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, January 30, 2015

January Numbers

Sales were tracking LY pretty nicely until the bottom fell out this week. In fact, it was the kind of week that makes me wonder if something is broken. Nothing is, as far as I can tell. 

Historically, January is a strong month for Switchables, but (as I explained last week) the most popular designs aren't there this year and I can't even get fixtures. That explains a couple hundred bucks. As for the rest...who knows? Having some new items might help, but I can't buy anything until I scrape together the money to pay my CPA and the Commonwealth. I did squirrel away my CPA's fee this week, although I'm not confident enough to spend it yet.
January and Year-to-Date

Total income: -30.0%
Total COGS: -24.5%
Payroll: -6.6%
Marketing: +59.7%
Net Income (Profit): -443% (-$909)

This is not the post that I thought I'd be writing at the beginning of the week. There's no good news buried in there; this was the worst January since 2007. Excel says that the top line is "only" down by $838 -- $793 of that from this week alone -- while Quickbooks insists that it's really $1,160. Don't ask me to explain the $300 discrepancy. Either way, I'm starting the year deep in the toilet.

February's target doesn't look too daunting. Next week's expected influx of new Switchables designs might be a small shot in the arm. The best I can hope for, though, is to chip away at January's shortfall.   

Well, it's not like I can do anything about it. Working harder makes no difference and there's obviously no room to advertise more, so there's only one logical response: Escape. I'm working up an interesting statistical post for next week, if you're the sort who can parse "interesting" and "statistics" together. After that I promise to leave numbers alone until the February report. They're just depressing anyway.

Friday, January 23, 2015

More Disturbances In the Force

I already said farewell to the Mini Briefcase Business Card Holder, the last few pink ones notwithstanding. The return of the Create-a-Bird kite isn't as imminent as I'd hoped; the latest word is "May-June at the earliest," extending its absence to nearly a year and missing the lucrative Easter tie-in (Christians buy them for religious plays). Now it turns out that Switchables is switching things up more drastically than I'd realized. Their supply of covers was erratic all last year. This year it's next to nonexistent. Designs that sold dozens of pieces per year are gone, never to return. That's already put a crimp in Valentines Day. 

At least 67 designs that I currently stock are on the discontinued list. Two thirds of those won't be missed. The other third, though, were reliable standbys. If none of them were spectacular themselves, together they added up to a pretty good chunk of change.

A lot of new designs are coming in February and in June, but I see only six predictable hits among the 31 new styles that I'm bringing in. I don't think collectors are going to like the move to fused glass over traditional soldered construction.

The nice people at Switchables undoubtedly know their business better than I do. The number of designs in my inventory was unwieldy, and I don't even carry the religious or cartoon-cute ones. However it works out for them, though, losing so many Old Reliables is one more hurdle to overcome this year.


Iggy the cat, Curio City's mascot and my friend for nearly 17 years, is going to be euthanized tomorrow morning if his cancer doesn't kill him before then. At least his long life didn't end in a prolonged decline; he was healthy until early this month and really only hit the wall last Monday. Of course, that doesn't make the end any easier emotionally.

Friday, January 09, 2015

(Almost) Everything Is Awesome

I almost planned this year $1 higher than 2011, Curio City's high water mark. What made me think 2015 might bring a 23% increase after sales declined for the third consecutive year in 2014? Pure hubris. Yet I can't shake an unfounded, unfamiliar, and wholly uncharacteristic feeling of optimism.

The US economy is heading into a banner year that will finally include everybody. Interest rates are still low (making investors happy) but expected to start rising slowly (making savers happy). Inflation is nonexistent; indeed, deflation is a risk if energy prices keep falling. Stock markets are stumbling right now but crashing energy prices make everyone except oil companies and their investors happy...and I can't muster any sympathy for them. Yes, those of us who are fortunate enough to have retirement accounts will see some paper losses in our index funds, but they're hardly panic-inducing. The job market is starting to absorb marginalized workers, and wage growth must inevitably follow -- 20 states raised their minimum wage last week. Corporations have mountains of cash to readily finance expansion. Consumer confidence is up. This is about as good as it gets.
With a presidential campaign getting started, the new Republican Congress isn't likely to derail it with unnecessary austerity measures. They will want to claim some of the credit that people refuse to give to Obama. Conservative posturing won't end, of course, but Boehner is whipping the Tea Partiers into submission now that he no longer needs their votes. I don't expect to see major policy damage over the next two years, so the boom could last that long.
So yeah, it's "morning in America" or whatever. I've said before that my business is too tiny to follow macroeconomic trends...so why should 2015 be any different? 

That's the "unfounded" part. Since setting an unachievable plan is a fast way to smother optimism, I went with a more prosaic LY + 12.5% -- half of what I'd ideally like, it's still double-digit ambitious and quasi-realistic. 2014 was running ahead of 2013 by double digits until it crashed in October, so this year just needs to track that without the crashing part in Q4.  

