December 11, 2013

Are You Letting Stubbornness Get In The Way of Smart Business Decisions?

If you started your business purely because you really enjoy pulling a squeegee across a mesh screen or manually operating your vintage letterpress, this post isn’t for you. If you started your business to make money, then listen up! Every day I talk to artists who are convinced some aspect of their production methods or manufacturing materials is a must-have and that their customers care deeply about this thing they’re so stuck on.

Here’s the reality: Most of your customers probably aren’t married to wearing American Apparel t-shirts. Most of them don’t know what the heck “giclee” means. They cannot tell the difference between a notecard set that you made by hand with a letterpress vs. the set that was mass-produced using modern machinery to produce a similar effect. Your customer doesn’t view your products through the same lens as you. More often than not they are buying a product because they like the design of something, not necessarily due to the specific components or manufacturing techniques used in its production.

When evaluating your product manufacturing methods and components, ask yourself these questions:

 1. What Will Make Me More Money?
My partner and I sell t-shirts and accessories and we do not print on American Apparel; we print on blank shirts that cost about half as much as American Apparel. They’re perfectly nice and soft and well-made with a great fit, but don’t have the hipster cache of American Apparel. We sell thousands of shirts at live events every year and no one has ever decided not to buy a shirt from us because it wasn’t American Apparel. It’s very rare that we run into someone who has an opinion on our blank shirts one way or another. Mostly our customers are looking for a comfortable tee with a good fit that features a good design that speaks to them in one way or another. We also very rarely run into a customer who doesn’t like our shirts because they want a thicker, heavier weight shirt — it can happen, but it’s extremely unusual. We don’t expect to please everyone, so we try to design our products based on what will please most people.

If we chose to print on a more expensive blank shirt because we just assumed our customers insisted on it we’d make less money. We’d either have lower margins (less money for us) or we’d have to raise our prices (making our price point too high for many customers — again, less money for us). I’d print on a more expensive blank shirt if I had some evidence to support that my customers really wanted shirts made of organic cotton or a certain brand of shirts, but it’s simply not the case. I see no reason to adversely affect our income to add a product feature that the overwhelming majority of our customers don’t care or ask about.

2. What Is Scalable?
When you started your business, maybe advertising that all your products were handmade by you sounded like a charming selling point. But what happens when your order volume increases or a department store calls wanting to place a large wholesale order? Is it realistic for you to keep making everything yourself by hand when you have to sell thousands of pieces every month? Even if you could keep up with all that production, is that going to give you enough time to tend to the other parts of your business, like new product development?

A product is not inherently bad because it was made by a vendor or employees, and your customers certainly won’t enjoy the product any more or less based on who physically made the item. If your creative business is your livelihood (or you want it to be), think about how you’re going to keep up with production as demand increases.

3. How Do You Know What Your Customers Really Want?
Are you assuming your customers want you to use specific production methods or components or did you come to this realization based on their feedback? How do you really know your customers would *only* buy posters you designed if they are screen printed vs. printed digitally? How do you know your customers prefer a more expensive piece of jewelry with fine gem stones instead of a more affordable piece with faux stones? Selling at live events is a great way to get customer feedback in real time. What are your customers focusing on about the products? Are they actually interested in the manufacturing process? Are they more concerned with price than the quality of the materials? Are they buying your items specifically because they are handmade by the designer or 100% organic or 14 karat gold? Take note of what your customers seem to like about your items when they’re right in front of you, and think about ways you can lower your manufacturing costs while still producing a quality finished product your fans will enjoy

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November 15, 2013

Selling What Sells: How to Get People to Buy More of Your Art

If you’re an artist trying to sell art you’re leaving a lot of money on the table if you’re literally just selling prints or originals of your work. This is because home decor is one of the tougher categories to sell in general.

Don’t believe it? Check out this graphic from Target’s 2011 annual report. Target is a brand that works hard to promote their housewares line and yet apparel and consumables like food and laundry detergent outsell housewares both individually and as a whole.


The story is the same at Walmart, where home goods make up a mere 6% of sales while apparel comes in at 13% (more than double). Even health and wellness beats home goods.

JC Penny’s sales tell the same story.  Home goods make up 21% of sales, almost all the other sales are comprised of clothing and accessories.

Macy’s sales mix looks the same. Home goods make up only 16% of sales while clothing and accessories make up the rest.

