EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile: BookBrowzers.com
By Ina Steiner
Husband and wife Julian and Faye Brogi operate two online businesses - Japanese Garden Supply, selling handcrafted Asian-Inspired wood furniture and accessories, and BookBrowzers.com, selling books. They sell on multiple marketplaces and operate two websites to support their online sales.
In addition to discussing their online selling strategies, Julian and Faye share what it's like to operate a husband-and-wife ecommerce business, with a few tips on making it work!
What is your first and last name?
Faye and Julian Brogi
What is the name of your business?
BookBrowZers.com is our online book sales business, along with OrientalBookshop.com. Julian's woodworking business is called Japanese Garden Supply. Julian is also a Bronze Powerseller on eBay; his store is called BookBrowZers/JapaneseGardenSupply.
When did you start selling online and why?
Julian started selling books online in 2001 as a full-time home-based business. Faye started probably around the same time as a "hobby seller," putting things up on eBay from around the house and yard sales. Faye learned the bookselling business starting in 2007, where she worked alongside Julian and continued to sell on eBay until February 2008. Faye gradually took over more and more of the book business, and in early 2010, Julian was able to concentrate more on bringing up his woodworking business, which he now does full time while Faye works at the books.
What was your background?
Julian had previously owned several businesses, selling vintage clothing, running a very successful T-shirt printing company and a woodworking business. Faye had worked in several industries over the years, most recently in Semiconductors (manufacturing computer chips).
What do you primarily sell and why?
BookBrowZers carries new, used, rare and out-of-print books, ephemera, music, and the occasional collectible. Oriental Book Shop features New, Used, Rare, and Out-of-Print books on the Arts, History and Culture of Asia, with a special focus on Japan.
We have a couple of excellent sources for our books and a place to store all 20,000-plus - and there is still a market for real, live books.
Julian is a woodworker, and he designs and builds all of the products offered by Japanese Garden Supply, which focuses on Handcrafted Asian-Inspired Furniture, Accessories and Gifts for Home and Garden. He also features an eclectic mix of ephemera, vinyl, CDs and collectibles in his eBay store. We'll sell pretty much whatever crosses our path :)
What are the unique challenges you face with the types of items you sell?
Bookselling can be very competitive, with mega sellers having the volume to be able to price books down to nearly nothing. Book storage space is always a concern; luckily we had a large outbuilding put up for just that purpose when we bought our house.
Another hurdle (which we share with every internet merchant) is generating traffic to our listings and websites.
For Julian, the biggest challenges are time and workshop space. Recently, he's had several large orders for his items and he has been working very hard to get them all built and shipped on time. Right now we are working toward the goal of expanding his workshop so he has the room he needs to operate comfortably.
On which marketplaces and venues do you sell?
Our own websites: BookBrowZers.com and OrientalBookshop.com, Amazon, Alibris, AbeBooks, Biblio, Bonanzle (now called Bonanza) and eBay. Japanese Garden Supply is also on Etsy.
What are the pros and cons of each marketplace and venue?
Ebay: Pros - Traffic. Cons - High Fees, Policies.
Amazon: Pros - Traffic. Cons - Fees, policies, no flexibility to adjust shipping for heavier international sales.
Alibris: Pros - Membership gives access to receive order from many streams, including Barnes & Noble, Half.com and many others they have partnered with. Cons - Fees.
AbeBooks: Pros - Used by many international buyers, offers ability to request extra shipping for heavy items.
Biblio: Pros - Low fees, reciprocal seller discounts, very nice site layout, and they've just introduced Commission-Free transactions between members. Cons - Very few orders come through the site at the moment.
Bonanza: Pros - Very low final value fees, ads good until sold, easy listing interface, supportive staff and community, huge growth since coming out of beta. Cons - Some services and a higher level of visibility are available only to paying members.
Etsy: Pros - Low fees, easy listing interface, active community, informative newsletters. Cons - Must refresh listings (1 every 2-3 days to keep fresh) at 20 cents each to maintain visibility. The ability to add more than 4 pictures would be nice also.
BookBrowzers and Oriental Bookshop: Pros - Freedom from policies. Cons - Rent for each site. No control over design/features beyond color scheme.
When considering all the places you sell, which channels are most profitable?
