May 25, 2012

Link Love: The Most Valuable Small Biz Articles Posted This Week

Filed under: Link Love — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 7:53 am

Happy Friday! Settle in for a long holiday weekend with these small biz and marketing reads from around the web:


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April 13, 2012

Link Love: The Most Valuable Small Biz Articles Posted This Week

Happy Friday! Here are my favorite reads from around the web this week:

Lastly, on a personal note, if you’d like to help Ex-Boyfriend out with our charitable fundraiser for homeless animals any little bit is appreciated! Read the details here! Fundraiser ends Sunday.


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November 11, 2011

Link Love: The Most Valuable Small Biz Articles Posted This Week

Filed under: Link Love — Tags: , , , , , , — Meredith @ 1:20 pm


Happy 11/11/11 everyone! And it’s Friday, woot!

Here’s the best stuff I saw around the business blogosphere this week:


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April 6, 2011

4 Online Retailers Share Their Secrets to Packaging with a Wow Factor

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 6:22 am

Most of us can agree that the online shopping experience starts with the package. If you want to impress customers, a beautiful package or fun little surprises enclosed can go a long way. A lot of the craft community is big on doing elaborate handmade packaging. While these packages are lovely, it is difficult to make this kind of packaging cost effective and scalable when order volume increases. Last week I talked to 4 retailers who’ve found streamlined and cost effective ways to ship a large volume of orders in style. Here’s what they had to say:

Sarah at Wild Gems ships her jewelry in custom bamboo boxes:
“It was very natural to put the jewelry in a nice box.  Jewelry is often given as a gift, and presentation is very important.  Think about how it feels to open up a small fine box to see what’s inside – it’s not just packaging, it’s an experience.

The values of Wild Gems are to use real, lasting, valuable materials – this applies to packaging as well as jewelry.  I looked at wood, metal and bamboo boxes versus paper, cardboard or simple cloth. I wanted bamboo so I looked in Southeast Asia where bamboo is grown and the craft of manufacturing with it well established.  Once I found those manufacturers, I made a deal to buy a minimum of 1000 pieces in order to pay less per box.

The box is important in our marketing in many ways.  The most important, I think, is brand recognition. The box doubles as a display for the pieces so wherever people see Wild Gems (on store shelves, online, and in jewelry shows) they can see many bamboo boxes together and even from far away, they know it’s us.  We also emphasize that the great box makes it so easy to give a great gift.

The investment in a premium box is worthwhile.  I feel that the experience the customer has in receiving and opening a fine box is valuable.  There is also a benefit in shipping – the box is strong and hard and prevents damage to the jewelry.  The percentage of the cost varies, as some pieces are more expensive than others;  I would say on average, it is about 5% of the price the customer pays.  We didn’t raise prices [to cover this cost]. We might have slightly lower margins than our competitors who ship in paper boxes, but that’s okay with me.  My jewelry is precious: I won’t present it in cheap cardboard.”

Marty at Elephant Surf Media ships using stickers and custom tape:
“U-Line is an awesome resource for all things packaging, including the boxes and custom tape.  As far as stickers and promotional stuff, google returns millions of options, it’s just a matter of finding the one that suits you best.

We do not market our packaging as a benefit to customers, mainly because no one buys something just because it arrives in a cool box.  We just want our customers to see how much detail and care we put into everything we do, and getting a cooler than normal package in the mail is just one way we do that.

The additional cost per package is not too big, really.  Besides, saving 50 cents on each package is not worth making our customers think we’re cheap asses with no style.”

Nick from Shirts That Go! ships using custom printed boxes:
“Our company is quite small and only a few years old.  We wanted to put our best foot forward with the packaging so that it had real impact for our customers. We wanted a card box because it is lightweight.  Our end customers are all kids and toddlers and these guys love getting mail.  We decided to put our designs on the packaging for a real wow factor.  We wanted for a gift from ShirtsThatGo to begin at the mailbox.”

To find a manufacturer, We mainly used the search engines.  I had to be really persistent with this.  I contacted at least 20 suppliers and they all told me that it was not feasible for a small company to afford full color packaging.  Most of them quickly pushed me over to other ideas like plain boxes with custom stickers etc.  I did not let up on this idea though and found a great company (USA based) that wanted to work with me and make me a happy customer of theirs.  They have been printing boxes for us for a few years now and they do a great job.

