispose of my existing structure. Now what about adding new categories, or shaking up the existing ones?

I keep flirting with ceramic tiles. There’s one vendor that I see at the Cavalcade of Crap every year whose stuff I really like. I’m sure it would sell steadily, if unspectacularly. What holds me back is a weak fit with the Curio City concept, especially since I more or less ruled out carrying art objects. There’s nothing particularly unusual or clever about them. And so the vendor’s catalog never moves from my to-do pile. I could bring in a few to test, but do they merit a category?

Sex is the one vice that’s noticeably absent from After Hours. A line of (tasteful) “marital aids” could add a little fun and edginess to Curio City. But I’m an old married man. It’s outside of my experience since perversion went mainstream and porn became ubiquitous. I don’t have any suppliers or merchandise in mind for it. It’s just a theoretically good idea, if I ever blunder into the right merchandise.

Americans are being told that we can consume our way to a better planet. Why not capitalize on greenwashing with a new Recycled Products category? I already sell a few recycled items like Vinylux and the Bicycle Parts stuff. All I’d have to do is move them to a new category. I already explained why moving Vinylux is problematic, though – I don’t want to break the link that took me so much nagging to get.

Party Supplies are another small After Hours subcategory that will need a new home if I kill off their parent category.

NEW STRUCTURE, assuming I can get my subcat flyouts. (I hope the formatting survives Blogger’s lousy interface).

  • New Products
  • Specials
  • Bestsellers
  • Gadgets & Gizmos
  • Games & Toys
    • Kites
    • Card Games?
    • Board Games?
    • Toys?
  • Clocks & Watches
    • Bicycle Clocks
    • Day Clocks
  • Night Lights
    • Switchables
  • Bed & Bathroom
    • Big Schnozz - New landing page
  • Pets & Animals (?) – Needs more products
  • Kitchen & Grill (?) – Needs more products
    • Vinylux
  • Ceramic Tiles (?) – Possible new category.
  • Office & Workspace – no content of its own
    • Business Card Holders – Needs more products
    • Desk Toys (other than globes).
    • Levitating Globes
    • Magnets (just until they sell out, then kill it)
  • Beach & Poolside (either beef them up or get rid of them)
  • Gardening
  • Sports
    • Golf
    • Baseball
    • Other sports (I don’t have enough football, soccer, etc to make this any more granular)
  • Travel – Needs more products.
  • Beer, Wine, & Spirits
  • Party Supplies
  • Smoking
  • Jewelry
  • Apparel & Fashion
  • Seasonal
    • Valentines Day Ideas
    • St Patrick’s Day Ideas
    • Mother’s Day Ideas
    • Father’s Day Ideas
    • Summer Items
    • Fall (or Back to School)
    • Winter Holiday Suggestions
  • The Mayor’s Choice
  • Giftwrap Choices (might discontinue)
  • Cards (to be discontinued)

NEW STRUCTURE, if I raise everything to the top category level. Subcategories exist solely as landing pages for SEO.

  • New Products
  • Specials
  • Bestsellers
  • Gadgets & Gizmos
  • Kites
  • Games
  • Toys
  • Clocks & Watches
    • Bicycle Clocks
    • Day Clocks
  • Night Lights
    • Switchables
  • Bed & Bathroom
    • Big Schnozz - New landing page
  • Pets & Animals (?) – Needs more products
  • Kitchen & Grill (?) – Needs more products
    • Vinylux
  • Ceramic Tiles (?) – Possible new category.
  • Business Card Holders – Needs more products
  • Desk Toys (other than globes).
  • Levitating Globes
  • Magnets (just until they sell out, then kill it)
  • Beach & Poolside (either beef them up or get rid of them)
  • Gardening
  • Sports
    • Golf Balls
  • Travel – Find more products, or eliminate
  • Beer, Wine, & Spirits
  • Party Supplies
  • Smoking
  • Jewelry
  • Apparel & Fashion
  • Seasonal
    • Valentines Day Ideas
    • St Patrick’s Day Ideas
    • Mother’s Day Ideas
    • Father’s Day Ideas
    • Summer Items
    • Fall (or Back to School)
    • Winter Holiday Suggestions
  • The Mayor’s Choice
  • Giftwrap Choices (possibly to be discontinued)
  • Cards (to be discontinued)


If you plowed your way through all of that, I would like to hear your thoughts. Are either of these proposed structures enough of an improvement to justify the considerable work involved, and the loss of my existing page ranks?


A reason to hate Sunshop:

On April 28, I posted a message asking Turnkey if we were going to need a new USPS module for the May 12 rate increase. On May 2, I asked again, and was told that they were looking into it. On May 8 I asked again. On May 12, Turnkey explained that they had just gotten new specs from USPS; these had probably been published well in advance, but they were too busy to check. They would have a new USPS module for us the next night. Today is May 16, and we are still waiting. International shipping is broken (yay!), and I suspect that faulty USPS lookups contributed to this week’s weak sales results (although I’d expected a slow week anyway).

