EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile: Foxtrot Printing
By Ina Steiner
AuctionBytes regularly features multi-channel merchants in the "EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile" series. To find out how you can be featured, visit this page.
Charlie Walden began selling on eBay to clear out clutter, and now he runs a multi-channel ecommerce business selling personalized labels and enclosure cards. Charlie made the move to his own website because he wanted the freedom to list more items without eBay limitations (and fees). eBay still represents the majority of his sales, but like most online retailers, he finds selling on his own website more profitable.
In today's EveryPlaceISell.com merchant profile, Charlie outlines his experience setting up his own website using GoDaddy hosting and Interspire Shopping Cart. He describes his enthusiasm for Bonanzle, and shares thoughts on social networking and how he differentiates himself from others selling similar products.
Name of Business:
When did you start selling online and why?
I started selling on eBay as a fun way to clear out some clutter (videos, clothes, collectibles, and other assorted dust-catchers) without the trouble of having a garage sale. It was just a hobby at first, but then I got hooked.
What was your background?
Bookstore retail management, technical writing and education, graphic design and web programming.
What do you primarily sell and why?
I primarily sell personalized labels and enclosure cards. This started as a result of my hobby - selling on eBay. I wanted to encourage my customers to leave positive feedback for me so I designed some colorful labels that I added to each invoice (and to the outside of the package.)
One of my customers - who was also an eBay seller - saw the labels and asked where she could get them. After explaining that I had made them myself, she told me that she wanted to buy some from me. One thing led to another, and eventually I started selling my Feedback Reminder labels on eBay.
What are the unique challenges you face with the types of items you sell?
It's difficult to sell personalized items on eBay because eBay's listings and checkout procedure offer no practical way to collect the necessary personalization information from customers. In the beginning, my listings simply asked customers to email me with the information (name, color, wording choices, etc.), but that wasn't very practical.
Eventually I added separate online forms as a "part-2" add-on to eBay's checkout procedure. Now, instead of relying on the customers to provide information by email, they are directed to a form page for the specific item. By filling in a form, the customer doesn't need to remember ALL the options that were available. Also, because space on the stickers is always limited, the online form prevents them from requesting 30 letters of personalized text when there's only room for 15 letters.
On which marketplaces and venues do you sell?
eBay, Bonanzle, FoxtrotPrinting.com
What are the pros and cons of each marketplace and venue?
eBay: Lots of exposure and traffic, but the eBay fees keep increasing. In order for me to continue to be profitable at this venue, I'm forced to raise prices. I like offering customers a good value, but it's not always possible at eBay. Currently my prices are at the upper edge of what I can possibly get for them.
Bonanzle: I love it! Easy to list and a much more relaxed atmosphere. Lower fees mean that I can offer better deals. No "DSR's."
FoxtrotPrinting.com: I can offer my customers a better value. No seller fees and when customers pay by credit card (using my payment processing service, NOT paypal) then it's more profitable for me as well.
The downside of having my own website relates to the technical aspect of it. There's a big learning curve when it comes to hosting your own shopping cart software and keeping it running smoothly. But once everything is set up and operating as it should, I like the fact that I can make minor tweaks and changes as necessary to meet the needs of my business and the different types of items that I sell.
When considering all the places you sell, which channels are most profitable?
Most profitable is my own web store. Most of my sales still come from eBay. Bonanzle is up and coming... I'm glad I'm there, and it's good to diversify. Sales at Bonanzle are picking up.
How does your revenue break out by channel (what percentage of sales come from each channel)?
eBay: 70%, my website: 29%, Bonanzle: 1%
What made you start on Bonanzle?
I first heard of Bonanzle after reading many positive and enthusiastic comments on AuctionBytes. At first I was skeptical, but the positive comments continued to be posted, and that made me curious to find out what all the fuss was about.
After visiting the site, I decided that this was a community that I also wanted to be a part of. I knew right away that even though it wouldn't be a replacement for eBay, it could eventually become a true contender (and a thorn in eBay's side).
I liked the simplicity of listing items as well as their economical fee structure. I felt as though the owners/management truly considered their Sellers to be trusted and valued partners... a welcome change from the unfriendly and often hostile climate at eBay.
I believe that Bonanzle is on the brink of something big... but they're not there yet. At this stage in the game, my sales and traffic at Bonanzle is slower than at eBay, but I have high hopes for the site, and I wanted to make sure that I'm all set-up and in-place when the site reaches a "critical mass" and everything breaks free for Bonanzle.
Just like most all other small/medium eBay Sellers, my sales and traffic have dramatically declined since the "store-to-core" changes earlier this year. This was also part of my motivation in exploring other venues. When the eBay sales dropped, and when I felt uncertain about my future success at eBay (and whether or not I'd even be wanted) I realized that it was time to diversify... expand my options... and not keep all of my eggs in the proverbial "one-basket."
For anyone considering opening a Bonanzle store, I'd recommend it... but I'd also remind them that Bonanzle is not eBay, and for most sellers, it wouldn't be able to match eBay's exposure. As tempting as it might be for someone to leave eBay out of spite, it's more important to be realistic.
But on a more positive note, the more time I spend at Bonanzle (whether it's shopping, browsing, listing new items or simply getting to know other sellers) it is very motivating! The atmosphere is positive and the enthusiasm is contagious... this often gets me back on track whenever I'm feeling frustrated with eBay and whenever I've started to run out of steam.
Which payment methods do you accept?
PayPal and credit cards (credit card processing through Elavon by way of Costco.)
What are the pros and cons of each payment method?