Currently a custom box adds about $2.00.  We include the custom boxes on orders of 3 or more shirts and we offer a way for folks to add the box at checkout on smaller orders.  Custom packaging has been part of our offering since day one so it has always been in our model.”

Megan from 1st Person History ships using simple kraft boxes with brown kraft ribbon and printed labels:
“The packaging for our 1st Person History Kits were not meant to be “innovative”, it was born out of necessity for boot-strapping our little start-up.  However, it turns out our customers love the packaging. We use simple kraft boxes with brown kraft ribbon and printed labels.  Inside the box, our kit is wrapped in kraft colored tissue paper and bound with brown paper ribbon, closed with a sticker with our logo. The box itself is wrapped in ribbon and the label on the box holds it in place. This way we seal the box without having to use any plastic.

Cost for our small scale operation was our number one concern. We began by simply searching for vendors with small minimum orders to see what different products were available. The criteria we used were 1) will everything fit in the box, 2) will the box fit in the USPS Priority shipping boxes, and 3) is it recyclable. Google search and ThomasNet.com were our lifeline to finding a variety of vendors and whittling them down to companies that could  provide us with low cost, low quantity orders.

Once we found the right box, we needed a way to make it look presentable without huge printing costs. With a kraft box, we achieved a very simple, earthly look that did not need a lot of embellishment. We wanted to stay away from plastic, so tissue paper and paper ribbon were what we were left with. It all came together beautifully with a cohesive, elegant look. We stuck with unbleached paper products, using kraft colored products when possible, and accented it all with a dark brown paper ribbon.

We used this package design from the beginning – with our very first order. Other than switching to a sturdier box, not a lot of re-design has taken place. A large number of our customers write to us just to comment on the packaging, and how they appreciate the care we take of the product; it’s reflected in the packaging. The price per unit for packaging is less than 2% of our cost, which we are happy with and see no need to improve on just yet.”

Final takeaways from our savvy entrepreneurs:

1. Be creative about your shipping ideas.

2. Order shipping supplies in bulk for best pricing.

3. Comparison shop, a lot! Dig into search results beyond page 1 to find the best vendors. If you know what your want your shipping materials to be, keep looking until you find a vendor/manufacturer who can give you what you want.

4. Presenting customers with a memorable package is an investment in your brand.


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August 18, 2010

Preparing To Ship for the Holidays

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , — Meredith @ 11:43 am

The holiday season is both the most lucrative and stressful time of the year for online retailers. A big part of the aggravation comes from shipping. Customers have high expectations and they often want you to do what’s beyond your control. To avoid the wrath of your customers, here are a few things you can do to minimize your shipping woes:

1. Encourage Early Birds
The best way to guarantee holiday delivery is by getting customers to order early. You can do this by offering special incentives for early birds. Send out Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions to your mailing list contacts and social media contacts. Offer a special coupon code for customers who order before December 1st.

This offer may get your biggest fans to order early. This will get them their orders in plenty of time and keep your company in their good graces.

2. Post Shipping Deadlines Clearly
Figure out what the dates are that you must have orders in by in order to offer delivery by Christmas, and then post this information on EVERY page of your website. Your home page is NOT sufficient. People will enter your site from product pages and may never see your home page. This is why it’s so important that customers are able to find these deadlines from every page.

You may need to create a table like this:

US First Class Mail December 13th
US Priority Mail December 16th
US Express Mail December 20th
International First Class Mail December 1st
International Express Mail December 15th

This will allow customers to easily see the options they have available.  Be sure that the dates you select not only account for delivery time, but also for the time you’ll need to get your orders ready to ship. Your business will be busier than ever and you may not be able to get orders packed the day they come in.

3. Offer Multiple Shipping Options
If at all possible, allow customers to select an upgraded faster shipping method, in case they’re ordering later in the month. This will be a more expensive option, but it still gives the procrastinators the option to get their order delivered on time.

