I started in retail when I was 13 years old. My first job was in sales at Pal’s Music Company, my neighbor’s dad’s record store in downtown Hattiesburg, Ms. Sales were a simple thing then. A customer, generally, had heard a song on our local radio station, WXXX, and came in, usually the following Friday or Saturday, and wanted to hear a bit of it on the built in record player. If it was the right song it was usually a sale. Every Friday I got paid in my choice, records or cash or both. I usually chose both.
As years went by, and finally after college, I took jobs in various industries, but always seemed to migrate back to retail. Now I am a cartoonist. In September of 2006, I opened my first online retail store which sold (and continues to sell) tees, mugs and such bearing my offbeat cartoon images.
I had gone back to college from 2002-2006 to learn Internet technology and business, but even it did not prepare me for what was to come. How does one deal with customers in which, more often than not, there is no human contact?
Four years have now passed since I opened my first online shop, and I now have four more and over 200,000 licensed gifts and tees. Since I do not stock inventory, I use manufacturer/dropshippers who print and deliver my goods, so I have to choose carefully. With my core manufacturer, I made certain I have access to all my customers names and mailing addresses so that I can stay in touch for sales, promotions, etc. If you are able to do that, please do. But don’t expect that kind of respect from the major online POD’s (Print On Demand) firms such as Zazzle, Printfection, Threadless, Cafe Press and the other big dogs. Here are my five steps to online retail survival and even profit.
1. Become an “expert”. This does not mean “know it all” or “guru”. It simply means to catalogue useful information and purveying it to others through blogs and article marketing. Eventually existing customers and new ones come to rely on your for good info and Google your name. Writing blogs such as this often come from a combination of both reading and experience, but mostly experience.
2. Make good use of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Many try to dictate the “right” and “wrong” way to do this. In reality, what works for “Fred” will probably not work for “Barney”. Social media is truly not a one-size-fits-all world. Many well known brand businesses use the totally personal approach of having a person trying to juggle all the balls in the air engaging in one-on-one dialogue 24/7. Other companies have so much information, they use a real human person to “tweet” all the while having pre-schuduled “news tweets” going using such systems as Hootsuite or Twaitter. These are also ideal for smaller or mid-size firms that may be on a limited budget but want to have an online presence throughout the day and night. It is particularly effective for my firm since about 50% of our orders originate from Europe, and are processed when we are asleep.
3. Think globally, act locally. This is one that I procrastinated for a long time, and my wife found a way for me to want to give it a try by creating a very attractive “thank you” packet that we sometimes leave with someone in the service industry who has treated us well. The presentation she created is so unique, it has already proven effective even after only handing out a few of them. We have noticed large orders originating from our own hometown. I don’t spend as much time on this as I believe I should and plan to utilize it more often. I am used to working online but my goal is to balance that. I will report again in a few months to let you know how it is working.
4. Price within reason. This time the dot.com bubble appears not to be busting. More and more people are appreciating the convenience of shopping online. But just like in physical stores, people like a good price. One has to make a profit to stay open, but one has to price it within reason so that the market can afford it, or the market will go somewhere else.
5. Don’t jump the gun when opening. Make sure your shop has enough inventory. When I say inventory I don’t mean ten or twenty items. Whether you are using a POD manufacturer or making your products locally or dropshipping someone else’s or becoming an associate, fill your page with salable images. I did not start selling until I had a few hundred items in my shops, but it is different for everyone. Now that there are thousands, they are picked up by all the major shopping channels such as Google Shopping, The Find, Shop.com, etc. People rely on these sites for useful retail information and comparison. Most people do the opposite but fill your shop with merchandise, then open the doors.