EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile: Bubblefast
By Ina Steiner
AuctionBytes-Update regularly features multi-channel merchants in our "EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile" series. To find out how you can be featured, go here.
Robin Le Vine began selling on eBay in 1999, and the immediate sale of one roll of bubble wrap led to more quick sales that very quickly turned into a full time family business, called Bubblefast, which sells shipping supplies at wholesale prices to the public.
In addition to selling on a number of marketplaces, she launched the Bubblefast website in 2000, evolving it from a one-page site designed by a family member to a full-featured website that attracts customers who don't necessarily shop on eBay, Amazon and smaller marketplaces.
Mark and Robin Le Vine employ a variety of marketing techniques and engage in social networking - and they pick up the phone to answer calls from customer. "We cater to the mom and pop family businesses because we are one, too," said Mark.
Mark and Robin Le Vine
Name of business:
eBay, own website (Bubblefast.com), Amazon, Bonanzle, eBid, BuyItSellIt, Wigix, Addoway and Netspray.
What do you primarily sell and why?
We primarily sell shipping supplies such as bubble wrap, mailers, packing peanuts, boxes and tape. We were also an eBay Trading Assistant for a several years but decided to drop it and focus on our core shipping supply business. Shipping supplies are a "pick and shovel" business of the online industry. Our products can be used by virtually anyone who sells a product online, which is why we sell shipping supplies.
What are the unique challenges you face with the types of items you sell?
Ironically enough, shipping is one of our biggest challenges in selling shipping supplies. A few years ago all the shipping companies changed the way they charge for shipping. After a certain size, we are charged by size, not actual weight. For example, a 4 lb roll of bubble wrap ships as if it weighs 41 lbs, due to its size. It becomes difficult to explain to a customer why shipping sometimes costs more than the product, but it does!
Have you ever been tempted to expand into other product categories beyond shipping supplies?
Bubblefast jumped on the eBay Trading Assistant bandwagon back in June 2004. We have literally sold thousands of items for other people. We did make money for us and our customers. One of the coolest non-financial benefits was the fact that we sold Trading Assistant items to over 30 foreign countries!
Another great benefit of selling other people's stuff is that this may open the door to finding your own niche with very little risk and cost. We have sold so many cool items and learned so much about different items through our extensive research before selling the items. For example, one of our earliest customers brought us brand new name-brand power tools. We sold a lot and learned a new niche, if we decided to go in a different direction.
However, times have changed. With today's economy being what it is, so many more people are searching their closets, garages and attics for stuff to sell. They are selling the items on their own and for less than we could sell and still make a profit for us and our customers. Therefore, we decided to put the Trading Assistant program on the backburner and we are no longer accepting new items to sell for others.
If you like, take a look at our eBay store category Virtual Garage Sale and you can see what Trading Assistant inventory we still have left.
What benefit has being a member of eBay Voices been to your business?
I've been a member of Voices for several years. The benefits of participation have hopefully been to eBay and the eBay community. The major benefit to Bubblefast has been the opportunity to make many new friends.
What are the pros and cons of each of the marketplace and venues on which you sell?
eBay-Best venue to find buyers. Very little marketing needed because eBay brings the buyers to you. However, it is also the most expensive and complicated venue and the one that wants to control you the most.
Our own website at Bubblefast.com -Best place to sell. We have the most control and there are no fees. However, getting customers to the site is a challenge. Maintaining high ranking SEO practices and effective pay-per-click ad campaigns is time consuming.
Amazon-Easy place to sell with little confusion. Amazon is expensive at a flat 15% selling fee, but at least you know exactly what your costs are. There are many buyers available, but price seems more important than reputation.
Bonanzle-This is a new venue that we just recently joined. We have have good success here considering the short amount of time since we registered. It is growing very rapidly and claims to bring back the feeling of community that eBay has lost. Fees are very reasonable. Bonanzle has the capability of importing your eBay items with the touch of a button. We look forward to growing with Bonanzle.
eBid-Very easy and inexpensive to list. However, sales are scarce.
