EPIS Merchant Profile: Sharon's Vintage Store
By Ina Steiner
Sharon Blanding began selling online on eBay in 2003, and three years later, she launched her own website, SharonsVintageStore.com. She also has three stores on eCrater, three on Bonanza, and one on Etsy. In today's EveryPlaceISell.com merchant profile, Sharon talks about the challenges of setting up an ecommerce website using PrestoStore and some of the ways she drives traffic to her website and storefronts.
What do you primarily sell and why?
Primarily I sell vintage jewelry, with a sprinkling of contemporary items thrown in.
What are the unique challenges you face with the types of items you sell?
Very heavy competition, probably one of the heaviest of all product lines sold online.
On which marketplaces and venues do you sell?
My own website, SharonsVintageStore.com; Bonanzle (3 stores); eCrater (3 stores); Etsy (1 store).
What are the pros and cons of each marketplace and venue?
The pros of having my own website is that most of my sales come from there, and that I have pretty much total control over it versus the marketplace sites, where you have little control. For example, I like to take credit cards, and cannot do that on the market sites. Another pro of all of these sites is that inventory can be placed there and left an indefinite time, until it sells, without it costing anything (except for Etsy).
When considering all the places you sell, which channels are most profitable?
Definitely the most profitable is my own website, by a wide margin. Next is eCrater, because there are no costs involved there.
How does your revenue break out by channel (what percentage of sales come from each channel)?
My website 95%, eCrater 5% and Bonanzle (Bonanza) 2%.
I just recently started a small store at Etsy, but will not be listing much there, because of the costs involved and also because they do not submit many of the stores to Google Shopping, and consequently sellers feel the need to "relist" constantly in order to have visibility.
Part of the reason most of my sales come from my website is that is where I put 95% of my energy. So certainly the fact that my sales are lower at the marketplace sites is directly related to that fact. In fact, I'm surprised how I get a regular inflow of orders from eCrater, since I do so little about adding new items there.
Which payment methods do you accept?
On all sites I accept PayPal, Google Checkout, checks and money orders, and on my website I accept all of those plus credit cards.
What are the pros and cons of each payment method?
The cons with PP and GCO is that there are many horror stories of them shutting down sellers without notice, sometimes on what seems to be the flimsiest of reasons. So that always scares me, though I personally have never had a problem. I feel like they have to be offered, however, since so many people use them. I love people to use credit cards, because I have a minimum that I like to be reached and the more people that use them the lower my cost per transaction.
One service that I can recommend for a merchant account and gateway is Flagship Merchant Services, which uses First Data as the gateway. You can use them month-to-month, without an extended contract, which really appealed to me, and it took me about 5 minutes to set them up through Prestostores. (Filling out the application with them, over the phone, took longer but was also painless.) I've used them for over a year now.
Background (URL, when launched) and what was the impetus for starting your own website?
Sharons Vintage Store
Back in 2003 I bought two "box lots" of vintage jewelry at an auction. At the time I knew nothing about jewelry, and started selling on eBay while I was learning. I found the process very exciting. After about 3 years on eBay I had had it with the endless changes they required, and having to revise listings so often. But I loved selling online. So in 2006, I started my own website. I wanted the control, and fewer costs.
If you hired any companies to set up your website and/or design your logo/branding, how did you find them?
My website is with Prestostores, which is probably one of the easiest hosts to get started with. I've even heard a couple of people say they had one up and running in two hours. That, of course, is a simple site with no customization. They offer quite a few ways to customize your site, and it is worthwhile to take advantage of those selections. I also steeped myself in SEO and that has helped. I haven't actually hired any outside help.
Does your website have a checkout system, if so, what do you use, and what do you like/dislike about it?
One of the things I love about Prestostores is the checkout system. It is straightforward and easy for both me and my customers. Not too many clicks, and people don't have to register. They do fill out their personal info (name and address) which I get immediately in an email, along with details of the order. If they use PP, GCO or a credit card, I then get notices from each of those payment services about the payment. Really works smoothly. It can also be customized, with promo codes, notices and whatnot, which I like.
If you use an ecommerce service or shopping cart, how would you go about the evaluation process if you had to purchase one today?
- One, it needs to be fairly simple to use, for both the seller and the buyer.
- Two, it should allow some customization.
- Three, it should accept all the popular money-processors (at least PP, GCO and credit cards).
- Four, when it sends you an email about an order, that email should include an inventory number. (This is a lack of the marketplace sites that really bothers me.)
- Five, it should allow promo codes, and you need to be able easily integrate international shipping.
Prestos cart allows all this and much more.
What did you pay to set it up, and what are the monthly costs of running it?
Prestostores costs $30/month, or if you pay annually, it is $25 (a month). That includes the cart and an unlimited number of products.
How difficult was it to set up?
It really could not have been easier. They sell their cart to others that already have websites, so they have made it outstanding as a stand-alone product. It seamlessly integrated with my website.
Does it have analytics, reporting?
It has counters that tell you the number of hits on each page (and which can be shown for weekly, monthly, etc.), but for thorough analytics I use Google. It was very easy to add.
What features do you wish it had?
I wish it had a bulk editor. (Actually, I think the version they came out with after the one I'm using may have it.) I wish my version could show more than 10 items per page. (Which in the new version you can.) However, in my version I can put each product under multiple categories, and you can't in the newer version. I checked into upgrading to the new version, and stayed with the one I have because of that category limitation.
What are the challenges you faced in starting your own website?