PayPal's fees are painful and it makes me cringe. But it's popular and customers who have a running balance in their PayPal account may be more willing to spend their "available balance on account" rather than adding more to their credit card balance.
My own credit card service has better transaction fees and that's always a benefit. The only downside (at first) was the fact that they had a required minimum number of transactions per month. When the minimum dollar amount is not met, I'm required to pay their minimum monthly service fee. At first, this made them LESS economical than PayPal... but as business started to grow (and as I actively encouraged customers to use credit cards INSTEAD OF PayPal) then I'm able to consistently meet their minimum number of transactions per month.
Background (URL, when launched)
What was the impetus for starting your own website?
Wanting the freedom to be able to list more items (especially personalized items) without the limitations of eBay's format and to be able to do so without having to price items high enough to compensate for all of eBay's fees.
What software/service powers your website, and would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?
My web hosting is powered by Godaddy.com. Currently I'm using a shared server, and this was fine to start off with. I'm now discovering its limitations with regard to speed and performance. I've recently upgraded to a Virtual Dedicated Server (VDS) that gives me more processing power and speed. The process of reinstalling the shopping cart software and transferring the database on the new server is tedious and time consuming (again... getting back to the learning curve issue), but once it's complete, then I'll be able to enjoy the benefits of the added speed and flexibility.
For the shopping cart software, I use Interspire Shopping Cart ("ISC") from Interspire.com. ISC is a full-featured self-hosted shopping cart program that has many advanced features. Depending on someone's needs, it will work fine as an "out of the box" solution. But if a seller want to be able to fully customize the software for their unique needs, it will be helpful to have some experience with PHP programming and with using MySQL databases.
When using the software, I discovered several minor (and not-so-minor) bugs... but with a little help from someone with more programming experience, we were able to get the ISC program fixed and tweaked to suit my specific needs.
Recently, Interspire has launched a hosted shopping cart service that is based on their original ISC self-hosted software. Understandably, this is now their main focus for support and development... but unfortunately, the intense effort devoted to one area of their business means that other areas (the self-hosted software) appear to be neglected in the areas of development, bug-fixes, and customer support.
As is often the case with expanding companies (and based on my personal experience) it appears that Interspire is going through a period of growing-pains and finding (re-establishing?) their footing and priorities. The flurry of success and popularity of the company-hosted version of the Interspire Shopping Cart (www.bigcommerce.com) seems to have overwhelmed their customer support staff and programming team. As a result, their response time suffered and was frequently in need of improvement.
Does it have a checkout system, is so, what do you use, and what do you like/dislike about it?
Yes, it has a checkout system. I like that it was able to easily (and seamlessly) connect with my Elavon credit card processing service. For standard PayPal payments, the customer is directed off of my web site to PayPal to process their payment, but then returned to the cart when everything is complete.
What did you pay to set it up, and what are the monthly costs of running it?
The cost of the software was about $1000 (one time fee) and the hosting service with Godaddy is about $50 per month.
How difficult was it to set up?
Installing and setting-up the shopping cart software was relatively simple, but having previous experience with installing database-driven web applications is an advantage.
With regard to Godaddy's Virtual Dedicated Server (VDS) the set-up process was also a challenge. The virtual dedicated serve gives me more speed and processing power (compared to their basic shared hosting solutions) and it also gives me more control over my web settings and server environment. The basic hosting solutions are often pre-configured and require very little modification - perfect for small sites or novice webmasters. In contrast, the dedicated hosting solutions require a bit more expertise and experience to make the best use of the options and settings.
Does it have analytics, reporting?
Yes, and it also allows the administrator to use add-on analytics services such as Google Analytics.
What features do you wish it had?
ISC has a very rudimentary "coupon codes" feature that has limited functionality. Although ISC's coupon-code feature is functional, it's not as polished and mature as many other aspects of the software, and in contrast, this makes it a glaring blemish that's been long neglected.
What are the challenges you faced in starting your own website?
The challenges are constantly changing. At first, the major challenge was doing the initial research and deciding on the web hosting provider and the shopping cart software. The next phase was developing inventory (both physical and virtual), website promotion, and getting customers to come to my website (and save) instead of continually buying through eBay (and paying more).
What would you do differently if you were setting up a website today?
In my eagerness and enthusiasm to get started with my own website, I became a bit rushed and didn't spend as much time researching my options. I should have done more thorough job of evaluating both the positives and negatives.
In hindsight, there are some things I would have done differently... but this doesn't mean I have any regrets. As of right now, I'm pleased with what I have to work with and the direction of my business.
How did you create the logo/branding for your business/site?
I visited competitors web sites and got the general "flavor" of how the web site was being styled. Although it's not a COPY of anyone's design, it's a combination of the best styles and ideas.
How do you differentiate yourself from others selling similar products?
Service, service, service and price.
How do you drive traffic to your listings, and which channel do you primarily drive traffic to?
Newsletter (opt-in subscription) and coupons/discounts/incentives from my contact with eBay customers.
Can you talk about some of the SEO techniques you employ to drive traffic to your site(s)?
The ISC shopping cart software allows me to easily add keywords and metatags within each listing. I've recently discovered a user-written "hack" (add-on) that permits ISC users to include google traits & attributes. This will be my next project.
Do you participate in social networking sites? If so, which ones?
Which ones work for you? Which don't?
Too early to tell.
Do you have any advice for other sellers about how to utilize social networking?
I'm new at it. Do you have any advice to share with me? :-)
Visit Foxtrot Printing's listing on EveryPlaceISell.com for the links to all of its storefronts and website. 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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