Why is it that retailer after retailer has less success in housewares than any other category?
All of these retailers certainly sell a lot of home decor products and do plenty to market these products in advertising, wedding registries, etc. The issue is consumer shopping habits. Home decor lasts for a long time and people rarely need to restock. People are in the market for home decor usually after they move or when they have a life changing event like a marriage or a baby. Moves, weddings and babies don’t happen for the average person all the time.

On the other hand, the average person replaces their toiletries, clothing and accessories pretty often. That’s why these are such great products to sell. Once you have a customer who enjoys your brand they’ll keep coming back if you sell products they need to purchase more often.

If that’s not good enough reason to get into selling your art on apparel and accessories, there’s more!
If your customer is buying your art for her home, the number of people who will see that art, comment on it and go seek it out to buy for themselves is a tiny sliver. If your customer is wearing your art out in public she is showing your art to thousands of people every day just by walking around. Your customer basically becomes a walking billboard for your art every place she goes. She’s likely to run into more people who will see your art, notice it, ask her about it and seek it out to buy for themselves.

Do you want to make more money?
If yes, it’s time to look for ways to get your art onto products people consume every day. I know this strategy works because I use it for my own brand. While we do offer our art on prints and in the past we’ve offered a few other home decor items, our t-shirts outsell decor items 100 to 1!  Most of our online sales come from word of mouth. People ask our customers where they got their shirts and our customers send those people our way. Most of our traffic from search engines is people searching for keywords from our designs.

So how do you get your art onto products people want to buy?

  • Consider putting your art on functional items like t-shirts, bags, wallets, belts, pendants, etc. You can customize these products yourself or have them made for you.
  • Look for products with great margins. If you can make something for $2 and sell it for $15 that’s a great margin. If it costs you $5 to make something and you can only sell it for $7 that’s a less attractive margin. Only consider items like this if you think you can do a really substantial amount of volume to make up for the poor margins.
  • Look to other retailers for ideas. Take a stroll through a store like Pier 1, Macy’s, Urban Outfitters, Bed Bath and Beyond, gift shops, etc. Notice what sorts of products they offer that feature graphics — things like candles, t-shirts, soaps, pendants, belts, etc. Take note of what they are retailing these products for and think about whether you could produce a product like it featuring your art.
  • Get creative with sourcing. Sites like Etsy are full of makers, often based in your home country, who might be able to produce bespoke goods for you at a wholesale price if you order in bulk. Also check out sites like and other promotional product websites. They have a huge assortment of items you can have customized to feature your art. Check our suppliers that specialize in custom products like Ink It Labs. They create custom laser-cut accessories featuring your submitted art.
  • Consider private label manufacturing on-demand, such as, which allows you to sell your art on t-shirts without any up front costs. Or check out Art of Where which allows you to sell your art on device cases and leggings.
  • If you’re going to have products made featuring your art be sure to request samples, especially a sample featuring your art if possible, so you know you’ll be happy with the finished result.


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November 15, 2011

Diversifying Your Product Line to Boost Sales

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: — Meredith @ 10:01 am

When you started your creative business, you probably started with a product that played to your creative skills. If you’re an illustrator maybe you started selling prints, if you’re into sewing maybe you started with bags, if you’re a metal-smith you might have started with jewelry. The important thing is not to allow your creative skills to be pigeon-holed into a single medium.

When you’re using your creative talents to run a product-based business, it’s important to think about the products. This means thinking about ways you can apply your talents to products that best serve the marketplace. If you can sew
a bag, maybe you can also sew a wallet or an apron. If you can put your illustrations on prints, maybe they can also go on note cards or calendars. Having a range of products means you can keep your customers coming back for more items more often. It can also generate interest from customers who may not want items in your preferred medium. For example, a consumer might love your art but not have much space in her tiny apartment to hang up lots of prints. If she could buy your art on a mouse pad or notebook, she might place more orders.

In addition to encouraging more repeat sales from existing customers and possibly capturing new customers, additions to your product line offer even more marketing benefits. You can use a product launch as a reason to generate media attention. You can also drive more search traffic to your website. More products means you can optimize for more keywords and bring more people to your online shop. Product diversity can be great for SEO.

So how can you get ideas for diversifying your product line?

