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, October 31, 2014

I Found Red October!

My last post celebrated a nascent recovery. That week topped the previous three weeks combined and notched the best performance since June, rekindling hope despite being too late to save the month. Then this week fell right back into the crapper. Go figure.


Total income: -43.5%
Total COGS: -39.1%
Payroll: -54.0%
Marketing: -22.8%
Net Income (Profit): -79.9% (-$528)

Year to Date

Total income: +1.8%
Total COGS: +25.3%
Payroll: -33.7%
Marketing: -1.0%
Net Income (Profit): +48.9% (+$4,586)

Two months ago I was 14% ahead of LY. That gain is nearly gone now. Meanwhile, I'm spending money like a drunken Democrat. What choice do I have? The robust sales from two weeks ago hint that the old girl has still got it. I'm counting on Christmas because I must. 

Last week I wrote:

"One customer called to ask "How the heck do I check out?" The stylized shopping bag icon that replaced the traditional "shopping cart" isn't at all intuitive, and the "Checkout" text link that used to be above the category list is gone. So I added a "Shopping Cart/Checkout" menu item (pat on the back for figuring out how to do it without breaking anything) to make that obvious and fix the only design flaw that I can see."

This Monday somebody else left voicemail saying that he couldn't check out because "your website sucks." He left to find a "working website" with telephone support when I didn't answer his 6 pm call. 

I wish I'd talked to him because I don't understand how a plain-vanilla shopping cart like Sunshop can confuse people so badly that they need to ask for help. Yes, half of the population suffers from below-average intelligence, and that might be all there is to it. But it's possible that some intermittent technical problem is preventing checkout even though everything tests just fine. Whatever the reason, I hate to see somebody rage-quit during the endgame after all the trouble and expense of luring them into my store.     

Friday, October 24, 2014

I'm Not Dead Yet

Reading about week-to-week sales week after week is boring, I know. But this slow-motion train wreck has become perversely fascinating. October is setting all kinds of records for suckage, not least of which was my smallest paycheck in years. This week finally hit normal for the first time in a month, led by a surprise resurgence in Panther Vision caps. Maybe the mysterious curse is lifting.  

Mysteries beg for investigation. Google Analytics says I'm getting slightly fewer daily "sessions" in October than in September. Analytics reports that September's conversion rate was 1.63% -- below my 2.0% target, but not dramatically so;  October's running at 1.54% so far. September conversions averaged $55.98; October's are $48.09. 

So traffic is basically normal. Slightly fewer visitors are buying anything, and those who do are spending a little less. I can think of three possible explanations:  

  1. The website redesign is driving people away; or
  2. They don't want what I'm selling; or
  3. The quality of visitors has fallen.

I don't  think there's any question that the new design is visually superior; nobody's going "Ew!" and bailing because they don't like the look. The new layout is slightly easier to shop, not harder. One customer called to ask "How the heck do I check out?" The stylized shopping bag icon that replaced the traditional "shopping cart" isn't at all intuitive, and the "Checkout" text link that used to be above the category list is gone. So I added a "Shopping Cart/Checkout" menu item (pat on the back for figuring out how to do it without breaking anything) to make that obvious and fix the only design flaw that I can see.

It didn't help.  

The second possibility, product selection, is my main suspect. Curio City flew through the spring and summer on the wings of Bird kites. Those always fall to earth in the fall, which explains a lot; losing the expensive kite pole dropships explains the shrinking average sale all by itself. However, that doesn't explain the year-over-year decline since kites crash every fall. Ordinarily lighted caps, Switchables, golf balls, and a smattering of miscellaneous stuff rise up to fill the void. Golf balls have been inexplicably dead all year and lighted caps just came back a few days ago.  

I replenished $550 worth of Switchables. I ordered $1,000 worth of mostly new gifty novelties for Christmas from Gama-go. I replenished and expanded Lexco cigarette cases to the tune of $650; they were selling reliably despite the sanctimonious do-gooders at Google and Microsoft who won't allow ads for tobacco-related products (I can't even get around their prohibition by playing them up as marijuana accessories because they forbid advertising illegal products, too, and cannabis still qualifies). I'm going to put more than the usual number of eggs in the Metal Earth basket -- another product line that sells well during Christmas, but only during Christmas. I need to spend at least $1,000 there.

Another $1,500 worth of gifty novelties from DCI and Fred will load me up for Christmas except for a few smaller vendors. By the end of November I'll be about $6,000 in debt. That's OK if I match LY's anemic $18,000 in November-December sales...but this worst October since 2007 makes me nervous. If I can't pay off the debt Curio City will be finished.  

As for the quality of visitors...my site is supposedly mobile-friendly now. It's well known that smartphone users don't buy. Google avers that they go home and use real computers to buy the stuff they saw on their phone. Maybe. By itself mobile traffic is low-quality traffic. So has that increased?

In September, desktop users were 58%, mobile were 28%, and tablets were 14% of all visits. In October, desktop users were 57%, mobile went up to 31%, and tablets were 12%.  

Bottom line: Traffic is down a little bit. Smartphone users are up a little. The percentage of people who buy anything has fallen, and the amount that they spend is down. None of those things are drastic individually. Together, they explain October. 