4. Be Honest With International Customers
International shipping is by far the most problematic part of holiday shipping. Global customs and postal agencies are flooded with packages and it’s very hard to know how fast your order will be delivered. I had a package arrive at a Canadian customer’s home over a month after I shipped last year. I shipped at the end of November and the package didn’t show up until mid January!

The honest truth about international shipping is that the only way you can 100% guarantee delivery by a certain date is by using a private courier like UPS or FedEx. These services will not only charge a hefty delivery fee, they’ll also charge a hefty fee for expediting your package through customs. If you offer this option to customers, be sure to warn them about these charges.

If you go with USPS international shipping, using Priority or Express options will help get your package to the destination country faster, but it can’t force your package through the destination country’s local customs and postal offices by a certain date.  Be honest with international customers about your international shipping offerings. You can tell them how long it should take to get their order with your chosen delivery method, but unless you use a private service, do not make iron-clad guarantees.

5. Offer Gift Cards
Gift cards are the perfect solution to holiday shipping woes. They can be delivered as late as Christmas Eve, and they make a great gift since the recipient can pick exactly what they want.

I link my gift card page on my shipping deadlines page. That way I can send customers to the gift cards if they’ve missed cut off dates.


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June 24, 2010

Is Your Shipment Preparation Process Secretly Costing You a Bundle?

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: — Meredith @ 6:45 am

There’s been a proliferation of articles on how to wow customers with amazing product packaging and a lot of discussion on what your package should include. Opinions on these subjects are mixed, but one thing is for certain, you cannot let your efforts to produce the best package run amok in the cost department. Here are some things to watch out for:

1. Order Inserts
I was amazed at the laundry list of items I’ve seen some online sellers say they insert into orders. I’ve seen everything from business cards, to product samples, to coupon cards. The interesting thing, to me, is that the retailers who include 3-4 different pieces of paper in their orders (when you add up the thank you notes, business cards, coupons, postcards, etc.) are the same retailers that eschew invoices because they’re not eco-friendly or cost effective.

Whatever your philosophy is on the extras that go into your package, make sure your actions are actually consistent with it. For my business, the greenest, most efficient and most cost effective combo is this:

INVOICE
Rationale:

  • It’s printed on recycled paper and customers can recycle the invoice, so we can stay green
  • It includes detailed return instructions which reduces our call volume.
  • It includes detailed contact information which makes to easy to reach us if there’s a problem.
  • It features our logo and branding for a professional appearance.
  • We also use our invoices to proof orders when we pack. Our business ships hundreds of orders each month and having the piece of paper in hand with the list of items to go into the mailer helps us make sure the correct items are going out to the correct customers.
  • It costs us less than a penny in labor and materials to produce

PROMO ITEM
Rationale:

  • Around my household, when we order something in the mail and they give us a useful freebie like a pen or magnet or notepad we tend to keep it, because it’s functional.
  • This also causes us to remember the name of the company we ordered from and increases likelihood that we’ll shop there again.
  • If I get a flyer or business card in an order I recycle it, because it serves no function and I can’t be hanging onto hundreds of papers like a pack rat just to try to remember where I bought something. (I imagine many of the customers we mail to might even throw such items in the trash if they don’t have recycling.)
  • The promotional items we include in my ecommerce company’s orders cost us between 20 and 50 cents total. We don’t make them, so there’s no labor cost.

2. Decorative Packaging
There have been so many inspiring articles on product packaging. Some of the ideas are lovely, but you have to make sure these packaging endeavors don’t become cost/time sinks.

If you only ship a few orders each week, it may feel like no big deal to spend 15 minutes dolling up a package, but when you start shipping hundreds of orders this adds up and time is money.

100 orders/15 minutes of decorating = 25 hours of your time!!! That time could be spent doing things that deliver better value for your business. You also have to consider your average order value. If your average order value is $15.00 and you spend 10 minutes dolling things up, and you consider your time to be worth $20/hour, then you just spent the equivalent of $3.33 in time on decorating a package! That’s over 20% of the gross value of your order. (On the other hand, if your average order value is $200, maybe $3.33 in labor on package decor is a reasonable cost.)