1. Holiday Lists
By now you’re probably getting some holiday wishlists from your loved ones. What are people asking for? Do they want an ipad? If so, maybe you can make ipad cases. Do they want magazine subscriptions? Maybe you could make magazine racks. Pay attention to the things people explicitly say they want and think about how you could add a product to your line that would interest them.

2. Competitors
Take note of what kinds of products your competitors are offering. This doesn’t mean you should copy them, but it’s fine to get ideas from them. If other jewelers are doing cufflinks or money clips they’re obviously starting to serve the male market, are there products you could add to your jewelry line to serve the male market?

One nice thing about spying on competitors using Etsy is that you can see not just what they’re offering for sale but what’s actually selling. (By the way, if you sell on Etsy are you sure you want your competitors knowing what your best sellers are?)

Try to look for ways you can improve on what competitors are doing so you aren’t outright copying their product line.

3. Fans
Customer focus groups can be a great way to develop product ideas. Ask your fans what they’d like to see you do next. If you’ve already got some ideas of what you could do, give customers a list to choose from and ask them to vote for their favorite option. Although people don’t always buy the things they say they would, customers can still be a helpful resource for deciding which direction to take.

At Ex-Boyfriend, when we are trying to decide between two ideas we like, we ask our fans for help. We have an invite-only mailing list for our top customers and when we’re trying to decide between two things, we let them be the tie breaker. That way we know we’re talking to people who are likely to shop with us in the future and our biggest fans get to provide input on what we offer next.

4. Existing Products
Look at your existing product line for ideas on how to expand. Could you offer your current items in a wider range of sizes? Could you offer companion items for your existing items? For example, if you sell jewelry could you offer jewelry travel cases or other jewelry storage? If you sell journals, could you offer pen or pencil sets that compliment your journals? If you sell passport cases, maybe your customers would also be interested in luggage tags.

Think in terms of ways you can merchandise your products as gift sets or packages to encourage bigger purchases. For example if you sold a passport case for $10 and a set of luggage tags for $8, you could sell a package of both for $15. You get more money and your customer feels like they got a good deal.

How can you expand your current product offerings to appeal to more customers or encourage more repeat business with existing customers?

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November 24, 2010

6 Things You Can Learn from Your Competition

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , , — Meredith @ 10:00 am

To make your business a success, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open. You want to pay attention to what’s going on around you, what customers are saying, what industry publications are saying and what your competition is up to. Studying the competition can be an incredibly valuable tool for growing your business. Here are a few things you can learn from them:

Marketing Ideas
The internet is full of great marketing ideas, and you can get some especially great tips from your competitors. Follow their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Subscribe to their newsletters. If your competitors are running new promotions, you can be the first to know. See how they conduct contests. Notice the type of coupon codes they use. Are they doing discounts? Are they requiring a minimum spend to use a discount? Are they doing free shipping? Are they hosting a giveaway and if so how are they asking customers to enter to win? Are they doing a customer loyalty program? Are they promoting flat rate shipping? While I don’t recommend copying your competitors’ playbooks, you can generate ideas of your own, based on what they are up to.

You also want to see what they do most often, because that suggests it’s working for them. If you see them always doing free shipping offers, that means it’s probably driving sales. If you see them constantly doing giveaways for newsletter subscribers, that suggests that those giveaways are effective at growing their subscriber base.

If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes reading about online marketing, you’ve run into the phrase “content is king.” What this means is that having great content is an important part of online marketing. It’s good for SEO and it’s good for generating interest from humans too. Having interesting content on your blog and social media accounts matters a great deal. It can help keep customers engaged and many online marketers are theorizing that your traction in social media may soon be more important than traditional SEO when it comes to online marketing success.

The trouble is, coming up with great content is difficult. We try to do it every day for our online retail website and it’s not always easy. One way to draw inspiration is by following the competition. What do they say on their blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. What kind of videos do they put on YouTube? What’s in their Flickr stream? You can use this information to get ideas for your own content. You not only want to see what competitors are doing, but you want to see what their customers respond to. Does another jewelry designer’s blog posts about recipes get a lot of comments? Does another screenprinter’s Tweets about news of the weird stir up a lot of replies and retweets? You want to get a feel for what customers like seeing, and let that guide your content generation.