BuyItSellIt-Changed name to Highwire.com. Owned by inkFrog, an approved eBay API company. I love inkFrog as a listing tool for eBay. However, sales on Highwire are scarce.
Wigix-New venue that is inexpensive and easy. Like Bonanzle, you can import your items from eBay. Also, you can apply to "own" a category if you are an expert. You can earn extra income by monitoring your category and answering questions. We have items for sale on Wigix and "own" three categories. We converted very few sales and have yet to earn extra money by owning categories. It is a creative idea. We just wish there was more traffic.
Addoway-This site claims to be the social networking solution to online sales by combining the two. It is a free site in its startup phase. Like others, direct import from eBay is possible. Again, we like the idea, but will have to see where it goes.
Netspray-This site is very interesting and unique. You put your items up for sale to anyone visiting the site. Additionally, you can choose anyone's item and create a widget to add to your own site or social networking pages. In this way, items have the potential of going viral. We tried this for a while. Unfortunately, we met with little success.
When considering all the places you sell, which channels are most profitable?
Bubblefast.com, eBay, Amazon, Bonanzle - Only because these are the only channels with significant amount of sales.
How does your revenue break out by channel (what percentage of sales come from each channel)?
eBay: 45%, Bubblefast.com: 40%, Amazon: 10%, Bonanzle: 5%
Which payment methods do you accept?
PayPal, Google Checkout, Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express and checks.
What are the pros and cons of each payment method?
By far, PayPal is the most popular. It is the least expensive (other than checks) and most secure. Some (very few) buyers do not like PayPal, so we need other options. I love the fact that your PayPal funds are instantaneously available. PayPal can also be used to charge all major credit cards. Additionally, PayPal has seller protection.
Google Checkout is very convenient and easy to use. Slightly more expensive than PayPal but less expensive than credit cards. There seems to be an issue with using Google Checkout on our website. When purchasing some items with free shipping and some with shipping added, Google Checkout does not charge properly for the added shipping items.
The acceptance of major credit cards are necessary in case some customers do not have a PayPal account. Also, it is a good backup in case PayPal is down. Credit cards are the most expensive form of payment acceptance. Also, one must get a merchant processing account, which can get complicated.
Bubblefast.com is in its third phase. Originally, when there were only a few items to sell, the website was a homegrown single-page program. As our product line grew and buyers became more Internet savvy, it was no longer desirable for a one-page website. About two years ago we converted to a full blown shopping cart software with many features. Some of these features include: Customer login, email marketing, Search, Coupon codes, Customer reward program, Internal cross-selling SEO submissions, Gift Certificates, etc. A couple of months ago we hired a designer to give the site a facelift to make it more appealing for customers to stick around.
What was the impetus for starting your own website?
While eBay is a great place to find customers, it remains the most expensive venue. So, our own website was the natural answer to keep the expenses down. Additionally, our own website gives us the opportunity for customers to find us by other means. Not everyone shops on eBay.
What software/service powers your website, and would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?
We purchased a shopping cart software called ProductCart. It is unbelievably inexpensive - around $700. The key is that you own the software, not license it. Also, it is comprised of .asp files that most programmers know. So, it is very easy to customize changes. Even though there are many features available, it is still very easy to use and get started. I highly recommend this software to anyone who wants a shopping cart for their website. It took me about two years to research and this one came out on top.
At what point did you bring in a web designer, and how did you go about selecting them?
Even with a limited knowledge of html and asp, ProductCart can be easily customized. However, after a year and half, we decided to hire a designer to make massive design and programming changes to meet needs beyond our ability to program.
The decision as to who to hire was made easy for us. There are only a limited number of companies that specialize in programming changes to ProductCart. Through the productCart forums, we selected the Greybeard Design Group. This was the company that stood out as the most talked about and most knowledgeable to make design and programming changes to ProductCart. We feel that the Greybeard Design Group worked above and beyond our expectations in developing a site that allows us to stand out over our competition.