The other cost with package decor is materials. Make sure you’re buying in bulk and that your material costs are reasonable in proportion to your order values.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you shouldn’t send out a pretty package. I just think it’s important to keep a close watch on the cost associated with what you’re doing.

3. Packing materials
Some of my readers have asked if it’s okay to use recycled materials to ship packages. I guess you can get away with it if it’s the image your brand is going for, but it may be less cost effective than you think.

Going back to the time is money mantra, if you have to spend 5 minutes turning a used cereal box into a presentable looking revamped shipping box you may be better off just buying mailers from a bulk supplier like Uline. When you buy mailers in bulk you can get them for around a penny per piece, and no DIY solution will be that cheap in terms of your time.

4. Thank You Notes
Handwritten thank you notes are a nice sentiment for outgoing orders. It may even make sense to include them if a customer placed an especially large retail order. That said, handwritten notes can eat up time.

You can accomplish the same effect by pre-writing standard thank you notes on your computer, and printing them out using a font that mimics your handwriting. (You can even design your own font from your own handwriting if you want to go the extra mile.) With computer programs you can even personalize the thank you note to address your customer by name, adding an additional personal touch without eating into your time as much.

If you feel a formal invoice is too corporate for the image you want to achieve for your brand, why not use the thank you note to accomplish the things and invoice is useful for (click link to see example). Use the note to reiterate return instructions, use branded letterhead, provide contact information, and include a list of them items the customer ordered. You can even set up your website to automatically generate a note like this for you to print, and have it plug in your customer’s name and order details. Thus, saving you time and still retaining a personalized feel.

Your Exercise For Today: Next time you pack an order, time yourself. See how long it takes you to actually get the order from your stock shelves into its mailer, stamped and addressed. Then determine how much your time is worth hourly and figure out what you are paying for package prep. After that add on the cost of shipping materials. Count every decorative ribbon, sticker, etc.

Is the figure you’ve come up with one that makes sense when compared with your average order value? Are there ways you can make this number go down? Do you need to increase your shipping price to absorb some of those costs? What happens if you start shipping 1,000 orders per month? Could you afford to hire someone to pack orders and pay them for the time it would take to pack?


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June 22, 2010

The Lowdown on International Shipping

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 5:47 am


International shipping is an issue for every online seller. It’s expensive and there’s no perfect way to do it. At my own ecommerce business, we’ve tried just about everything and found that you basically have 2 choices: fast or cheap. Since we realize our customers won’t agree on which is more important we actually offer both. Today’s post is going to detail the options, and the pros and cons of each.

Note: This post is for US vendors. I unfortunately don’t have any experience shipping FROM any other countries, but if my readers do, feel free to give your $.02 in the comments below.

USPS
The USPS has a few different options for international mail and they all have varying degrees of speed and reliability.

First Class International: This is the cheapest way to go. It’s also the slowest. It is supposed to take 6-10 business days to arrive, but after having shipped hundreds of international packages I can unequivocally tell you, that’s often not the case. I’ve had packages arrive up to 2 months after I shipped. Your are very much at the mercy of the USPS and the postal system of the country you are shipping to. Some countries are more reliable than others. I’ve seen record speed with Australia’s post and a shockingly glacial pace in Canada.

The worst part of First Class International isn’t that the speed is questionable, it’s that the package can’t be tracked. If the package gets lost, you’re screwed and you’ll have a customer bitching about their lost items. Now you have to pay to send their stuff AGAIN and hope this time it actually arrives. You are also open to the possibility of con artists claiming the goods never arrived, only to try to get freebies out of you. Most people are honest, but this is a risk you take with First Class International mail. This service also does not have insurance available.

Flat Rate Priority International: This is not to be confused with Priority International. This USPS offering is mid-way between First Class and Priority,  both in terms of price and features. With Flat Rate Priority International you get a free mailer from the USPS for your shipment and you can mail whatever fits in the box for a flat rate. (There is a weight limit, but unless you are mailing lead this probably won’t be an issue.) Flat Rate Priority International is supposed to be a bit faster than First Class, but like First Class, you can’t track the package. So if it gets lost (or a customer claims it is lost) you are on the hook for the replacement/refund. Also, like First Class, you cannot get insurance.

