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, June 24, 2011

Where Were You When the Empire Fell?

That’s not a question you’re going to hear every day. The Great Decline is gradual and uneven. Many of us still can’t see it. Will our ultimate Fall be a singular event like the fall of the Berlin Wall? Was the destruction of the World Trade Center our equivalent to the Visigoth sack of Rome? Or will it go down slowly like a tire with a rim leak? This story won’t be written for decades yet.

I can’t date the beginning of the end that hasn’t arrived yet. Some would name Sept. 11, 2001. Some would blame the election of George W Bush for turning a peaceful nation with a budget surplus into a bankrupt country losing two wars. Some might start it as late as the Great Recession in 2007, while others reach back to Clinton’s bubble economy and the rise of globalization. Some will go back even further, to the revival of conservatism and the empowerment of religious fundamentalists under Reagan. Still others will blame outside influences, such as the rise of China or space aliens.


The end of manned spaceflight was my “aha!” moment. I had hoped that Obama would be a renaissance president after Bush’s dark age, so I was surprised when this milestone came during his watch. After one last shuttle flight in just a few weeks, American astronauts will depend upon our old rival Russia to maintain a presence on a space station that has no purpose and no future. While cut off from low earth orbit indefinitely, NASA is supposed to develop deep-space capability for an undefined mission with no timetable; it might bear fruit in the 2030s if Obama’s successor doesn’t overturn this non-program and restart the development clock yet again. Abandoning this key American capability made it clear to me how far we have fallen, and how unlikely it is to turn around. A comeback is difficult after the talent disperses and the infrastructure decays.


Have you had your epiphany yet? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. It’s hard to see until it suddenly snaps into focus one day. It’s like global warming: Theoretical until a moment of clarity makes it frightfully obvious. The Decline is not a one-way slide; short bursts of economic growth and military adventures will periodically divert our attention from the ruling class’s steady consolidation of wealth. (Don’t take the global warming analogy too far, btw: Climate change is a measurable and irreversible physical process, whereas nebulous and potentially reversible factors like politics, the economy, mass psychology, and sociology underlie the decline of empire.)


The decline of Western civilization is a little beyond the usual scope of my blog, so let’s take it down a level to economics.


Massive government intervention ended the recession for the rich. Huge deficits bought our current statistical recovery and keep it sputtering along. As both parties quibble over how to impose austerity befitting our declining circumstances, they condemn us to more economic contraction. It’s 1937 all over again. But Americans are ignorant of history, so what can you expect?


Heh. Do you get the impression that somebody’s not making his sales targets? Guilty. Sales this month are running 25% behind LY. Today’s meager paycheck – which I really couldn’t afford, but why else am I in business? – drove Curio City’s projected end-of-month checking balance down to (-$429). I have $379 in pending deposits against $1,233 in outstanding bills, with another $1,200 worth of orders that have been placed but not yet received. It’s looking grim as I prepare to shut down for a week’s vacation. 


Well, business can’t be an uninterrupted climb, can it? The year’s only half over; the top line’s probably a lost cause, but an unusually good xmas could still pull the bottom line out…and that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? This perpetually struggling economy makes me pessimistic, though. Curio City was founded in the halcyon days of 2005 on the assumption that Americans would always spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need. Who could have guessed that the party would end a scant two years later? Curio City is doomed unless consumers go back to instant material gratification. Would one more rhetorical question help?


It’s a small consolation that everybody else who isn’t upper class is circling the drain together.  


I had hoped that my speedier, more reliable web host might goose sales a little. So far, I don’t see it, but solving Mochahost’s chronic outages would have only a very long-term effect. Did downgrading from an interactive GoDaddy SSL seal to a static Comodo seal hurt my perceived security? Did my new IP address ruin my search engine rankings? Is the economy really sliding back into the crapper for everyone except the rich, as recent statistics indicate? Or are shoppers just on holiday for a few months?


You’d think that slow sales would reduce my cash demands, but I have to keep restocking the same few products. All of my money is going to Panther Vision, Jackite, Switchables, Cool Baseball Necklace, and golf ball reorders; struggling to stay on top of those bills freezes out everything else. It would be a great help if I could liberate some of the dollars locked up in merchandise that isn’t selling…but then it would be selling, wouldn’t it? Yesterday I marked down a couple dozen items by another buck or two; today I sold one and reclaimed $5. Well, at least it’s something.


On the bright side, June’s somniferous start gave me ample time to plant my vegetable garden. I’m going to have a bumper crop of tomatoes this year. Maybe I should sell those. At the $2.50/pound that Stop n Shop gets for inferior tomatoes, I could make thousands. 


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Holy Hell, do I ever hate Blogger's new post editor! It's riddled with bugs and much harder to use than the old one. I don't see any improvement from week to week and their last Help blog post on the subject is months old. I would move my blog if I weren't trailing five years of history and 250+ posts.

Just another symptom of the collapse of civilization. They're everywhere when you open your eyes! ;)

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Purge

Constant Contact’s price doubles when you reach 500 email addresses. My newsletter subscriber list recently passed 400 and was growing by 10-15 per month, while my open rate had dipped to around 20%. It was time to purge.