A reason to hate Google:

I’ve had enough experience with Google Checkout to notice a trend of undercharging customers for UPS shipping. I ordinarily do very little business with UPS because their rates are so high, but most of my GC customers choose UPS. After a customer was undercharged more than $10 for next-day air delivery, I analyzed the problem. Sunshop is looking the rates up correctly, but GC appears to be omitting the fuel adjustment and residential delivery surcharges (which are substantial). This more than offsets the free transaction processing that’s GC’s main benefit. When I reported this to Google, they tried to blame Turnkey. Turnkey correctly washed their hands of this one, so I went back to Google again. This time they referred it to engineering and discovered that, gosh, there is a bug in their UPS lookups. To their credit, they thanked me for my report and assured me that they’re fixing it. Did I ever mention that I also found and reported the parcel post lookup bug to Google a number of weeks ago? Getting them to acknowledge that one took considerably more work. How in the hell am I the only retailer in America that noticed this??? Google ought to be paying me for QA.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Curio City Online...Not!

I’m postponing Part 2 of “Rearranging the Deck Chairs” until next week. I know that you’re crushed. Try to cope. I have three reasons:

Reason the first: Just as Mother’s Day crested on Wednesday at 153 visitors – the busiest day of 2008, so far -- our home DSL connection went down. Ordinarily when that happens I just reboot the router, reboot the modem, wriggle the cable between them, and the world goes on. Not this time. After a couple of fruitless hours of resetting and reinitializing and reconfiguring, I gave up and used the town library’s internet access to verify that our Earthlink account was functional (EL has cut us off without warning in the past due to credit card expiration) and look up the local dialup access numbers. I came home and got dialup working so that I could process and ship a couple of rush orders. Then I lost the better part of two days alternating between damage control and working with Earthlink’s tech support. Their verdict: it’s Verizon’s fault. Suddenly our telephone line could no longer handle DSL.

This morning I moved the internet hardware from my wife’s overstuffed, electronics-infested office to our comparatively uncluttered bedroom. When I plugged it in a beam of sunlight stabbed through the clouds and illuminated the modem. I heard a choir of angels. Yes! The indicator lights were flickering normally again. Wireless DSL was restored. Did Verizon complete their service call so soon? Was it something they fixed centrally? Or did the problem simply go away as mysteriously as it came? I don’t know and I don’t care.

I can’t think of anything that has changed our lives as much and as quickly as high-speed Internet access did (personal computers probably had a greater effect, but they took a lot longer to become indispensable). My wife works at home four days per week and has to be accessible via IM the entire time. My website is hosted offsite, of course, but I still need constant access to it throughout the day, every day – and especially so when a holiday like Mother’s Day draws near. When we were suddenly forced to share a dialup connection, we were paralyzed. Anne, who doesn’t drink coffee, spent an entire day at a coffee shop.

Reason the second: Mentally reorganizing something that’s existed for nearly three years is hard. It’s not going very well. The new structure will either look a lot like the old one because that’s just how my mind works…or it will look very different specifically because I am consciously determined that it should be different. This is another instance when having coworkers would be helpful. I could use a perspective other than my own.

Reason the third: Since I can’t properly implement the changes that I’m doping out (see last week’s post about subcategory flyout menus), I'm not motivated to finish it. If there’s one thing I’m skilled at, it’s avoiding pointless work.

Speaking of technical malfunctions…on Monday new USPS rates will take effect. A week ago I asked Turnkey if Sunshop’s USPS module will be compliant with the new rates, or if we'll need to make a modification. They didn’t answer. I asked again. They said they were looking into it. Yesterday I asked again. Still no answer as of this morning. Although I hope that the existing module will simply keep working, I fear that USPS shipping will be screwed up on Monday morning. I asked Eric for possible emergency support if Turnkey scrambles an after-the-fact fix. The only other thing I can do is have fixed-rate shipping ready to go. Lots of stores use shipping tables anyway because realtime lookups are so complex. Many merchants believe that customers prefer fixed rates. I disagree.

The Sales Report

Curio City is on track to demolish last May. I should have no trouble doubling LY’s anemic sales. Maybe those government stimulus checks are turning this into one very nice month. My chronic open-to-buy deficit is down to three digits – good news, as I’ll need to place some reorders pretty soon. And although it still works out to only $2.50 per hour, my next paycheck will be the biggest I’ve had since the end of March, reflecting a solid two-week span.

I have decided to refrain from talking about sales figures in every week’s post. While my company is this small, the weekly numbers can be very volatile – one or two large sales make a huge difference. And it’s my nature to overreact to trends that often prove to be ephemeral; you might have noticed wide swings between doom and hope from one week to the next. Henceforth I’ll limit myself to monthly sales recaps, unless something particularly interesting deserves comment.