This is very hard to say, since sales vary from site to site every day. One day, orders on Amazon can be through the roof, another day, Bonanza or Etsy...it just depends.
How does your revenue break out by channel (what percentage of sales come from each channel)?
This is also tough to call as it varies all the time. There's not one site that we can depend on to be absolutely consistent day in and day out.
Which payment methods do you accept?
PayPal, personal checks, money orders, all credit cards. BookBrowzers on Bonanza also accepts Google Checkout. We have even received well concealed cash from time to time, especially from overseas!
What are the pros and cons of each payment method?
PayPal: Pros - Well known, easy to use, can be a payment option even if buyer doesn't have an account, available internationally, ability to send invoice. Cons - Fees, charging for refunds, possibility of funds being held.
Checks and Money Orders: Pros - Gives buyers payment alternatives. Cons - Possibility of bouncing or being fake, having to hold item until payment is received.
Google Checkout: Pros - Quick and easy to use, gaining popularity, screens credit cards prior to charge, flexibility on how the merchant charges the card. Cons - Having to ship without funds in hand, since payments are not accessible until transferred to bank account (2-3 days).
Where are your own ecommerce websites?
BookBrowzers.com and OrientalBookshop.com.com were launched around mid-2006. Oriental Bookshop was actually the first site we opened...BookBrowzers came a little later.
What was the impetus for starting your own website?
Like many sellers, we hope to someday break away from the "big corporations," unfortunately we're not quite there yet.
If you hired any companies to set up your website and/or design your logo/branding, how did you find them?
Both sites are hosted through Chrislands, a host company that was originally targeted toward booksellers; they've branched out a bit now. Julian found them through a bookseller discussion list.
What software/service powers your website, and would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?
I personally would not recommend Chrislands except as a very basic service. Support sets up the site for you (for a fee) so you don't have to know HTML or other languages. The design looks "cookie cutter," though you can play with color schemes, and they also give the option to set up discounts and gift cards.
Overall it works just fine, but I think they could add more "bells & whistles" in the form of more "eye appealing" design, RSS feeds, and the ability to add more than one photo to listings. I would also like to see the ability to assign a shipping cost to an individual listing, such as a heavy item.
Does it have a checkout system, is so, what do you use, and what do you like/dislike about it?
The shopping cart/checkout system is built right into the sites. Again, I would like more flexibility in assigning shipping costs to individual items.
If you use an ecommerce service or shopping cart, how would you go about the evaluation process if you had to purchase one today?
I would have to research thoroughly and see what others recommend...I'd probably pose the question on Facebook and Twitter, and maybe a bookseller's discussion list such as Bookfinder Insider.
What did you pay to set it up, and what are the monthly costs of running it?
Chrislands support set it all up for us.
Does it have analytics, reporting?
Our Chrislands sites do offer Google Analytics.
What features do you wish it had?
Flexible setup for international and Priority shipping; more shipping options. RSS capability and more design choices.
What are the challenges you faced in starting your own website?
Don't think we saw it as a major challenge at the time; it seemed more like an adventure.
What would you do differently if you were setting up a website today?
I would interview the host to see how well they were set up for "keeping up with the times" as in changes/advances in technologies...how the site would adapt as the internet changes.
How do you control inventory as a multi-channel seller? In other words, if you have the same item listed on multiple channels, and it sells, how do you make sure you take it down from the other channels?
Our entire inventory of 20,000 books is managed through a program called Bookhound. Our add & delete files are sent to all of our selling sites once a day; twice if necessary. It is a bit challenging at times since sales are recorded manually, so we have to be diligent in making sure all steps are followed to the letter. Once in awhile, if we sell a book that we know to be a hot item, we have the option of immediate manual deletes on all sites.
There are automated programs that will automatically remove a listing from all sites when it sells on one, but issues happen so infrequently the cost really isn't justifiable. Other items that are not listed in Bookhound are removed manually from each site as they are sold. Of course, listings for the wood items will always be relisted, or are set up for multiple sales.
How did you create the logo/branding for your business/site?
Our BookBrowzers logo comes from a bookplate that Julian found many years ago. The little guy sitting on a stool reading a book is a perfect logo, and he works hard for us all over the internet, including our social media sites.
How do you differentiate yourself from others selling similar products?
