EveryPlaceISell Merchant Profile: Dolls and Lace
By Ina Steiner
Jim and Susan Robison operated a mail order business for eight years before they began selling online in 1996 after the cost of printing and mailing catalogs became prohibitive. They sell antique dolls and accessories, antique jewelry, antique and vintage lace, ribbon, millinery, buttons and trims, and more, on their website, Dolls and Lace.
Their customers include celebrity designers, well known doll artisans and instructors, such as Alessandra Thor, musical artists, and clients from theater and film, including Disney Studios, where their vintage lace was purchased for costume embellishment in the second movie of the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Jim and Susan sell on marketplaces, antiques malls, and on their own website, and in today's EveryPlaceISell merchant profile, they share their experiences selling on multiple channels and discuss about the importance of product diversification, and much more.
What is your first and last name?
Jim and Susan Robison
What is the name of your business?
Dolls and Lace
When did you start selling online and why?
In 1996, this was because the cost of printing and mailing catalogs for our mail order business became prohibitive.
What was your background?
Susan was an Elementary School teacher. Jim was self employed and had a business and sales background.
What do you primarily sell and why?
Antique dolls and accessories, antique jewelry, antique and vintage lace, ribbon, millinery, buttons and trims. Also, antique and vintage clothing, tea sets, shabby chic items.
What are the unique challenges you face with the types of items you sell?
We buy from sources all around the globe, which is a constant challenge finding new sources and dealing with long time vendors. The increases in shipping costs and how to deal with those costs. Keeping up on trends in the marketplace is a full time job.
On which marketplaces and venues do you sell?
Dolls and Lace, Ruby Lane, Ruby Plaza, Etsy, Bonanza, and previous years of experience on eBay and Tias.
What are the pros and cons of each marketplace and venue?
Dollsandlace.com (own site): complete freedom to set your own policies, listings, and are able to set your own standard for handling problems and payment methods. No restrictions on content and creativity. More difficult to set up initially and maintain with URL's, SSL's, Hosting, software sourcing and set up as well as establishing policies.
Ruby Lane: Some instant credibility with existing Mall. Easier to set up than own site. Sales have been good on Ruby Lane for jewelry and antique dolls. Ruby Lane has restrictive requirements for photos and descriptions and does not help merchants capture Credit Card information. Many lost sales because we were not able to process cards in real time or at least capture information to process. Must call or wait for calls for CC info which results in lost time and sales. Repeated requests for more help in actually completing a sale by obtaining payment information online has fallen on deaf ears with management. Selling cost is reasonable if listing items in certain prices ranges; if average item cost is too low, the cost of selling based on the Ruby Lane formula is much to high. Works well for items $100-$5000.
Ruby Plaza: Opened to list items not able to be listed on Ruby Lane due to various restrictions, and mainly opened due to low cost shops ($9), which now has been extended through 2010. Shop has been open less than one month, so not enough sales data to form any opinions on strength of this marketplace.
Etsy: Opened shop on Etsy to move some low-price inventory that did not sell well on other venues. Etsy allows for feedback, which helps build credibility. Sales data shows that some inventory that needed to be sold has been sold on this venue, but this was done at a loss, due to fairly high selling costs.
Bonanza: Shop opened only a few months. Done as an experiment to get exposure to certain inventory on Google Shopping. Cost to open is $0 and fees are extremely low. No sales from the site directly, only those where we have directed customers through our own marketing.
eBay: Previously had auctions and two stores on Ebay. Both stores have been closed due to very high cost of sales and low sales volume.
When considering all the places you sell, which channels are most profitable?
Our own site, dollsandlace.com is by far the most profitable. For several years, Ruby Lane was quite profitable as well, but that has dropped off quite a bit this year.
Ruby Plaza and Bonanza are much too recent to rate as far as sales and profitability.
Etsy either breaks even or loses a small amount each month, but is used to sell inventory not selling well in other venues. Etsy will most likely be dropped when the low cost inventory is sold off.
How does your revenue break out by channel (what percentage of sales come from each channel)?
Own site - 85%; Ruby Lane - 15%; Etsy - less than 1%; Ruby Plaza - too new to track; Bonanza - less than 1%, very new venue.
Which payment methods do you accept?
Credit Card processed directly-Visa, MC, Discover, personal checks, money orders/cashiers checks, Google Checkout and PayPal.
What are the pros and cons of each payment method?
Credit Card through merchant account-Visa, MC, Discover: By far the easiest method of payment. Gives merchant more credibility than those not accepting cards only through PayPal. We are very surprised that more merchants do not set up their own merchant accounts instead of relying on PayPal. The cost is lower, much less regulation and risk of charge backs. By far the best payment method for online sales.