Media List
Getting a relevant comprehensive media list can be challenging, but it’s an invaluable tool in your PR arsenal. One way to look for media outlets to contact is by checking out competitors’ press pages. See what magazines, papers and blogs featured them so you can get an idea of which ones might feature you.

Staying on top of trends is essential when you’re trying to sell products. You need to know if polka dots are in. You need to know of nautical themes are out. You’ll want to study a variety of sources for this information including magazines, design blogs and of course the competition. Some online shops even say what their best sellers are. This is kind of information can help you keep track of where trends are headed and help shape your design aesthetic in a way that’s profitable.

Product Ideas
Make sure to look beyond the designs, when you look at competitor product offerings, and notice what they are actually selling. Is another illustrator selling their prints on mousepads? Is another wallet designer doing business card cases? Is a company that normally prints on t-shirts now offering screenprinted scarves? You’ll want to notice these product offerings to come up with ways to enhance your own product line.

Website Usability
Having a user-friendly website can make or break sales. Websites come with all sorts of interesting design challenges. How can you convey that the product comes in different sizes? How do you communicate shipping policies in a way that customers will absorb? How can you best display product photos? Should the checkout process be 1 step or 2? There are no absolute answers to questions like this, but you can get ideas by studying other websites.

Earlier this year when I did my website usability makeover, I studied a ton of different websites to come up with the best new design. I also took note of website usability trends, like tabbed navigation. As certain user experiences become popular on the web (tabbed navigation is an example of this), users become more comfortable with them and used to using websites in new ways. You want to make sure your website can be used in a way that is comfortable for your visitors so they enjoy shopping on your site.

Further Reading: 5 Ways to Spy on the Competition

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September 1, 2010

My Site Re-Design Part 2: Make it Searchable

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , , , — Meredith @ 7:55 am

If you’ve got more than a few products on your website, you’re probably going to want to make your website searchable. A site search is valuable for two reasons:

1. It helps customers quickly find what they want.

2. It can be a form of market research. (With a little programming, you can set up your site to record all the searches, and then you’ll know what customers were looking for. This can help you improve your SEO and drive the direction of your product offerings!)

So how can you add a site search to your website?

1. For the Not-So-Technically Inclined
Your shopping cart may have a built in search function. If it does, huzzah! You probably already have some form of site search. If it doesn’t, another option is Google.

If you’re cheap/broke, you can put a Google search box on your site for FREE. The catch is that your free search results will display Google Adwords. This could be bad news. Imagine you sell jewelry and your customer types “handmade silver jewelry” in your search box. Now your competitors’ ads are showing up on your website. Yikes!

If you’re willing to spend a little cash, you can solve this problem with Google Site Search. Starting at $100 per year, you can have the power of Google’s search on your website, with no ads.

Pros & Cons: The built-in search from your cart or Google solution is an easy one to implement. It’s also cheap or free, depending on which option you choose.

The downside is you have less control. You may not be able to track phrases searched. You may not be able to build some smarts into your search engine that apply specifically to your website.

2. For the Moderately-Technically-Inclined and Moderately Lazy/Cheap
Chances are you can find an open source search engine to install on your website. You’ll need a little technical know-how to do this, but it’s easier than creating an entire search engine from scratch. Here’s a list of some free open source search engines for PHP. With a little Google research you can probably find other options like these.

Pros & Cons: Open source code is free and you can even modify it to do things you’d like it to do. (Such as recording your search phrases.) It’s less work than writing your own search tool, but you’ll  need some tech savvy to get set up. It will probably also take a little more effort than something as quick as Google Site Search.

3. For the Technically Inclined/Those With Deep Pockets
For ultimate control of your search feature, you can always write your own search tool. (Or hire someone to write a search tool for you.)  This is a solution more commonly seen with bigger companies, but if you have the means/skills and you want the most control, you can certainly write a search tool.

This is actually the route I ended up going for my own website. I went this route because I wanted my search tool to:

  • Intelligently interpret product types (i.e. It understands that “womens tshirt” and “ladies tshirt” mean the same thing)
  • Intelligently understand colors (i.e. It understands that purple and maroon and lilac mean the same thing as far as my product colors are concerned)
  • Work with tags (i.e. if a user searches for a forest t-shirt, I want the results to include all tees that are tagged with the word forest. My tagging system allows my search results to take into account user intent instead of just the words in product titles and product descriptions)
  • Record searches so I can improve upon my search tool, improve my SEO and get new product ideas.