Email addresses are fragile. People change ISPs, or they lose their jobs, or they sign up for Yahoo and Gmail addresses that they never use. Permanence is rare. When we switched over to BELD.net this year Anne and I opted to pay Earthlink $3 per month to preserve the addresses we’ve had since 1987. But even those will die by the end of this year; we aren’t going to pay that $3 forever.

Constant Contact’s process for cleaning up one’s list is hidden – after all, bloated email lists are lucrative for them. I actually had to email their support department to find the online instructions. The process is pretty convoluted and the results don’t quite match the instructions. Without numbing you with too much detail: You duplicate your main mailing list, then remove everyone who has opened an email in the past 90 days (the past two issues, for me). The remaining “unconfirmed” addresses -- 286 in my case – get an opt-in newsletter. If they click the link therein, they go back on the list; if they don’t, they’re out. Forty-one of those 286 people opened the email and 22 of them clicked the link. In other words, 41 of the 286 addresses that I culled turned out to be valid and 22 were interested subscribers.

In the end I got rid of 245 garbage addresses. I won’t have to worry about hitting that 500-address price increase again for years now.

With the remaining 158 names known to be good, my newsletter open rate ought to approach 100%, right? You’d think so. But only 60 people looked at the Fathers Day free shipping coupon that I sent out this week. Two emails (both sent to friends…Joy, what happened to your hotmail address?) bounced as non-existent. Fathers Day is a poor benchmark because my average customer is too old to care, and my newsletter’s subject line (“3 Days Only: Free Shipping for Fathers Day”) wasn’t cute or clever. But a 38% open rate is disappointing after such a thorough cleanup. The issue did bring in one nice big sale, though, so there’s that.

Incidentally, a Constant Contact telephone support guy told me that what I did was very advanced stuff for their user base. Fewer than 1% of their customers ever try to purge their mailing lists. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find the instructions in their FAQ; the question isn’t asked frequently.
Anyway: If you didn’t get a newsletter this week, please use the Newsletter Signup box on the upper right side of this page to re-join my list.

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I just figured out how to add a Facebook “Like” button to the bottom of my website. I’ve been stuck at 120-123 fans for months now. Maybe this will get that growing again. Just this week I had my first customer answer “How did you find us?” with “Saw your Facebook page.”

I also figured out how to work around Blogger's broken image upload function by simply editing the HTML code. I posted a question on their Help blog last week and never got an answer. So I should be able to amuse you with pictures again.

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Mochahost finally closed my old account on Sunday, six days after I put in the order. No mention of a refund. But that’s OK: the $40 that they’re keeping will buy them a lot of bad publicity. I won’t hesitate to tell the world (via the Googlebot) that Mocha was the worst company I’ve encountered in almost six years in business.

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Overall Fathers Day sales were poor. The week ending 6/11 was pretty good at 122% of LY. But this week, which should have brought the big rush, is running a paltry 69% of LY. Last year’s numbers were inflated by one big sale of Mini Briefcases – not Fathers Day business at all. With a day and a half left, this week could still deliver the $500 that it’s short. But it ain’t likely.

I'll be back in two weeks with June's numbers, assuming nothing interesting happens before then.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Please Kill Me Now

The server was down when I tried to log into Mochahost to delete my files and request account closure last Monday. Disgusted, amused, and (above all) vindicated, I gave up trying to nuke the old Curio City and just burrowed down through their FAQs until I could find and file their account closure request form. Two days later I got a reply:

“Dear Client,

“We are sorry that you are not satisfied with our service.

“Please give us a chance to improve, and provide you with a better service.

“I am going to escalate this issue to one of our senior managers for further review and feedback. We will get back to you with further information and hopefully a better solution to this issue ASAP.

“If you are still not happy with the result, you can still proceed with your cancellation, and refund based on our terms and conditions.

“We will get back to you as soon as the request is investigated by one of our managers.”

Oh, holy hell. I’m in Support limbo again! I replied that I already have a better solution, so please get cracking. My email bounced: Undeliverable, mailbox full. I have received three subsequent emails from three different Mocha employees with variations on “I am sending your account cancellation request for processing. You will be notified as soon as the hosting package in question has been deleted,” along with a big block of policy text that boils down to “and we are keeping your money, nyah nyah nyah!”

Fine. I expected no less from you. Keep my $36. Just make the pain go away.

(Cute cat picture goes here. It looks like Blogger's latest update broke image insertions)

I really like finding my store reliably awake and perky at its new Gator home every morning. I wish I could say that higher sales ensued, but alas: June is being a tease. Volume has ranged between three and eight sales a day this week, which is pretty good. But those sales were almost all $20 or less, which is pretty bad. Frustrating! (And then an hour after I wrote that a nice fat $180 cap sale saved the week.)

I’m picking away at a column about the impending economic meltdown and collapse of Western civilization, but I think I’ll peg that one for now. I only run my na├»ve political rants when I don’t have any actual business news. Maybe I’ll spew it out next week. Right now I need to crank out a Fathers Day newsletter.

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