Personal Checks: We will most likely be eliminating the option of using personal checks. The problem is not NSF checks but the slowness of the transactions. People sending checks don't send them right away and in many cases are asking where their orders are before we even have the check or it has cleared. This method is suitable for some large dollar sales to save CC expenses but is really not suitable for small or medium size transactions due to many orders never paid for, slow receipt of funds resulting in slow shipping.
Money Orders/Cashiers Checks: Good for large dollar transactions to save CC fees. Usually these type of checks are sent to us more quickly than personal checks.
Google Checkout: Fairly recent addition so not much experience at this time.
PayPal: We may eliminate PayPal at a later date. We try to avoid accepting this payment method on international orders as any method that meets the standard of proof requires a shipping method so expensive that sales are nearly impossible to complete. We have a very good track record with PayPal but do not trust them at all. We once shipped a $3500 item based on an instant payment and several days later after the item had been shipped the payment was canceled and withdrawn. We had to stop the shipment in transit and were paid with a cashiers check. Hopefully another electronic payment method will take over the position currently held by PayPal.
Background (URL, when launched)
Dollsandlace.com was registered in 1998, prior to that time we operated under the domain antiquetoybox.net.
What was the impetus for starting your own website?
Increasing costs and time involved in preparing and mailing catalogs for mail order antique business.
What software/service powers your website, and would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?
Our platform was purchased from a developer who no longer supports the software.
Does it have a checkout system, is so, what do you use, and what do you like/dislike about it?
Yes, there is a checkout, shopping cart system integrated into the software.
If you use an ecommerce service or shopping cart, how would you go about the evaluation process if you had to purchase one today?
We are currently evaluating several platforms for a future upgrade. We carefully go over all specs and features. We contact users of each platform, particularly web developers who have used one or more than one of the prospective software platforms. We use their input to determine which is best for our specific situation.
What did you pay to set it up, and what are the monthly costs of running it?
Even though the site is approaching 2,000 items, we spend under $200 a year for hosting and about the same amount for SSL certificate. Out next platform will be one that we purchase rather than paying a monthly fee to use. Every year or two there will be a small cost for an update, but we like to own the software so there is no monthly cost.
How difficult was it to set up?
We have a large number of items in inventory, which involves quite a bit of time to load. We built the site offline and brought it online when completed.
Does it have analytics, reporting?
We currently have analytics through our hosting service, they are quite in-depth.
What features do you wish it had?
We currently are working on an upgrade which will have many features we currently lack such as: Payment processing in real time, ability to upsell through various methods, ability to place an inventory item in multiple categories easily, ability to do store- or category-wide discounts with one entry instead of changing each item. We also are looking forward to better invoice retention and search capability as well as better interface with accounting software.
What are the challenges you faced in starting your own website?
The internet was fairly new and we had to learn a great deal. Susan needed to learn HTML to be able to build new pages and give the site its look.
What would you do differently if you were setting up a website today?
The internet is so large now that if we were starting today we would start in Malls and other selling venues and build a site as time permitted and launch and build traffic using our other selling venues for revenue as we built sales on the site. We have a great deal of traffic since we have been online so long. One thing that is very important is to have your domain name say what it is that you do or sell. A person's name or a catchy phrase will hurt you in search rankings.
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?
Many of our items we have multiple quantities of (millinery, lace, ribbon, etc.), so if we sell the same item from two sites, it does not matter. We have not perfected a method of tracking and removing SOLD items and every once in a while double-sell. We try to remove sold items as quickly as possible from other venues, but sometimes it is only once a week.
How did you create the logo/branding for your business/site?
We spent a great deal of time developing the dollsandlace name and logo. We had used another name previously and wanted a name that said exactly what we sold. Susan developed the logo.
How do you differentiate yourself from others selling similar products?
We quickly realized that we needed to differentiate from other sites. We were the first sellers of antique dolls to start selling doll clothes, accessories and lace, ribbon, etc., for use by doll and professional costumers. We found that the diversification really helped our profit and cash flow since in lean times, higher dollar items don't sell as well but, many customers will buy $300 worth of supplies but not a $300 single item.
It may seem simple but there is power in having multiple quantities of the same item. We have items on the site that sell month after month year after year with only ONE initial listing; it is as difficult to list one item as an item that you have 500 quantity of. Of course this is not applicable to many items, but we look for inventory that is old store stock where we can buy quantity.
How do you drive traffic to your listings, and which channel do you primarily drive traffic to?
Our site has been online so long that we have a large customer base. We do use postcards to contact old customers and refresh their memory since they may have had us marked on a computer that is not in service any more.
Can you talk about some of the SEO techniques you employ to drive traffic to your site?
We cannot help much in this area since our 14 years online have made it possible for us to do almost no advertising. I would say that I agree with Bob Parsons and his ideas on advertising - it should be measurable and trackable or it should not be done.
Do you participate in social networking sites? If so, which ones?
We have experimented to a small degree but have not really been able to spend much time in this area.
Visit Dolls and Lace 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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