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 25, 2011

On the Fourth Week of Christmas, My Business Gave to Me...

…Four minutes offline/Three giveaways/Two gorgeous days/And a big rusty pail of fail.

My heart sank at 11:31 pm on Thanksgiving when MDD Hosting warned me of emergency server maintenance. With previous hosts, that might have meant being offline for the rest of this crucial weekend. But MDD had the server back online by 11:46. Kudos to them. OK, 15 minutes isn't four, but I’ve got nothing else for my gimmick this week. Maybe I’ll get a four-digit day.

This was the first real Christmas mega-week. A $750 cap sale on Thanksgiving Day 2010 created a huge holiday hill to climb, and unusually weak days this Sunday and Monday made it look impossible. Then things turned around on Tuesday and Wednesday. I needed to average $350/day this week; right now (in the midst of Black Friday, which is hobbled by all the hardcore shoppers out doing battle in stores) I’m running at $350/day. I started Week 4 neck-and-neck with LY; right now I’m running $19 ahead for the week and $161 behind the month-to-date. I need $528 by the end of tomorrow to catch up. It’s another nail-biter.

Last Saturday was downright depressing. Against a background of weak sales, I had to authorize a big nasty return ($140 worth of Panther caps) from somebody who simply changed his mind. Besides the obvious financial hit, returns are also a processing and inventory-management pain in the ass. I may have to put a restocking fee in place, as most stores do to discourage speculative purchases. On the same day, a Canadian customer claimed that his levitating globe arrived with a cosmetic blemish; he eventually settled for a partial refund, limiting what could have been an $84 refund to just $20. And then, just to ice the cake, somebody submitted a bad product review. It was well-written and -reasoned, so I had to publish it. Even though it’s a minor product that I wasn’t going to reorder anyway, it was another slap in the face that I just didn’t need.

Next week's target requires an insane $495/day. I don't know how I'm going to make that...but I've done it before. No reason it can't happen again.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On the Third Week of Christmas, My Company Gave Me...

Three giveaways/Two gorgeous days/And a big rusty pail of fail.

I wrote off three relics from the 2005 founding of Curio City and donated them to my wife’s art studio fundraising sale. These products were way out of step with the kind of merchandise that I eventually learned would succeed. Good riddance! I only wish her studio was a registered nonprofit so that I could take a charity deduction.

Quick numbers: This week I need to average $236/day, and the week started out very good before falling into the doldrums on Tuesday. So far I’m running at $267. The moving average that I need for the month to date is $224/day; I’m currently at $218. November began this week down $300 and ended it down $131. So I gained a bit of ground but I’m still a tad behind LY.

You might have noticed that I am merely trying to match LY now. I’ve given up on beating it. Next week brings the first of the really obscene sales targets.

I am reluctantly coming around to the view that this recession is never going to end – or rather that it really did end when economists tell us that it did, and we are now living in the new normal. I am told that this makes me a “Declinist”. Statistically, the economy has been in recovery for years. The wealthy and the big corporations are certainly prospering. But this time the rising tide is only lifting yachts while a sea of dinghies are still bailing.

When’s the last time I wrote about kicking Curio City out of the house (or “taking it to the next level”, as my wife likes to say)? I stopped thinking about Curio City’s future and went into survival mode when the depth of the Great Decline became apparent. But now experts are saying that the job market won’t return to normal until the second half of 2014. It might never recover entirely for the lower classes, so I need to start thinking about how I can cope with that.

Of course, if I knew how to increase sales in a declining economy I’d already be doing it. But I’ll figure something out. That’s what I’ve done since the beginning: Figure stuff out. 


On this week’s Tuesday in 2010, a big Switchables return wiped out most of the day’s sales. It looked like an easy day to gain some ground this year…until (you guessed it) a big, unauthorized Panther Vision cap  return showed up. I was so pissed that I flirted with invoking my published policy of refusing unauthorized returns. Shoppers who buy “on spec” are a pain in the ass and a blight on the bottom line, so I don’t want any repeat business from this lady. I’d have been within my rights to keep the merchandise and her money…but that undoubtedly would have created a bigger headache than it was worth. So I took the path of least resistance. The $17 that she paid in two-way shipping costs is consolation enough.

Ordinarily the Outlook new-message chime makes me happy; yesterday it was just annoying. The six sales that came in are below average for this stage of Christmas. I also had to authorize another $55 return, had someone ask for a large charitable contribution, got the usual spam, and received a bitchy email from a would-be customer who couldn’t figure out how to use the shipping calculator (“Why is it impossible for me to find out your shipping cost?  I'm very wary of shipping chgs and cannot get an answer about your's”). Yeah…it’s a big secret. I know that it’s bad form to badmouth customers…but, coming at the end of a lousy day, that extraneous apostrophe sent me over the edge. And since she never did buy anything she’s not a customer anyway, and my integrity is intact.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On the Second Week of Christmas, My Customers Gave Me...

...Two gorgeous days/And a big rusty pail of fail.

Now I need to rewrite the song since I can’t very well thank my customers for Indian Summer. I took advantage of the first 70-degree day to rake up a bag of leaves. It was a futile gesture with the leaves barely half fallen, but I wanted to get a head start on my least favorite annual chore (and to enjoy the weather, truth be told). Then on Wednesday I ended up unexpectedly taking a long drive. That wasn’t such a bad thing with the top down, the stereo rocking, and bright warm sunshine bathing me, but it, too, cut into my Curio City time. 