Pros & Cons: Creating your own search tool is going to require considerable technical skills or the funds to hire a programmer. Either route will require some time to gather requirements and write the code. The nice thing about this DIY route is that you get exactly what you want. You can build the search that’s best for your products and website.

Note: One last option to consider is a premium search tool like SiteSearch Pro, Nextopia or PicoSearch. These solutions are somewhere between the options I describe above.

You’re using a pre-built search tool so it may not do every little thing you want, but it does come with pretty sophisticated capabilities and also probably comes with support to get you set up, which is great if you’re not super tech-savvy.

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July 22, 2010

Market-Based Creativity and Creating an Empire

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 9:41 am

Leather Zipper Pouch by PressaRussa

Fellow bloggers Megan Auman and Tara Gentile are in the process of launching a new membership community for creative entrepreneurs called The Creative Empire. Details on how to join are in this post, where Megan and Tara talk about the first topic their community will cover: Marked-Based Creativity. (Side note: their community looks cool, definitely sign up for an invitation to join.)

I’m looking forward to Tara and Megan’s exploration of this subject, especially since it’s one that stirred up a lot of controversy here. One thing I’ve noticed being said around the blogosphere about my post is “Meredith thinks YOU have to choose between art and money, and that they are mutually exclusive”. I do think there CAN be a middle ground. It depends on two things: how far your vision is from what the market wants and how much money you need to make to be happy. I may not have made this super clear, but I tried to allude to that a bit earlier this week, and want to clarify a bit more today.

It’s not about me, it’s about you
It’s very tough for me to say what you have to do without knowing your business. When I wrote my post about art vs. money I introduced the idea of this concept based on my own experiences. I personally found success in catering entirely to popular trends. That is what worked for me. This has to do with two things:

1. I am more interested in financial success than creative freedom, and found I could get more of the former by giving up more of the latter.

2. My own personal taste is not what’s popular.

This doesn’t mean I hate the work my brand produces, truthfully it’s grown on me. We do sell some stuff that I wouldn’t wear, but we also sell some stuff I do like quite a bit. It might be stuff I would’ve scoffed at a few years ago, but it’s like that song you hear on the radio over and over, eventually you start singing along. We do struggle with finding the middle ground. It’s just that for us marketability is always going to win out over our personal taste if there’s a contest. Alright, enough about me, now about you…

How much money do you need to make in order to be happy? What do you need to live on? Can you live on $30k/year? Do you need to make $500k/year to be happy? The more money you need your business to make, the more you’re probably going to have to compromise.

There’s no hard and fast rule and maybe you’ll get lucky, but most likely the more money you need to make, the more you’re going to have to cater to trends. Trends change. What you’re doing now might be selling well and it might be something you love. Consumers are fickle though, if you’re not willing to change your aesthetic to accommodate trends you probably won’t sell as much product when the public’s taste changes.

Your Vision
The more in line your personal taste is with popular trends, the easier it will be for you to stick to your vision and sell product. If you’re easily influenced by trends and this sort of thing comes naturally to you, you’ll probably always be happy with what you’re doing and money will follow.

If your style is completely off the beaten path, you may not be able to sell much of it. If you don’t need to make a lot of money, that’s a workable situation. If you need to make a lot of money, you’re going to have to adapt.

Alright, hope that sheds some light. As always, I love to hear your thoughts.

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July 1, 2010

Do You Want to Make Money or Create?

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 2:35 am

Many of my readers on Smaller Box are artists/designers who are trying to become successful business owners. I see a lot of frustration from readers because sales aren’t where they’d like them to be. I relate to this because my creative business started out the same way.

Last year, things changed for my creative business and they changed dramatically. We stopped thinking like artists and we started thinking like business people. Here’s what we did differently:

1. We outsourced production and fulfillment so we could focus on product design and marketing.

2. We invested in our business — both time and money. We paid for advertising. We dedicated time to devising an organized PR strategy and executed it ourselves. We took the time to really educate ourselves about online marketing (SEO, affiliate programs, Google Products, etc.) and developed and executed a strategy for that.

3.  Most importantly, we started designing what people wanted to buy. We abandoned our own notions of good taste and personal preference and started paying more attention to what was popular. We put out some work that wasn’t really our taste, but it sold and it sold well.

