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 28, 2014


A $1,600 kite sale for a Thanksgiving parade couldn't save this month from being the worst November since 2006. After getting a healthy six sales a day last week it dropped to one on Sunday and never broke two again until Wednesday. Thursday was slightly better and a $500 Switchables order this morning made up for some of the early grief, although it cleaned out most of my Christmas designs.  

So...is Black Friday bringing the fabled black ink? Nope. November just tipped into the plus column by $8, but the year is still $4,600 in the red. Read 'em and weep:


Total income: -20.1%
Total COGS: -21.1%
Payroll: -23.1%
Marketing: -15.8%
Net Income (Profit): +102.4% (+$340)

Year to Date

Total income: -0.8%
Total COGS: +16.7%
Payroll: -32.9%
Marketing: -3.3%
Net Income (Profit): +52.2% (+$5,073)

I briefly thought that my Metal Earth gamble was paying off after getting three Metal Earth sales in the first two days after I set them up. Granted, two of those were to friends who got free shipping on Star Wars models. But nope: I've had only two more sales since then. My Metal Earth ads are getting 20-30 clicks a day, but nobody's buying. 

My old mainstay, Panther Vision, barely has a pulse. Beanies were supposed to be the Next Big Thing...nope. At least I don't see anybody blatantly outcompeting me. Although some sellers beat my price by a buck, they don't beat my selection, and the cheap prices are for inferior 2-LED caps. 

Analytics says I'm getting 200-250 unique visitors a day -- not great, but not terrible. Virtually all of them got here by keyword matches, either through natural search or clicking on an ad, so they're motivated shoppers. It's prime gift-giving season and I have tons of appropriate products, many of them time-tested. My website is working fine. I don't think it's ugly or hard to use. My historical 2% conversion rate should be closer to 3% this month. Yet I ran at a truly dismal 0.5 to 1% the first half of this week. I did $1,800 on Thanksgiving week LY...this year is struggling to top $1,000.  

Everything looks fine both statistically and subjectively...so what's wrong? I don't even have a good theory.

Yesterday I pulled out all the stops with a 20% off coupon for $50+ AND free shipping for $75+. I'll barely break even on any orders that take advantage of both promotions. None have, yet. I don't know what else to try. 

At least I don't think that PayPal will kill me after all. People who are smarter than me say that my encryption is fine and my SSL certificate has nothing to do with anything, despite what a PayPal customer service flunky said. AFAIK he was just uninformed. I'll find out all too soon.

Oh well, enough hand-wringing. The rubber decisively meets the road today, Black Friday, and things are finally perking up a little. As usual, it all comes down to December.

Friday, November 14, 2014

PayPal Is Trying to Kill Me

This week was shaping up to be a little bit better until a $150 return knocked it back into the dirt. Yesterday finished in the red and I'm facing the worst week in any November...ever. A normal November week never dips below $1,000; this year I haven't even broken $1,000. Oh well, at least that return isn't hanging over my head anymore. 

Most of the new products that I've been ordering are here now. What's the big hit so far? Bird kites! Yup, most of my business is coming from dropships that I still have to pay for. The $6,000 I spent on new products has returned $50 so far. I've slammed on the brakes now that it's obvious that there won't be a Christmas this year, but the hole is already dug.

Things could theoretically turn around during the most intense weeks of Christmas, which are still a couple of weeks away. And it's a good thing they are, because PayPal is going to end support for the SSL 3.0 security protocol on Dec. 3 -- the worst possible time to screw with a retailer's systems. What does that mean for Curio City? Hell if I know. I don't even understand the problem well enough to know whose help to seek. I will definitely be out of business if payment processing breaks during the busiest week of the year, so wrapping my head around all their technical jargon and acronyms just moved to the top of my priority list. This is way over my pay grade.

Maybe a quick, clean beheading would hurt less than this slow bloodletting. I'm not sure I want to drag that credit card debt through most of 2015.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Eternal Limited Time Offer

I tried something new this week: Free shipping on all orders over $75, no coupon necessary. Newsletter subscribers got a coupon lowering the threshold to $50. I've long been able to run such a special, but my old template gave me no way to tell visitors about it. Surprising somebody with free shipping is useless...you have to dangle it in front of them. 

The new template's slideshow looked like a near-perfect solution (a popup that follows visitors around would be better, since most visitors land at Curio City without ever seeing the front page). I could swap graphics every few weeks to keep the site fresh and to plug different products and offers. Then I realized that returning visitors will always see the same graphics unless they clear their browser cache -- and who ever does that? Not only will they miss future promotional graphics...they will keep seeing whatever outdated offer was running when they first came. 

So much for that stroke of genius.

In the end, three Switchables customers spent $260. Would they have bought anything without the promotion? Did they pad their orders to reach $75? Who knows? The customer who got free shipping on $200 worth of Panther Vision beanies was pleasantly surprised; he never saw the front page. I ended up giving away $21 worth of postage. The week's sales are running about 40% below LY, which is apparently the new normal after my website upgrade.

I'm going to try this once more before Christmas, with a $100 minimum.

My first newsletter in five months got 114 opens (28%, vs. an 18% industry average) and 27 clicks (24%, vs. 14% average) resulting in no sales. Since I've been paying Constant Contact $16 a month that whole time this newsletter effectively cost me $2.96 per click. More frequent mailings would obviously improve that rate, although that's pointless if the clickers don't convert to buyers. 

Since turning Bing ads back on I've bought 68 clicks for $16.36 with zero conversions (assuming that their conversion tracking code is working). I'm reminded why I bailed on Microsoft in the first place: Dozens of my keywords have quality scores of 2 or 3/10, supposedly due to low landing page relevance. "Falcon kites" goes to my falcon kite page; "eagle kites" goes to my eagle kite page; "LED lighted caps" goes to my Panther Vision caps page. How much more relevant can you get?

Fine, whatever. It's easier to delete keywords that score below 5 than to write awkward phrases into my product pages for Bing's benefit. Less money for Microsoft.

So yeah, it's Christmas. Between now and Thanksgiving I should be doing $200 a day. I'm only averaging $147. And yet I keep buying new products as fast as I can process the orders. This week I dropped a cool $1,600 on new Metal Earth models (chiefly Star Wars and Star Trek), making them my biggest bet of the year even though I could only afford a fraction of what I wanted. The good news is that I'm nearly done ordering, and a month from now I'll know how my bets turned out. 

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