There’s a scene in the film Parenthood where Steve Martin’s character is arguing with his wife about their kids, about how things will go wrong and how everything is so messy. She starts to answer back that things will also go right, when his grandmother intervenes. “When I was 19, Grandpa took me on a rollercoaster. Up, down, up, down – oh, what a ride!” she begins, as Steve’s character looks on with disdain. “It was interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled, all together. Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. But that just goes around – nothing,” she says with a shrug of her shoulders. “I like the rollercoaster. You get more out of it.”
Throughout all of the ups and downs of my e-commerce career, that scene often came back to me. As an analogy for the rewards and pitfalls of choosing a more difficult path, it never failed to act as a reminder that the journey I had chosen gave more than it took away, even if at times it didn’t feel like it.
On the Road
“Wait, that’s an email to our order address. Holy moly, it’s an order, somebody’s ordered!”
Even nine years later, I still remember the heady thrill of the first order confirm email hitting our inbox; realising that it wasn’t another test, checking the customer’s address and Google Mapping their street to see where our first package would be going. And above all, I remember the feeling of relief; that the thankless hours of preparation and worry were being rewarded; that things might just work out.
Of course, in our excitement, we mislabelled the package and cost ourselves half the profit in shipping. But still, what a ride!
Over the next few years we had many ups and downs, but having sold the business and started an e-commerce agency and app extension brand, it’s only now that I can appreciate some of the lessons from that time, and see what I could have done better, or not done at all. What follows then are four tell-all tips from my experience as an independent e-commerce retailer. I hope you find them useful.
Four Tell-All Tips from a Former Independent E-Commerce Retailer
E-commerce, especially these days, can seem terrifically complex. From artificial intelligence to placing orders via a (creepy) speaker in your living room, the roots of retail have never seemed so far away.
But all of these innovations are so much noise. From my experience, retail is about quality products, presentation, on point pricing and stellar customer service, all wrapped up in a great brand experience.
Back in 2014, I remember stocking a brand of bags from the north of England. While their heritage and quality were beyond question, their marketing and product presentation was (and still is) truly awful. For the first few days, while we shot in-house photography, we relied on their stock images. Sales were terrible. But once we uploaded our new shots, sales grew, and grew, and grew. In fact, it quickly became our best selling line of bags.
So whether its creating engaging blog content, SEO copywriting, or presenting a product in the best possible light, falling back to proven retail best practices will always serve you well.
The retail market in 2008 was vastly different to today. While there were always competitors, there weren’t so very many of them. But I never liked competing or confrontation, so I tried to find ways of serving our customers without feeling like every day was a battle. One of the tricks I devised was always to be first to market.
You’d be surprised how much business you can pick up just by doing your homework. If I saw a press release or a social media post about a new product coming down the line, I would automatically add it to our website and write a blog post about it. Later, as more details were released, I would add to the product and blog pages. If at all possible, I would request a sample and photograph it in-house.
With the new season upon us, the product would finally hit our supply chain, stock would land and orders would start to come in. But the work to get those sales had begun months earlier: not only were we at the top of Google and so had to spend less (or nothing) on advertising, but through the coming soon email sign up on the product page, we already had a list of customers to notify about the availability of the product when it hit our shelves.
For fans of the brand, an email system and user interface we devised called ‘Brand Follow’, also helped to alert engaged customers about new products to the store from their favourite brands.
I once heard the story of how a struggling high street retailer turned their product line from being 80% other people’s brands, to 80% own brand, and reaped the benefits accordingly.
If I have one regret, it’s not making more of our own products. Actually, the decision not to create sub-brands or build a product line directly under the label of our store was undoubtedly my biggest mistake. And it’s not like I didn’t see the benefit at the time: our in-house line of jeans sold incredibly well, with margins more than triple those of our other brands.
So what stopped me? Time. I had got so busy that I had lost perspective and could no longer see clearly. Ironically, the money and effort I was putting into other areas of the store were much less than the energy and investment required to make our own products.
So learn from my failings and look to your product lines – is there anything that you could replicate or improve with very little time, money and effort? If so, make it. It’s important just to begin. And once the bug bites, maybe you can turn a business once reliant on other people’s products, into a profitable and asset-rich brand in its own right.
We might have to scratch that last regret: not properly managing our inventory better might be my new, biggest regret.
Even the smallest e-commerce store can soon become unwieldy with unsold, or slow-moving inventory. And it’s not an easy area to keep track of, especially when a team is small and spread across many roles. The pressures of running out of cash though are all too real, and in truth, I’ll never forget the stress of balancing supplier payments when sales dipped, and our self-funded model proved challenging.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that perhaps I could have done things better. While we didn’t have the tools to track inventory properly, nor systematically promote products that hadn’t sold so well, I could have hired an inventory analyst to spot trends and highlight problem areas before pinch points arose.
It was also a few years into the business before I realised that communicating with suppliers when sales were slow was as important as balancing the books. It didn’t occur to me that, as representatives of their brands, they were as invested in our success as we were. Given enough confidence and warning, our suppliers could ease payment terms to offer us some much-needed wiggle room to ride out difficult months.
But life has a funny way of making use of everything. If I hadn’t gone through such classic small business worries, I wouldn’t have had the experience to create Inventosaur, a Magento extension that bundles inventory analysis and product promotion, helping to solve the very problems that I once suffered as a retailer myself.