Upcoming Posts:

  • Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 2)
  • Social Networking Sites
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • The Zombie Store
  • Where Traffic Comes From
  • Legal Extortion

Friday, May 02, 2008

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 1)


One Curious Business reader mentioned that
Curio City’s organizational structure is hard to understand. Here’s how the departments came about:

Very early on, with only the foggiest ideas of who my customers would be, what would sell, and what direction I wanted to take, I had to decide what Curio City would carry. I defined a few broad categories, added a couple more for flexibility, and then commissioned a front-page city graphic (below) that showed one building per category. As an ex-game developer, I wanted to target gamers with a front page that looked like a computer game.



Each building was fictionally a “store” (department). Each store was going to have unique internal graphics. The main city image was supposed to have little flash animations and other graphical flourishes to make it look lively. The featured product boxes at the top of the page would display merchandise from whichever category (building) your mouse hovered over.

It was cool. It was clever. And it was beyond my reach. The boring, static image that resulted was more confusing than amusing. I reluctantly shelved the concept when the Sunshop 4.0 upgrade forced my hand, and now my departmental structure is a relic. Changing that isn’t trivial.

I want to implement subcategory flyouts. As you mouse over the category list in the navigation bar (navbar), the category description would attach to your pointer as bubble help. When you click on a category, its subcategories would appear as either a flyout or a dropdown menu. Since everything would be readily visible, I’d just need to rename and reorganize existing categories and shuffle a few products around. None of my product URLs would change, so my search engine page ranks (such as they are) would be unaffected. This is hardly a cutting edge idea. The drawback, of course, is the old familiar lament: No developer support. One company will do it for an hourly rate that’s almost triple what Eric has been charging me. I don’t think that’s a very good use of my limited money.

(In response to some Support board requests, another Sunshop developer already wrote code to implement subcategory flyouts. If I were a little bit smarter, I could almost implement this myself. I just need somebody to integrate or adapt the provided code, troubleshoot it, and prettify it to match the rest of my site).

If I don’t break down and spend triple their value to implement the flyouts, then the quick-and-dirty remedy would be promoting all of my subcategories to the main category level. Everything is in plain sight on the navbar, and I don’t need anyone’s help to do it. There are two huge disadvantages to doing that:

  • If every subcategory makes the cut, my navbar will grow from 17 buttons to approximately 44. That’s going to be one ugly navbar.
  • Most of my product URLs would change, ruining their search engine rankings and making me revise hundreds of pay-per-click ads.

And so, as usual, I prefer to do nothing except complain. Superficially, it's just a cosmetic issue. Fixing my store's structure might improve my conversion rate a little bit, or raise the value of my average sale…but -- perhaps more important -- it would also loosen the shackles that my old categories impose upon my own mind. There is always value in thinking outside the old bounds.

Incidentally, the developer who turned me down last week suggested that an ad on a particular website might be fruitful. Yesterday I discovered that it would cost me $100 just to run this little classified ad. Ouch. Will I suck it up and pay the price? There must be someplace where one can find qualified developers for free (or cheaply). Maybe I will even resort to (yuck) Craigslist. Craigslist always feels like slumming. Nothing good ever comes of Craigslist.

Next week’s post will get into the nitty-gritty of actually reorganizing my store. What categories would I have if I were starting over today?

***************

Daily visits unexpectedly spiked to 149 last Monday, then drifted back down throughout the rest of the week. I don’t know why. Sales were anemic – it looks like I’m just about going to match LY, and miss my sales plan. Last May was a dismal month, and I’m not very optimistic about it this year. My bread-and-butter Panther Vision caps are going nowhere. The competitors who are underselling me all have poor selections, high minimum quantities, or predatory shipping charges. My Google search result for “Panther Vision” moved up from page 7 to page 5, so my organic rank is slowly sucking less. My PPC ad positions keep slipping as keyword bids keep rising, but most of the ads are still on page one. I think demand has simply stalled. (shrug) Blame the recession. On the bright side, most of my vendors are rolling out special offers as they feel the pinch, too. On the dark side, I can’t take advantage of these offers unless I’m selling products and generating cash.

Here are the numbers for this fiscal April vs. LY:

  • Total income: +24.2%
  • Gross profit: +30.5%
  • Advertising: +115.6%
  • Payroll: +76.1%
  • Net income: -58.3%

The increases in advertising and payroll were just flukes of the calendar – and as long as I'm the only employee, I don’t mind seeing payroll rise anyway. The month still finished slightly in the black. Looking back over this reminds me yet again that one or two exceptionally good sales can turn a poor month into a decent month literally overnight.

Fun tidbit: Although YTD gross sales are up 83%, shipping fee collections are only up 55%. I’ve been reducing product weights to better match reality (which is much more difficult to get right than you would think) and I cut my invisible handling fee from 85 cents per order to 65 cents. If I can afford to, I’ll shave that by another dime or so after the May 12 postage increase.


Upcoming Posts:

  • Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 2)
  • Social Networking Sites
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • The Zombie Store
  • Legal Extortion
  • Where Traffic Comes From

Google Search

Google