It’s been 13 years since opening my eCommerce store. Boy, have I learned a lot. I would love to say that I have perfected my store, that the search engines love me and I am making millions. My store is far better than what it was last year and scads better than 5 or 10 years ago, but it is by no means perfect. We sell over 400,000 products; yes that’s right, 400,000 products. Manipulating all of that data is not easy.
I have told others that being in eCommerce is similar to surfing. Once you learn to surf, you look for that secret spot.
This is a place where you can ride the waves, not being cut off by some hot shot, but enjoy nice long rides in peace and quiet. I had that secret spot for about 3 years. Sales were increasing at 20% per year, which for my industry was pretty good. I wasn’t setting any records, but when you hit over $3 million in sales per year, it should allow you to start investing in key players and development that will take you to another secret spot. What I did not foresee was our market changing. I know that Google changes their algorithm as frequently as the wind changes, but I did not realize that people were slowly finding my secret spot and beginning to ride the same wave I was riding. Somehow, as I was so busy running my business, I didn’t see them a few feet from me paddling their board into the surf. They were invisible to me or I passed them off as a kid on a rubber raft. What I didn’t realize was that they were learning to surf as well. They were getting their legs conditioned to take the changes of each wave so that they would be able to graduate to a surfboard.
Ok, enough surfing analogies. I want to help you. I want to warn you about pitfalls that you will surely be tempted to fall for. I think that most of us open an online store, seeing it as an opportunity to increase our market share. Yes, this will happen, but there are costs involved that you simply do not have as a brick and mortar store. I have always retained a web developer to edit, change or create new features that I simply don’t have a clue how to do. Now, I have several developers working for me, some full time, others part time. I also have to have web content people who can add products to my site, using ad copy that is creative as well as SEO friendly. Let’s not forget data entry personnel who will add thousands of pages and products that your web content person doesn’t have time to do. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to WHY I decided to go on-line in the first place. Where I live, it can be wet and rainy, sometimes for months. I don’t mean raining every day, but pretty moist. My customers are home builders. They build new homes. When it is raining, they can’t pour concrete footings. Without concrete footings, houses don’t get built. Without them using their tools, they don’t need new ones nor do they even need to get them repaired. It rained off and on for months, thus my local sales slowed to a trickle of what they used to be. I had to think of something that would get the ball rolling again. I wish I could say that I had thought of it first, but a friend who was in the pool building business had sold his pool business after starting an online pool equipment business. He suggested that I give on-line sales a try with my product line. I decided to give it a go. I started with one part that someone had called me about from halfway across the country. I had a one page info site, but no products. I decided to offer that one part that they had called about and that’s how it all began. Back then, I had to create each product page one at a time. This was slow and when I had to hire someone to help, expensive as well. Now, we have over 400,000 products. Sounds like a success story doesn’t it. Well, it has been quite a ride, but now a cargo ship has found our surfing spot. That ship is called the MSS Amazon. This ship has disturbed the natural ebb and flow of the waves at our beach. If you intend on offering a product online that Amazon can also sell, then prepare to watch your margins slip. The ideal online store will have products that are not sold by these behemoths. They will be sold ONLY to a select few companies or better yet, custom made creations that have not been mass produced……..yet. Remember the surfing analogy. Enjoy your spot for as long as you can and plan on picking up your surfboard every couple of years to find a new spot to surf, because your area, if successful WILL be found out and reproduced, maybe not at the quality of your own product, but reproduced and sold online. You MUST Amazon proof your business. You must also make it Ebay proof, Wal-Mart proof and any big company proof or they will find your spot and come in and steal your margins. Don’t just offer stuff to sell. You must separate your business from everyone else’s business. Mass offerings of stuff just doesn’t cut it any more. There are too many people out there just throwing popular items up on the web, waiting for a sale; sort of like fishing. They know that they will snag someone, but is that the kind of business you want?
To enjoy your online business, I would not start with What will make me rich, because money is a short lived bit of enjoyment. You need to do what you love and then utilize the online community to publicize your services or products. Don’t make your online store an end in itself. You will be fighting every person that has access to your products and a computer. If you do sell online, then your product has to be a little different than everyone else’s or you need to offer something that the other guys don’t offer. Do NOT try and just be the lowest price, because it will be a quick losing battle to the bottom as you and your competitor try and beat the other guys price until your margin becomes stupid and you find you and your staff eating Ramen for every meal. The big boys have much deeper pockets and buying power than you ever will, so don’t go there.
My other bit of advice is to keep your inventory offering only as large as you need to. Managing 10’s of thousands of products from 30 or more different vendors is a HUGE undertaking data-wise. Find your niche and become an expert at that niche. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Let Wal-Mart take on that headache. The search engines love rich content. That means having more information, how to articles, video and publications about your products than anyone else. You can’t do that effectively for 50,000 products, but you can do it for 100 or more products.
Let your online business compliment what you do, don’t let it be an end in itself. If you sell widgets, then know more about widgets than anyone else. Become an expert on widgets. You and your company should own the widget world! That is what you do. Your online presence is simply an extension of your knowledge. It’s so easy to get focused on your online store that you forget what you do. Your online store is one avenue by which you connect with your customers. Some people ONLY have an online store and that is fine, but actually talking to your customers, even if it is only on the phone to help them with their purchase decision is valuable. We are not made up of 0’s and 1’s. We are analog beings. We use all of these 0’s and 1’s to serve us, not the other way around. An online store can be great, but make it a place where customers can learn about your products as well as you and your team. Let it be a way to connect to more people than just in your town as well as help others with your products, knowledge and service. Don’t just sell stuff.