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, April 29, 2016

April Numbers: Another Red Sea

I never did figure out why this April opened with Curio City's worst week in five years. 2015's April was the best ever and its final week (corresponding to this week) was the best non-Christmas week of last year. 2016, OTOH, delivered the worst April since 2009, coming in 7th out of 11, and this week is running on the low side of average. A surge in Dove kite sales implies that Christians must be having another holiday.  

Read 'em and weep:


Total income: -27.7%
Total COGS: -27.7%
Payroll: -49.9%
Marketing: +7.5%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -187.4% (-$230)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$107

Total income: -17.7%
Total COGS: -16.8%
Payroll: -22.1%
Marketing: +3.9%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -107.7% (-$1,031)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$2,004

Falling another $1,400 behind LY isn't as bad as it looks if you squint sideways really hard. Watch this: Sometimes my weird whole-week accounting calendar gives April four weeks and sometimes five; this being a four-week year, a 20% decrease from LY would have been expected; 20% of last April is $800. If my most-expensive bestselling product (the eagle kite, duh) had been available I would have expected to sell at least four more of them than I did for another $280. Half of those orders probably would've included poles for another $150. Fourteen hundred dollars minus $800 minus $280 minus $150 = $170. If week one had been average instead of inexplicably and historically poor, it would have brought in $400 more than it did...so my hypothetical April is now $230 ahead of LY! Yay!

Of course, actual April was not hypothetical April, and these QuickBooks numbers don't know anything about four- vs. five-week months.  
Last May was average. The odds of beating it this year would be decent if those eagle kites were available. Without them, I'll probably lose another $500. I asked Jackite again for an anticipated restock date and was ignored again.    


A phishing snailmail from "Patent & Trademark Office" might have suckered me in had it not asked for an outrageous price. The letter is an exact copy of the government form; their envelope didn't have the legally required "not government business" disclaimer; and their URL only differs from that of the real trademark office in using ".org" instead of ".us" -- altogether, a fraud so polished that they almost deserve their laughable $1,690 to file my $400 renewal. Another, more obvious, scammer wants just $250 "to receive all documentation to renew your trademark." Hah! Said "documentation" is, of course, a free online form.

It does look like I am going to have to come up with $400 this year, though. So far I have been unable to determine the deadline. My first query yielded a link to someone else; the second attempt wasn't even acknowledged. Well, I can't afford it anyway.  
Speaking of scammers and thieves...I had a doozy of a chargeback this week. A supposed-customer complained to her credit card issuer that she didn't authorize the purchase of $180 worth of lighted caps. I was able to initiate a UPS intercept just hours before delivery for the low low price of $10.90. Of course I'm out the original $16.87 shipping cost, and PayPal's going to hit me up with a $25 chargeback fee, for a total anticipated loss of $52.77 on top of the $196 in revenue that they'll claw back. Lovely. Was it a stolen credit card? Did a family member place the order without the cardholder's knowledge? Did the customer merely change her mind, or forget what she had ordered, or not recognize my store name? I will probably never know. At least I'll get my merchandise back, so it could have been worse.

That $250 hit isn't reflected in April's numbers, btw, so May is going to start out that far in the hole.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

Long Live the King

Cash is king and debt is the kingslayer. I can't do anything until my MasterCard's appetite has been sated with $5,000. I ought to be able to whittle that down now that the government and my accountant have been paid.
"Ought to" isn't "can." American Express is offering a 0% APR on new purchases through the end of the year...but "new purchases" doesn't include balance transfers, so first I had to pay my previous balance down to zero, which I just did on Wednesday. Now I can hypothetically steer all of my income to MasterCard while letting new debt accumulate on the Amex. 

Thing is, everyone else in the world serves the same king that I do and wants a piece of my cash flow. Two weeks ago The UPS Store got its annual $160 rent payment (down from $200, thanks to my AARP discount). Then one of those pseudo-government phishing scams reminded me that my Curio City trademark is going to expire. It's unclear whether I need to come up with $400 this year or next (or I could let the scammer handle it for a cool $900). I can't afford to enforce my service mark against various squatters who are infringing on it, but I do need to keep the legal high ground just in case a retailer ever tries to horn in. Upgrading my laptop to Windows 10 broke the print function in QuickBooks Pro 2009 so it can no longer save and email PDF forms --  a function that I don't use often, but one that I really need when I do need it. After multiple repair efforts failed it looks like I'm going to have to cough up $200-300 for the latest desktop version of QuickBooks...and I'm going to need it before I start mailing out Christmas purchase orders. (Intuit would like me to pay $24 per month indefinitely for their online version. Years of bloating QuickBooks with unwanted features and trying to squeeze upgrades and support payments from their customers have made Intuit one of the more reviled companies out there; I need their program but would rather not ever buy it again. It's a safe bet that the newest version will be overcomplicated and run poorly.) 