As a result, we went from shipping a few items each week to shipping several orders every single day. We sold over $25,000 in product last year and more than doubled sales this year. Starting next year, my partner will be leaving his day job to manage our ecommerce business full-time. Our site traffic has also more than tripled.

My point is this: you have to really ask yourself “Do I want to be in business, or do I want to create?” There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, but the answer should dictate your direction with your venture in selling your creations online.

So you wanna be creative…
If your primary goal is to create and you hope that money will follow, be prepared to accept that there is every chance it won’t. You can make the things that you think are most innovative and most beautiful and most interesting, but there may not be a large market for it.

If you’re in it to follow a passion, don’t fret so much about sales and marketing. In fact, you probably don’t even want to read this blog. There are better blogs out there about design and art and following your passion. I’m writing this blog based on my experiences and I’m not in the “make art” camp.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the “make art” path. I’m just trying to be up front about the differences between valuing your artistic integrity and pursing a money-making venture.

So you wanna be in business…
Hey cool, just like me; high five. If you really want to run a profitable business, forget about trying to stick a square peg in a round hole. If what you’re trying to sell isn’t selling, sell something else. Stop trying to find a market for something that isn’t selling well. Instead, find a market that buys stuff and make what they want to buy. This may mean changing your creative style, this may mean changing your product line.

Stop being cheap. If running a business was cheap or free everyone would do it. You can’t expect to grow a business with zero budget. Invest in things that can help your business grow. If you’ve got no site traffic, pay for some advertising. If your web design sucks, hire a professional designer. If you can’t make a press list or write a media pitch to save your life, pay someone to help you. Pay for good-looking business cards that don’t have the printer’s logo on them. Invest in promotional items that reinforce your branding.

Accept that you’re going to have to do some boring crap. Things like internet marketing and accounting can be very tedious. Online marketing can be extremely technical and somewhat intimidating. It’s definitely more fun to hang out on artisan forums and complain about how the universe hates you because you only sold 5 things this month. Reading about 301 redirects is much less immediately satisfying. That said, the boring stuff is what’s going to grow your business and make you money.

Finding a happy medium…
My rant above may have left you with the impression that I’m all about profit margins and soulless-ness. It’s not a totally fair representation. I’m still in a creative business and we still design 100% of our products by hand. We can’t help but infuse some of our own style into what we do because we’re the ones creating. What we try to do each day is find a happy medium between what we love and what we know sells, and sometimes we do a bit of both.

If you’re in it to make money, I’m not saying you have to abandon all of your creative integrity and spend all of your time doing boring business-y stuff. I’m saying you may have to learn to compromise with your design sense and invest the time and money in getting your truly marketable products out there.

This article is bunk, I do what I love and it’s selling like hotcakes!
First of all, congrats! That’s awesome. Second of all, be prepared for that to not always be the case. Trends change and even the most successful artists can be left in the dust when public taste changes direction. To be a successful commercial artist, it’s important to be adaptable and update your product offerings and aesthetic sense with the times.Another point is this: if you’re selling a ton of product now, and you’re not doing any marketing, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do any marketing. Chances are more marketing for an already successful line will lead to a massive increase in revenue. If you’re in it to make money, this is the goal, right?

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June 21, 2010

Use Your Sales Data to Make Business Decisions

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 6:29 am

When we talk about analytics in the ecommerce world, most of the lip service goes to web analytics. You absolutely should monitor your website stats. You need to know where referring traffic comes from and how many visits and page views you’re getting. All of that is valuable decision-making fodder. That said, those stats are primarily about visitors, not buyers. For the real goods, it’s important to run reports on your sales data too.

Here are some patterns you’ll want to look for:

What are my best sellers?
The things you sell the most of are a good indicator of what your customers want. (Duh) But it’s important to think about WHY it’s a best seller. Is it vastly cheaper than your other items? Does it have a superior design? Is it more functional than your other items? The features that cause things to sell well should guide future decisions about product offerings.

What are my worst sellers?
While best sellers tell you what people want, worst sellers tell you what they don’t want. If something isn’t selling it’s good to think about why.

You may also want to think about ridding your shop of loser products. These items that no one wants may be making your overall store less appealing.

Is there a particular size or color I sell the most/least of?
If your products vary by size and color, be sure to take note of which sizes/colors sell best. This will help you stock your shop appropriately and make decisions about product development.