As with most websites, getting traffic is the big thing, especially in a competitive field like I am in. Although Prestostores does a Google feed on all of their stores, not too long after I started there I asked to do my own, so that I could add more information ("attributes"). The first year was definitely slow. But it has picked up nicely and the last couple to three years I have been very happy with the results. And it is still growing month-to-month.
I would say to anyone starting a new site - have patience! And since Google products, and Yahoo and Bing are more into featuring "shopping" items, it is a lot easier and quicker to be seen now. I make sure my pictures are good, and my descriptions, though accurate, are definitely not long and "flowery." But they do the job.
I think one important key is to get as much product listed as quickly as you can, because that makes you come up better in search.
What would you do differently if you were setting up a website today?
I might consider doing one that I put together from scratch and that would then be 100% "portable" - so there was no relying on a host like Prestostore. However, when I think about all the extra work that would have taken, it kind of makes me shudder. And with Presto I can at least download all my products in a csv file, though it would still take a lot of work to move to a new home. So really, I can't think of much I would do differently. I would rather put my time into adding product than fiddling around with code, etc.
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?
Well, Google really frowns on doing that, and so for a couple of years now I do not list any product on more than one site. Easy for me to do that, because each of my products is fairly unique.
My inventory system is what you might call old fashioned and would probably drive some people nuts. As I get new inventory, I assign it a number and enter the info on an index card. I also put it on a list (spreadsheet form) - just the number and a short, maybe 5 word description, and a category abbreviation. This is so I can sort the inventory by number or category. Then, when I list something, the index card goes into either the SVS, Bonz or eCrater file. When it sells, I pull the card. And all of my jewelry (about 1500 items or so) is all neatly filed in numerical order. I never have to look for an item when it sells. (Well, never say never.)
Anyhow, it is a simple, easy to use filing/inventory system. It probably wouldn't work for someone who sells hundreds of items a month.
How did you create the logo/branding for your business/site?
My logo is used on all my sites, so it is getting fairly familiar.
How do you differentiate yourself from others selling similar products?
Well, I give quite good service, so get a fair amount of repeat buyers. Also, it seems that I get word-of-mouth recommendations. I try and provide a large variety of items, and include extra "content" such as designer information.
How do you drive traffic to your listings, and which channel do you primarily drive traffic to?
I drive almost all the traffic to my website, primarily through Google, though Bing and the others are coming on board nicely. Google provides about 65% of my traffic (Google Products was about 10%, back when you could see that info using the old tracking system, but at this point I have no idea how much traffic comes from there). Bing is at about 6%, but it has great metrics - people look at more pages and stay on the site longer. I have to confess I do little to drive traffic to my market sites (Bonanzle and eCrater). They would no doubt do better if I did.
Can you talk about some of the SEO techniques you employ to drive traffic to your site(s)?
I do a Google feed every couple of weeks, and it includes extra attributes (color, feature, etc.). I use excellent titles. I get a lot of traffic from Google images, so apparently they like my pictures.
I just recently went through all of my listings and put my "boilerplate" info in a picture, so Google wouldn't pick it up when it is crawling.
What do you mean when you talk about boilerplate information and Google?
Google has gotten quite persnickety about the issue of having duplicate text that shows up on each listing - subjects such as shipping info, shipping times, etc. ("boilerplate info").
They have especially been emphatic about this issue with the marketplace sites, but I felt that their feeling might extend to individual websites as well. However, since so many listings are found through search functions, the viewer typically is not going to pull up a "policy page," and thus see this important information. Hence, I have added it in photo format.
Do you participate in social networking sites? If so, which ones?
I'm really lame in this area. I have a Facebook page and Twitter page but visit them very infrequently. That is something I know I should work on, and it is on my to-do list, though frankly not very close to the top.
Which ones work for you? Which don't?
According to Google Analytics, neither one is working well, but that is to be expected, since I am not putting much energy into them.
Do you have any advice for other sellers about how to utilize social networking?
LOL. Probably not. I'm actually more interested in trying to get some articles published online that are relevant to my site. I feel like that could bring me more quality traffic. And I would like to start a blog. I undertand they can be highly effective in generating quality traffic.
Do you do email marketing, use coupons and/or package inserts, or anything else besides Google feeds to drive traffic to your site(s)?
I've only done one email campaign, at Christmas time. It was only moderately successful (however, I believe if this kind of campaign is done right, it can be highly successful. So it is also on my "to do" list).
I am very big on the "professional touches," things such as a personalized thank you note right after I get the order (it includes a link to the item they ordered and tells when I'm going to ship (almost always the following day). If it is a non-PayPal order I send them an email with the tracking code link (I use PP for shipping labels, and if they've paid that way they get an email from PP.)
With every order I print out a nice packing slip that has my logo and all the pertinent info about the order, and also note a repeat buyer discount and code. I include that and two business cards with each order. Subsequently, I get quite a few repeat customers and referrals. I also use a signature and website link on all of my emails.
Is there anything else about online selling you would like to share with readers?
Find a place you are happy selling at, and stick with it awhile. I seriously cannot believe the abuse eBay sellers are putting up with. Life is too short! Find a site you like and have some fun while you are making a living at it. That is what I do. It may take some time and work to get it going, but it is so well worth it.
An aside, for sellers worried about getting links to their sites: I have done virtually nothing to generate links, yet I have about 200,000 to 300,000 incoming links (it varies). If you provide a nice site, with decent content, these will come naturally, over time.
Visit Sharon's listing on EveryPlaceISell.com for the links to all of her 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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