Naturally, all the leaves finally came down last night and my yard is buried. I need to carve out some serious raking time over the next week or two. We have a lot of big maples and oaks. (I probably complain about this every year, don't I?)

Downtime is OK as long as my hands are temporarily tied. I not only slammed the door on new products last week, but also started delaying reorders until after my credit card statement period closes tomorrow. It’s too bad; there are half a dozen more new products that I’d like to bring in, and I’m going to lose a few Christmas sales to stock outages. But my Mastercard bill is currently pegging $5,000 against a bank balance of $2,400. The total spend is just right to support a planned $10,000 month, and I can close the $2,600 gap before the bill comes due if Week Three makes plan. But it’s going to be a nail-biter.

Now for the numbers. I needed to average $220/day over these first two weeks. Week One only reached $151. Week Two is running at $300/day for a two-week average of $213. Veterans Day is traditionally a lightweight weekend. If the next day and a half merely match LY, I’ll be starting Week Three about $300 in the hole – not too shabby, although I’d obviously rather be up $300 than down.


Despite already-bloated advertising costs, I set up campaigns for BugLits on Google Adwords and MS Adcenter. Most of the relevant “flashlight” keywords are selling for $.80 and up to $1.50, which is obviously nutty for a $13 product. I did find a few tangential words in my $.30-.40 price range. The results so far? Thirteen clicks, 0 sales, $3.22 spent. Not enough to draw any conclusions. I had thought that BugLits might be a minor hit this year, but no joy so far.

AdWords alone is running $30 per day now to deliver 100+ clicks. So far, the conversion rate is high enough to keep that big ad spend within budget (a bit less than 10% of gross).

Microsoft Adcenter's relevancy ratings (which determine click pricing) continue to confound me. Why are “switchable nightlight” and “switchable nightlights” only ranked 2/10 when the landing page is clearly 100% accurate and “switchable night light” rates 9/10? Baffling.

I wish I wasn’t so dependent on one product. I’ve had intermittent modest successes – and even brief hits – with other things, but it’s still all about Panther Vision caps. Don’t get me wrong – without this superstar I wouldn’t be in business at all – but I sure do wish that some of my other products would help carry the load. The Mini-Briefcase is out of stock at the importer; I’ll sell out my remaining 50-odd pieces in a couple of weeks. Switchables are going through another one of their periodic dead spots after some competitor jacked his keyword bids to $0.60 (which is simply more than they’re worth, as he'll probably figure out). Whisky Stones seem to be dead in the water. After I brought in 50 sets to cover holiday demand, that’s $500 I wish I could have back.


Uh-oh…last night I sold a Science Quiz Clock to someone from New Jersey who clicked “Saw you mentioned in a print article.” The random act of media that I first wrote about on July 29 must have finally hit. The editor never did answer my questions about their magazine’s street date, and I forgot about it after their online guide came out. Now I only have two clocks left. I don’t want to reorder anything from the vendor until they straighten out a $288 shipping error. Their order fulfillment is so incredibly slow that it would take weeks to get a reorder in anyway (if they have them at all and if they don’t screw up the shipment).

If those last two clocks sell out today I’ll know that the game is afoot. The magazine might have hit the streets some time ago, and only now generated a sale.


…And just like that, my blog posts started appearing in the Facebook news feed again last week. I’m pleased to be back…at least until the next time FB screws with their interface.Every week is a crapshoot.

Friday, November 04, 2011

On the First Week of Christmas, My Customers Gave Me...

…A big rusty pail of fail.

I tremble when I turn the calendar page and November’s sales targets look back at me. Yet, every year, the customers somehow materialize. There are still people out there with disposable income, but they were two days late to the party this year and they didn’t bring enough snacks. Thanks to that late start, this week is likely to finish at least $600 behind LY (down 40%)
But Christmas is definitely here. People are snapping up some new stock and some old stock in addition to the usual bestsellers. Even at prices at or near cost, selling products that I won’t replace liberates dollars that have been frozen for years. That’s like finding money.

I feel a little like I’m rifling a corpse when I splurge on luxuries like a new laptop battery ($76 for a name-brand 9-cell) and a new mouse ($50 for a deluxe Logitech wireless). But what the hell? I need these things, and the company’s profit doesn’t magically transform into my tax-obliged money until the end of the year. Every now and then Curio City buys me nice things. I’d thought I might buy a new laptop next year, but that’s not going to happen as long as the Great Decline drags on. I can flog this 2-year-old Dell for at least another year if I periodically run Crapcleaner and Defraggler (which I really should make time to do today).  If I’m going to keep the Vostro going indefinitely, I get the lavish 9-cell battery instead of a short-lived 6-cell at half the price.

Almost by accident, I found one new item that might make a long-term difference. It turns out that Panther Vision wholesales replacement batteries. The markup on batteries is so obscene that I’m tempted to go into the battery business. The four-pack that I’m selling for $5 goes for $12 at CVS, and their cost is probably lower than mine. Each time a Panther Vision cap customer ticks the box to add replacement batteries, I effectively get a $5 price increase on my top-selling product for a very small incremental cost (and without raising my advertising spend). Boring, yes, but it’s proving to be a very popular add-on.  

I’m also encouraged by the new Nite Ize lineup’s performance so far. I quickly sold out of SlapLits and moved a few See ‘Ems and BugLits…all with no advertising beyond my Facebook announcements and newsletter. So I doubled down this week on the whole line. The BugLit in particular deserves to become a good long-term seller. I’ll probably advertise that one.

But the long term is meaningless during Christmas. It's all about the next seven weeks.

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