Is there a particular type of product I sell the most/least of?
For example, if you sell jewelry, meaning necklaces bracelets and earrings, take note of what kind of jewelry you’re selling the most of. Are you selling three times more bracelets than necklaces? These patterns can help direct the development of your product offerings.

Are there days of the week when sales peak or drop?
Noticing when you sell products is just as important as noticing what you sell. If you know your traffic converts best on Fridays, you might start sending out your newsletter on Fridays to support this popular buying day.

If you know Tuesdays are slow, maybe you want to run special promotion codes on Tuesdays via Facebook to buoy sales for that day.

It’s also important to notice if sales pick up or drop off at certain times of the month. You may want to adjust your marketing efforts to boost slow periods or supercharge active periods.

Are there certain months where sales increase/decrease?
Being prepared for slow or busy months is extremely important. If you know certain months are busy you’ll want to make sure your stock levels are high for those times. You may also want to plan special PR or marketing efforts around those periods.

For example, if you know you do really well around Mother’s Day think about what you can do to make that holiday even more profitable. Can you plan a special PR push for that holiday? Should you be running additional advertisements?

If you know certain periods are slow, for example if you sell knits and you know summer is dead for you, think about how you want to handle that. Do you want to introduce a line of summer knits made of lighter materials? Can you survive on slow sales in the summer because your winter is so busy? If so, what do you need to do to adjust your budget accordingly?

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June 14, 2010

5 Ways to Spy on the Competition

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , , , — Meredith @ 5:49 am

You may think spying on your competition sounds a little dirty, but if you’re a savvy marketer, it’s something you’ll want to do. While I don’t advocate copying your competitors’ products, marketing tactics or copy, you can still learn a lot from your competitors and be inspired by them to come up with ideas of your own. So here are 5 places you can easily keep an eye on them:

1. Newsletter
Sign up for your competitors’ mailing lists. Things to take note of:

  • newsletter frequency (weekly, monthly, daily)
  • subject lines (Do they focus on what’s new in store? Do they pitch special offers?)
  • newsletter content (Is it entertaining? How long is the newsletter? Is it informative? Is it just full of promotions?)
  • newsletter format (Is it colorful? Is it bulleted? Does it use a lot of images? How did they design their calls to action?)
  • special offers and promotions (What promotions are they running? BOGOs? A percentage based discount? Free shipping?)

If the competitors are running a certain kind of promotion over and over, that could indicate that it’s been successful. If they’re doing subject lines that lead with discounts, that could indicate that those types of subjects are getting a better open rate for them.

2. Social Media
Follow the competition on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. Pay attention to the content they generate and how fans of their brands interact with them. Are people complaining about the competition on Twitter? If so it might be a good opportunity to woo their customers away.

Is the competition making hilarious Youtube videos and scoring truckloads of views? Maybe it’s time to produce a funny video of your own.

How does the competition use social media? Do they entertain? Do they inform? Do they delve into behind the scenes? How do their customers react to their posts? Do their customers seem engaged by their content? Do their follow/fan counts go up or down?

3. Google’s Link Search
See who’s giving your competitors links. Plug into Google and search away. (You would enter your competitor’s url of course.) This should give you some ideas on how to get links to your own website. Are they in certain directories? Are they linked by coupon websites? Are they linked on Squidoo lenses or blogs? Take note of where they’ve received links and then try to get those types of links for your own site.

4. Press page
If the competition has a press page, take note of where they’ve received press. Chances are the same publications will give you press, so you may as well add them to your press list. Make sure you check out each press outlet to see if it’s truly a match for your brand. For example, if you and the competition both sell jewelry but your competitor got into Cat Fancy because she has a cat necklace in her collection, that doesn’t mean you’ll get into Cat Fancy too, unless you also have cat themed jewelry.

Take note of which items your competitor got press for. This might tell you what’s hot right now, but it will also give you insight into the particular taste of the publications that gave the competition press.

5. Website
Notice what’s new on your competitors’ websites. What new products are they pushing? Do they have any promotional specials or sales going on? Notice what they have on clearance that they’re trying to get rid of, this could be an indicator of an item that didn’t sell well.

Some sites will flat-out say what items are their best sellers, and you can use this information to look for clues about pricing, product design or sales copy. Some sites won’t tell you what their best sellers are by may feature their best sellers in a splash image on their home page.