It's always something. MasterCard is at the front of the payment line, but it's going to be July or August before I retire my Christmas debt.


Let us observe a moment of silence for two retired categories: I moved the last few stragglers in Home Decor and Clocks & Watches to Odds & Ends. Home Decor was big in Curio City's early days, when "nice things" were a loose product category; Clocks was huge when DayClocks were my #1 bestseller. DayClocks still exist, but discounters ultimately ruined them for Curio City. I miss them and haven't ruled out giving them a second wind someday, if I can be confident that I won't be undersold.


Last week's Metal Earth newsletter flopped even worse than the previous week's Switchables newsletter: 383 sent, 85 opened, a whopping six clicks, and of course no conversions. 68% of those emails were opened on mobile devices, which are next to worthless when it comes to selling stuff. I should purge most of the 295 did-not-open addresses, export my mailing list, and close the Constant Contact account. Shutting it down will be hard after producing 82 newsletters in 11 years, but I'm probably the only person who will notice their demise. I can always open a new one if I can ever afford to re-implement the newsletter signup box that Turnkey dropped from Sunshop. Newsletters sent during November and December get some results, but I strongly doubt that they justify the $240+ annual expense. The only thing holding me back is not having any other way to publish coupons. Fewer than 10 of my 218 subscribers ever see my regular Facebook posts so that's a dead horse (these blog posts usually draw 20-30 views).

Some of the didn't-opens are active customers who just weren't interested in the subject line or didn't feel like shopping just now. The system uses an invisible 1-pixel graphic to track opens, so if you have disabled graphic downloads Constant Contact won't see you. I'd guess that at least 200 of those 298 didn't-opens are really dead addresses...but I'd hate to throw away 98 that potentially aren't.   
What do you think? Are you a newsletter subscriber? Would you miss them if they stopped?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Still Kicking

Well, here I am. PayPal didn't kill me after all. A couple of orders pushed last week's receipts over $100 after I posted, but it still won the Worst Week Since 2011 trophy. I'm sad/glad that nothing technical was wrong since I can eventually fix technical problems but I can't fix fickle shoppers. Advertising harder doesn't help when traffic is already running on the high side of normal.

My last six eagle kites (and virtually nothing else) sold out by Wednesday, propelling this week to triple last week's anemic sales. Jackite still doesn't have any eagles, falcons, blue jays, or create-a-birds. I presume that the supply chain is empty since shoppers only wash up on Curio City's shores after more popular stores are stripped bare. 

(I know that reporting weekly sales isn't riveting reading, but thought I should balance out last week's cry of despair. Sales are running on the high side of normal this week and I'd be cautiously optimistic if it weren't for the kite supply problem.)

Demand should be building up now since nobody else can get eagles, either, and there is no equivalent product on the market AFAIK. There's no rush on my last six falcons yet so other stores must also still have stock. That's likely to change within the next week, and then I won't have anything that anyone wants. Maybe some people will buy ospreys when the falcons are gone.  

I did put out a Switchables newsletter with a free shipping coupon. The results were predictable: 396 sent, 89 opened (beating the 19% industry average, so yay for that) 16 clicks, no conversions. Free shipping is supposed to encourage people to spend a little more than they otherwise would have in order to reach the threshold; that doesn't really happen very often -- most coupon redemptions are by people who were going to buy their stuff anyway. The one person who used the coupon to get an eagle kite shipped to Washington state for free (costing me $12) certainly would have bought the kite anyway. She isn't even a newsletter subscriber. I don't know where she found the code.  

My email list died when Turnkey removed the signup box from Sunshop's responsive themes, and I ran out of money before I could pay my contractor to re-implement it. We'll see if the Metal Earth newsletter going out tonight does any better. If not, issue #82 of the Curio City Chronicle will very likely be the last. I figure that those 16 clicks cost me $32. That's nuts.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Did PayPal Finally Manage to Kill Me?

This is Curio City's worst week since...well, ever. I should be doing around $600 a week. The first week of April last year nearly doubled that; this week might not even crack $100. You'd have to go back to 2007 to find a week that didn't break $100.