How to do that? I don't have a specific secret plan. I do have some tuneup ideas, though:

Make shopping easier, especially for smartphone users. I've already killed the giftwrap option that imposed an extra click on every product. I got rid of a couple of categories and removed duplicate entries that made them look bigger than necessary (Google frowns on that anyway). I'm going to write tighter descriptions without any keyword stuffing, because mobile visitors don't want to read. Then I'll stop discounting my keyword bids for mobile traffic.
Google rewards sites that are optimized for smartphones by displaying a little thumbs-up icon to mobile browsers. I tested my site and found that it qualifies for that sign of approval.

Have better stuff to buy. I neglected product development last year. I'm going to focus on it this year, to the extent that cash flow will allow. Tax obligations are holding me back right now, but I'm going to risk another big Mastercard bill as soon as a new statement period begins next week. Most of that will merely replenish tried-and-true items. 

While I'm on that subject, please observe a moment of silence for SKU 16, the Mini Briefcase Business Card Holder. One of my opening products, it secured the #2 bestseller slot by selling nearly 1,400 units over the past nine years -- without a dime of advertising. Now I've got three left. When I tried to reorder last week, the wholesaler had changed its SKU number and raised the price by two bucks. The product is now only available in case lots with custom imprinting. They won't sell "blanks," so no more individual unit sales. R.I.P., little product. Replacing you will be among this year's challenges.

Have more of it. If Jackite ever replenishes the Create-a-Bird, that alone could bring in an "extra" $1,000 or more this year. Every time I talk to them they reassure me that they're in production. Switchables is introducing a lot of new designs to replace some of the many that they discontinued; that might be worth a few hundred extra bucks. Expanding and deepening the Metal Earth line is going to be expensive, but it could pay off big.


As long as I'm saying goodbyes: Iggy, my feline friend for the past 16.5 years, is dying of cancer. The vet gave him 3-6 months and I consider that optimistic. He hasn't been pleasant company since he lost his hearing and developed dementia last year, but I'll still miss the little guy. He doesn't mean to be a needy nag. Before age and illness crushed his spirit Iggy was the most agreeable, even-tempered being you could hope to meet. After we euthanize him, I'll be without a cat for the first time in 40 years, and truly alone at home for 10 hours every day. Anne fears that isolation will drive me insane. (shrug) It could happen. 

Meanwhile, the mounting vet bills cast this summer's vacation in doubt. We gave up the Berkshires last year due (in part) to Iggy's declining health, so I'm not pleased about losing a second one to the cat. His illness and death are going to cost well over $1,000 when it's over.
Not everything is awesome.

Friday, January 02, 2015

So, That's That for Another Year

First, I want to brag about winning Employee of the Month for shipping 302 packages in December with zero errors. Way to go, Ken! There's a little something extra in your paycheck this week...NOT! Here's why:

Fiscal December (Excel)

Total income: -9.7%
Total COGS: -37.9%
Payroll: -9.7%
Marketing: -37.2%
Net Income (Profit): +118.9% (+$3,211)
Actual Profit/Loss: +$510

Final FISCAL Year (Excel)

Total income: -2.5%
Total COGS: +0.6%
Payroll: -28.0%
Marketing: -9.4%
Net Income (Profit): +67.2% (+$8,340)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$4,073

Final CALENDAR Year (QuickBooks)

Total income: -2.0%
Total COGS: -8.5%
Payroll: -3.3%
Marketing: +3.0%
Net Income (Profit): +79.8% (+$2,898)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$735

My Excel accounting calendar steals a few days from both 2013 and 2015 to bookend the year with full 7-day weeks. These week-to-week comparisons are useful to me, but the world sees the QuickBooks numbers (where "the world" is my CPA, the Mass. DOR, and the IRS). 

December broke $10,000 by either measure, but it became the worst Christmas since 2007 by falling $1,300 short of LY's $12,205. No profit means no year-end bonus for me, and no bonus makes this the first year since 2007 that my salary didn't hit five figures. I missed that milestone by $70 (that's just $350 in sales -- I accuse two friends who didn't place their usual big Christmas orders this year...and who won't see me calling them out here because they don't read the Facebook!). 

In case you haven't been playing along at home, 2014 was perking right along until October and November tanked dramatically. December's near-recovery gives me some hope for 2015.
2014 was a year of rebuilding, featuring two big-ticket items: My first smart phone and a new laptop. I'd still like to upgrade to the current version of QuickBooks and get a more user-friendly backup/recovery service, but those are optional. I don't have any real capital expenditures to worry about in 2015.
Investing in infrastructure prevented me from investing in merchandise until November. That was my biggest omission this year. 2015's going to rectify that...theoretically, anyway. As badly as I need to reorder key products right now -- before I can even think about bringing in new ones -- my hands are tied until I can pay off Christmas and render unto Caesar. Next month's Amex bill is already a big challenge. 

While I wait for the financial battery to recharge, I'm removing the giftwrapping option from all of my products. Now you can buy most of them from the category screen without opening the product page to choose options; 99.5% of customers take the default "No giftwrapping." Saving them one click (or tap) and potential confusion far outweighs the whopping $33 that I earned on giftwrapping this each year. Mobile customers especially don't like extra steps or big blocks of text. This is the first step in a larger attempt to optimize my store for smartphone shoppers.  

Next week: Predicting 2015.

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