Bonus spy tactic: You can put the names of your competitors into Google Alerts and get an alert every time they’re mentioned online. Doing this may result in an overwhelming amount of information so you may want to do this sparingly.

A final word of warning: Don’t assume your competitors have it all figured out. While it’s fine to see what they’re up to, don’t base major business decisions solely on the competition’s playbook. The competition isn’t always right. Thus, they should be A source of ideas, not THE source of ideas.

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May 10, 2010

Before You Accuse A “Copycat”

Filed under: Growing Your Business,Legal Issues — Tags: , — Meredith @ 5:55 am

Monochrome kids with red balloons from Banksy, Forever 21 and the silent film Red Balloon

This might be a bit of a controversial post, but I think it’s a good conversation to have. What exactly is a copycat? How do you define it? How fast are you to accuse someone of copying you? I’ve been on both sides of this story, and if you stick around in the creative world for a long time you probably will be too. It’s a bummer when someone is clearly ripping you off, but it’s just as infuriating to be accused of it when you aren’t actually guilty.

I personally subscribe to the opinion that there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything that’s been done has been done before. Thus, I’m very reluctant to call someone a copycat. Unless I see someone outright using my brand’s original illustrations, I don’t assume they copied my idea. Most of the stuff out there that looks similar is more of a reflection of an overall trend than one individual copying another individual.

All of that said, there certainly are times when people do copy. (The flap between Paperchase and Hidden Eloise is a clear example of it.) So how can you tell what’s a legit case of copying and what’s not worth getting your knickers in a twist about? Here are some criteria:

1. How original is your design?
There are a lot of young popular artists right now who are inspired by Margaret Keane. (If you don’t know your art history, Keane is known for her waifs. She painted pale waifish girls with big heads and big sad eyes. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s all over sites like Keane’s was creating her waifs long before a lot of her followers were even born.

To me, it’s no biggie. We’ve had impressionists who like to do landscapes before and after Monet. We’ve had people into splattering crap on a canvas long since Pollock. What gets my goat is people claiming that the 20 something artists on Etsy have some exclusive right to this aesthetic, like they invented it.

Before you accuse someone of copying your style or design, make sure your work is completely unique. Take a long hard look around and see how many other people are doing things that look similar. Think about where your ideas came from. Were you influenced by a trend? Were the other designers influenced by a trend? The fact is most of us are influenced by things that came before us and it’s not a bad thing. Design goes in cycles and the internet has certainly played a role in homogenizing design.

2. Are you being duped by superficial details?
Sometimes designs that appear to be similar really aren’t. This post was somewhat prompted by an email that came to my ecommerce business recently. A company accused us of using their logo as a source for our design. Their logo was a drawing of an animal and our design was a drawing of the same kind of animal. We’d never seen or heard of their logo before. Our design was based on a public domain nature photograph and aside from the coloration (which was based on the animal) and the fact that it was the same kind of animal, the designs had nothing else in common. The person accusing us was fixated on color and subject, not the actual details of the design.

Color schemes and subjects go in cycles in terms of popularity, so when you’re evaluating whether something is a copy it’s a bad idea to focus on the subject or color of the design. These superficial details are rarely the substance of the actual design.

3. Are you sure you actually did it first?
If you really want egg on your face, accuse a designer of copying your work and then find out they created their piece first. Oops. A popular website I sometimes peruse tried to argue that the hoodie in the image above (designed by Forever 21) was a rip off of the Banksy’s street art (also pictured above). It was then quickly pointed out that Banksy’s image was probably inspired by the silent film The Red Balloon (image also above). This is a perfect example of my point about everything being influenced by something that came before. So before you call someone out, consider whether they were maybe drawing from the same source of inspiration as you rather than drawing from you directly.

So where does this leave you, the struggling designer, trying to make a name for yourself and get your work noticed? Creating original interesting work is still your mission, but understand that you probably aren’t inventing the wheel. You may not be able to beat competition in terms of having designs unlike anything they ever imagined. And if you’re doing commercial work, you probably wouldn’t want to. Your ability to succeed depends somewhat on your ability to understand what consumers want, and what they want is usually influenced by trends. This brings you back to competing not just as an artist but as a business, in terms of marketing, branding, business development, etc.

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