Personal Service. Engaging the buyer through semi-personal, conversational emails, offering solutions, extra photos, going the extra mile, etc. A lot of the old-time "service with a smile" is lost on the internet...we attempt to "smile" and give that personal service from cyberspace.
I think attention to detail accounts for a lot also. Many times we have received feedback that a buyer chose to purchase our copy of a book from hundreds available simply based on the detailed description of the condition. Our pricing tends to be middle-of-the-road, not the most or least expensive, so this tells me that buyers like the idea of knowing exactly what they're getting.
How do you drive traffic to your listings, and which channel do you primarily drive traffic to?
We target all of our venues at different times depending on new products we add, or something particularly interesting...you just never know who you're going to reach. We don't advertise the book sites like Amazon or Alibris...any publicity about the books is going to invite shoppers to our own websites.
Can you talk about some of the SEO techniques you employ to drive traffic to your site(s)?
Of course we use relevant keywords, and our listings are sent to Google shopping on a regular basis by our site host. We add new content nearly every day, which I think helps also. I've been told that backlinks help a lot, so I post links whenever and wherever I can.
Do you participate in social networking sites? If so, which ones?
Julian lets me handle the social media; I've set up Facebook Pages, Twitter, Google Buzz, discussion boards...all the usual suspects and any others I can find. You name it, I'm probably there somewhere. I'm currently working on setting up LinkedIn.
Which ones work for you? Which don't?
They all work in different ways at different times, depending on what I post and who sees it! I think that the more we get ourselves out on the internet, the more chances we have of catching the fancy of someone who's looking for what we offer.
Do you have any advice for other sellers about how to utilize social networking?
Yes! Don't bombard your social media followers with never-ending streams of ads for your product. Followers will UNfollow quicker than you can blink if they don't like what you're posting, and no one likes spam. Engage, interact and converse rather than constantly selling.
What are the joys and pitfalls of working as a husband-and-wife business?
Working together with your life partner and supporting each other in a common goal is extremely satisfying and absolutely priceless; everything that we do benefits the family rather than a company or corporation. (Faye says: Even the fact that I personally have never worked so hard at any job in my life doesn't detract from the feeling of being completely in charge of one's own fate.)
Trust: What business partner could you trust more than your own spouse?
A big plus is having the freedom to take time off once in awhile (though we rarely do - but we're working on that!), or even to just push back from the work and play with the dogs when the mood strikes. We can have a good laugh (or a good cry!) when it comes along...I guess that's the best part about it; we enjoy what we do and have a good time doing it!
A common issue among the self-employed is feeling that you're constantly working; we are never really able to clock out and leave the work at the office. This feeling can be compounded between a couple as we drift into talking shop over dinner, for example...or dinner is late because we've been working late into the evening...!
We have tried many times to work within set hours, but the day can vary according to things that happen around the home, or if there is a sale/auction we need to attend to purchase inventory (part of work, of course!) ... this could also be seen as an advantage, though; it works both ways. Life can invade Work, as well as Work invading Life, and we sort of roll with the punches to try and make it all even out.
Our household is dependent on one economy, rather than having the support of one partner with a so-called "real" job and benefits. We have to work harder to establish our own security, which can be a bit scary at times.
If an argument over work comes up, it could carry over into the personal relationship; thankfully that hasn't ever happened to us!
Do you have tips for other couples on making it work?
We don't work right on top of each other. We have separate offices, and each day discuss the agenda and what tasks should take precedence. I may list books all day while Julian works in the wood shop, works on new designs, puts up eBay listings or splits his day between them. I might spend part of the morning on social media and promotion, or we could decide to work on site design or a new strategy together.
Some days, if we have an extra heavy load of new inventory, we will team up on listing books. Three days a week, I take care of packing and shipping, while Julian works on the project of the day. It helps immensely to use the "divide and conquer" method.
Both partners MUST be dedicated and self-motivated. In addition, it is essential to be able to talk with each other, give honest and constructive feedback, and share concerns when they arise.
For a husband/wife team, the quality of the business depends on the quality of the marriage. If you have a good, solid relationship and are good friends, the business stands a better chance of weathering any storms that come along, as well as making the good times even better.
Visit Faye and Julian'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 email@example.com.
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