All systems, including daily traffic, look nominal; in fact, considerable ad tweaking has got visits up to 200+ per day, which ought to be reliably delivering two to four sales. People either just don't want what I'm selling or they don't want to buy it from me...or else there's something wrong with my website.

Yesterday a woman called to order one of my last five Eagle kites. Telephone sales are ordinarily a nuisance but I welcomed this opportunity to double this week's anemic sales. Her credit card was declined. Uh-oh...we know that PayPal's been trying to kill me for years; did they finally succeed? My site passed inspection, and it turned out that the lady had given me an inaccurate card number. Unfortunately, the corrected number was also declined, this time for an invalid CVV code. She swears that it's accurate, and maybe it is: The payment gateway, not PayPal, is rejecting the transaction. I tried bypassing my site by using PayPal's virtual terminal with no joy. I tried turning off the CVV requirement -- nope. Another test transaction went through just fine again. But a test transaction placed by me through my site on my computer using my credit card isn't a super-valid real-world test. 

I have no idea what's going on. Checkout trouble would explain it. I'm not seeing that, but getting just one legitimate transaction would make me feel better (it's been two days without any). If things don't turn around very quickly then this will be my final death spiral. I'm only going deeper into debt while I can't even cover daily expenses, and debt is the killer. 


Constant Contact is raising their price from $16 to $22 per month. I was already thinking about canceling it at the old price. The six newsletters that I publish in a year effectively cost me $32 each (plus the trivial value of my time). Each issue produces zero to two sales, usually discounted. There is probably some small value in having a mailing list and insinuating myself into people's mailboxes periodically, but I don't know if that's worth $192 a year, much less $264. Is learning their new interface worth the bother or should I just pull the plug now?  

I'm going to crank out a couple of newsletters over the next two weeks and let the response to those determine whether there'll be any more after that. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

In Like a Lamb and Out Like Mutton

I wish that metaphor left me with a freezer full of delicious meat, but all I got was blood. This month turned a tiny YTD gain into a $1,800 deficit. I blame early Easter. Ordinarily I expect churchy people to buy around a dozen Dove kites; this year I sold all of two.


Total income: -37.2%
Total COGS: -36.7%
Payroll: -18.6%
Marketing: +91.4%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -446.2% (-$1,466)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$1,795


Total income: -14.5%
Total COGS: -12.8%
Payroll: -9.6%
Marketing: +2.2%
Net Income (Profit) vs LY: -77.2% (-$840)
Actual Profit/Loss: -$1,928

Last March was way better than average, so is the historical perspective any gentler? Nope. This was the worst March since 2008 and the fourth-worst (or the seventh-best, for you incurable optimists) in 11 years. The best thing I can say is that I set a really low bar for next year.

Since several bulk kite sales made April 2015 the best April ever, and since bird kites are likely to remain unavailable all month, I'll probably lose another $1,000 or more next month. That pretty much ensures that 2016 will extend my five-year losing trend.   

The new Bing "shopping campaign" is only getting one or two clicks a day. I turned my regular search ads on to test the new tracking code (see that huge jump in the March marketing number above?); they reported 12 conversions at a cost of just $115. Paying less than $10 for conversions that historically have cost me more than $18 would be swell, but I strongly suspect that the new script is double-counting. I was advised to insert it into two templates: One that affects all of my pages, as Bing requires, and one on the checkout page alone where conversions are actually counted, because the general template supposedly doesn't extend to the checkout page. But I really don't know. I ought to disable the code on the checkout page and see if Bing continues to report any conversions...but then I'd have to turn the ads back on again, and I can't afford to throw money at testing, especially while business is so slow that legitimate conversions can be a week apart.
I can end on two positive notes: I finally upgraded my laptop to Windows 10, turned off most of the Microsoft spyware, and installed the Win 7 skin this week. Designed as it is for touch screens, Win 10 is butt ugly and harder to use, but at least I'm up to date and everything works. 

American Express is rewarding my flawless payment history with a 0% APR for the rest of this year. It doesn't apply to balance transfers, so I can't move my $4,500 MasterCard balance over there and save $60 a month in interest. I use Amex for operating expenses and MC for merchandise, and most vendors don't take Amex due to high processing costs. But for the rest of the year I'll make the minimum Amex payment and throw what money I have at the MC. At the rate sales are going, even that modest shift will take three months.    

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