It's probably a stupid mistake, but I turned my Microsoft ads back on. In the recent past I've spent $75-100 monthly there without any results. But Christmas is nearly here.... I also discounted my keyword bids by 20% for mobile users to discourage them, saving those ad dollars for more lucrative visitors. So much for having a mobile-friendly site design.  


I'm up to 204 Facebook followers. Exactly nine of them saw my last post. I was not among the lucky nine. I'm only still posting there because the posts appear on Curio City's front page. By itself, Facebook is completely worthless. For comparison, a whopping 13 people typically read my blog posts.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Motivational Poster! That Would Help.

I finally figured out what was wrong with conversion tracking: I was telling Google's code to use dynamic pricing -- that is, to report the actual value of each conversion -- without implementing the custom Sunshop code that it requires, which is beyond my ability. I had also neglected to update the script each time I changed its options. After 47 days, I'm finally getting conversion data again. Without it, I couldn't tell which keywords are performing and tune up my ad campaigns. 

So that's something, anyway.

I brainstormed a couple of ideas for fishing sales out of the toilet while on my morning walk (braindrizzled is more like it...can one man brainstorm?) that might goose things a little, if I ever actually make the time to do them. With a dearth of the dreary days that chain me to my work desk and no positive reinforcement for toiling there I have very little motivation to work on Curio City. The chronic cash flow crisis is getting old, too. And, as trivial as this might sound, my senile, elderly cat starts yowling at 5 a.m. and pesters me for hours every day. I can't concentrate on anything.

Goosing things a little won't make much difference anyway. This week is going to come in $1,000 behind LY. In the few weeks since my site upgrade I've lost almost all of the gain over LY that I've built up throughout the year, and I don't see things magically returning to health anytime soon. I just don't care anymore. Why bother?

Friday, October 03, 2014

Running On Fumes

An unusual number of customers are asking to return merchandise while sales remain in the crapper. Tightening up my return policy discouraged at least one person from shipping back an unsalable used bird kite. I'm conflict-averse and I don't like saying "no." I'd like to have an open no-questions-asked policy like huge retailers do, but I can't swallow a loss every time somebody changes their mind or decides the product wasn't quite what they wanted -- especially when sales are running at historically poor levels.

Business is wicked bad. With Christmas closing in I should be averaging $1,000 a week; this week is struggling to break $300. Is my new template to blame? The timing is suspicious. I doubt that a contemporary makeover would repel shoppers, but Google might be punishing some technical change that I don't understand (such as displaying images with Cloud Zoom instead of Flash, whatever that is). I'm not even sure that my conversion tracking fix worked. The order confirmation page's source code shows the Google script and what looks like output from that script. But AdWords still has not claimed credit for a single conversion in the past week, and since I only had 10 sales that zero might be an accurate count.

With some effort, I could revert to my old look and see if things come back. I hate to go backwards, for obvious reasons, but I haven't ruled it out. 

I blame this year's huge omission: Products. Kite sales fell off right on schedule. Last year, lighted caps and Switchables stepped into the gap. Nowadays the only Panther Vision products that ever sell are the odd runner's cap or visor -- things that most stores don't carry. After all these years it's hardly surprising that somebody else finally poached my lighted cap sales by either undercutting the retail price or offering personalization. Switchables seems to be having its own issues; there were no new fall designs for the first time ever and they're chronically sold out of most of their popular styles. Golf ball sales have been limping all year. Historically, I sell 36-48 sets of Halloween golf balls in September and October. This year? None. 

Problem is, I don't have a line on any promising new products. I need to reorder a few things (like Lexco cases and Alice in Wonderland cards) that have sold down to near zero. I want to bring in a smattering of new novelties from the spring and fall catalogs of my usual vendors...but those are what's called "long tail" items -- I'll bring in a dozen of each and consider any that sell more than six pieces winners. They make my store interesting to shop, but I don't make much money on them. There's just nothing that might become the Next Big Thing.

Well, I couldn't buy them anyway with the cash flow spigot closed. All I can do is stomp on costs and hope that the worm turns. As long as I keep plugging away, it always does sooner or later.


Taking a page from Republican economic policy, I cut my handling charge from $0.55 to $0.50 per order. This "tax cut" reduces the 0.25-pound shipping charge from $3.05 to a nice round $3. Sunshop (or the USPS; I'm not sure who's to blame) considers packages weighing less than four ounces to be letters, not parcels. A 0.25 pound item collects a $3 shipping fee while a 0.2 pound item only collects $0.83. The actual cost is $2.01 when purchased online or $2.50 over the counter.

Like any Republican economic policy, this will only reduce my revenue and add to my deficit. But I do like the $3 price point.


My spammer is still setting off Outlook's email chime 20-25 times a day. Every time that "ding" announces spam instead of a sale I dutifully add the new address to my spam filter. Of course, the spammer just changes it with each new spam, so my filter blocks less than 10% of the sewage that flows through it. It's a good thing I don't have an automatic weapon, because I sure understand the rage that makes people go berserk.

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