Does it have a checkout system, is so, what do you use, and what do you like/dislike about it?
ProductCart has a checkout system that works very well. It accepts PayPal, Google Checkout and all major credit cards. What I don't like about it is if you use the express checkout buttons for PayPal and Google Checkout. The express pay buttons bypass the coupon fields so your customer does not have the opportunity to receive the discount you gave.
What did you pay to set it up, and what are the monthly costs of running it?
We paid $700. That's it. NO more fees. No monthly costs. NOTHING! You do need a web host, which can be had very inexpensively, for as little as $10-$30 per month.
How difficult was it to set up?
If you select a web host from Early Impact (ProductCart)'s recommended list, setup is a snap, since they will do it for you. In no time you will be up and running. You can either manually load items for sale or import a file.
Does it have analytics and reporting capabilities?
It has both, although I feel this is a weakness. I use Google Analytics for stats. There is a custom report feature, but you cannot save the reports.
What features do you wish it had?
Discount code available for express checkout; eBay import; ability to save reports.
What are the challenges you faced in starting your own website?
Choosing the software is a time consuming project. Getting people to visit the site once it's up is always the biggest challenge. Deciding on pricing vs. eBay prices can get mind-bending.
What would you do differently if you were setting up a website today?
Nothing. I love my website!
How did you create the logo/branding for your business/site?
The original logo was designed by a family member. It has been modified a little over the years as business has changed. We have worked long and hard to brand our name, Bubblefast. We try to get ourselves "out there" as much as possible. We're on the boards, social media, podcasts and local Meetup groups.
Wherever possible, we offer discount codes. We also have a very nice pen with our logo on it, we pass it out as much as possible and include it in our packages. We volunteer to send out a box or so to ecommerce events to add to their goody bags. Most importantly, we make sure our customers know we are there for them. We always make ourselves available to answer questions or solve problems. Even if we don't have what you need, we will try to find it for you. These are the types of actions that customers and potential customers remember. Hopefully, when they need shipping supplies or know someone who does, the Bubblefast name with pop up.
How do you differentiate yourself from others selling similar products?
We do our best to make people feel comfortable talking to us. We cater to the mom and pop family businesses because we are one, too. We want you to feel that we understand what you need and we do the best we can to help. No customer or order is too small - there just is no such thing.
How do you drive traffic to your listings, and which channel do you primarily drive traffic to?
We primarily try to drive traffic to our website. Fees are zero! We place stickers on our boxes that give a website-only discount code for your next order. We put a label on our packages that says to reorder from www.bubblefast.com. We put pens in our packages with our website URL under the logo. We have a limited budget for Google Adwords. We spent (too much) time on tweaking our search engine natural search. We network online with Facebook and Twitter. We spend time listening to and participating in podcasts. We attend several local ecommerce Meetup.com group meetings.
Can you talk about some of the SEO techniques you employ to drive traffic to your site(s)?
We are currently using a free downloadable software called WEBCEO. It has amazing capabilities to analyze and suggest changes. It tells you EXACTLY what to do and compares you to your competition. We attend SEO seminars and webinars. We have a minor Google Adwords budget. We use Google Analytics, and Webmaster tools.
Do you participate in social networking sites? If so, which ones?
We have a Bubblefast fan page on Facebook and use Twitter.
Which ones work for you? Which don't?
We have had a few sales from Facebook ads. Mostly, we use Facebook and Twitter to let people know who we are and that we're here. Also, by paying attention to others' tweets, we find many good articles to read about ecommerce and SEO techniques.
Do you have any advice for other sellers about how to utilize social networking?
Don't tweet sales every 5 minutes. People will get annoyed. Social networking works best if you share information and just keep your name out there. Social networking isn't a place to find business. It's a place for business to find you.
Visit Bubblefast's listing on EveryPlaceISell.com for the links to all of their storefronts and websites. If you are a multi-channel merchant with your own website, you can learn more about being featured in AuctionBytes on this page.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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