Priority International: This is the reliable way to go. it gets your order delivered the faster than First Class, and you can get a tracking number for the package so you know when it has arrived. You can insure the package in case it gets lost or stolen. The bad news is that this option is much more expensive than Flat Rate Priority and First Class. It costs us about 3 times as much as First Class.

I personally offer this option to my customers, in addition to First Class, so they can decide for themselves if speed or price is more important. (Actually, we only offer First Class to countries that we know have a reasonably reliable postal system. For countries whose postal systems are of questionable reliability, we require customers to use Priority International for their shipments. International shipping really has some calculated risk attached to it so you have to set your policies in accordance with your risk tolerance, average order value and shipping volume.)

Express and Global Express Guaranteed: This method of shipping is the fastest, most reliable and most expensive. Unless your customer is desperate to have their package immediately, you probably don’t need to go this route. For a premium, USPS will guarantee package delivery in 1-3 business days to a number of countries.

FedEx/UPS/DHL
These private services all offer a small variety of shipping options. None of them are cheap. They also will charge your customers a hefty customs processing fee. (This fee is justified by the private courier getting your package through customs post-haste.) The up side of dealing with these private couriers is that your shipment will arrive when they say it will arrive. You aren’t at the mercy of a pretty unaccountable government agency who will take their sweet time delivering your package. If FedEx says it will be there Tuesday, with the exceptions of literal hell or high water, your package will be in your customer’s hands on Tuesday, end of story. The private couriers aren’t 100% perfect, but they’re definitely a good way to go if speed and reliability are of the utmost importance. You can also insure your package with private couriers, so if your package is lost or damaged, they are responsible for reimbursing you.

A final note about communication with international customers:
One of the most important things with international shipping is communication. Make it clear to your customers what they can expect, so they don’t get angry later. On my website’s checkout pages we remind customers that international shipments may incur customs fees and we are not responsible for those.

Since we offer both First Class and Priority International shipping on our site, we have those options in a drop down, and right next to them we have an estimated number of days to deliver, so customers know that if they pick the cheaper option they’ll be waiting for a longer time to get their packages. We also tell customers (on the check out pages) that First Class packages can’t be tracked, so if they choose that option, we won’t be able to give them shipment status.

Managing our customers’ expectations right from the point of taking their order, helps ensure that they’ll have a more positive overall ordering experience.


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May 28, 2010

Link Love: The Most Valuable Small Biz Articles Posted This Week


Every day I check out the 100s of subscriptions in my RSS feed about marketing, PR, advertising, branding, social media, and a host of other topics of interest to small businesses that sell online. Most of what gets posted isn’t earth shattering but I reserve Fridays for the best reads of the week. So here you have it, the most valuable things I read in the business blogosphere this week:

Note I was away on vacation last week so there will be a special “Link Love” post this weekend with extra reads. Stay tuned.


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April 14, 2010

The Best Thing I Did For My Business Part 3: Giving Customers VIP Deals

Filed under: Case Studies — Tags: , , , , , — Meredith @ 8:27 am
It’s So Good – C’est Si Bon Greeting Card by Letterpress

Everyone loves to save some cash, especially in this economy. That’s why special deals are a great way to boost sales. Some entrepreneurs I spoke with found success offering specials both on site, via email and via social media.

Special Offers Page
FatWallet.com’s “Best Deals” page has been a huge hit with their customers. This page is fast becoming one of the most popular on their site. Although Fat Wallet is a deals and discounts website, you can use this tactic too. Last week I wrote an article about how a “special offers” page can help you boost conversions. Take another look in case you missed it.

Free Shipping, Free Returns!
Overstockart.com recently implemented a free shipping, free returns policy. “Since the inception of this practice they haven’t noticed an increase in their return rates, but actually an increase in their sales. They like to say this way people can see if the painting “fits” in their home before feeling like they’re completely committed.” The increase in sales without an increase in returns is particularly interesting to note. I wrote an article on the free shipping, free returns model back in January. My article includes advice on alternatives to this model, although this model is ideal if you can manage to implement it.

Discounts by Email
Gary West Meats says that sending a newsletter each month to their mailing list subscribers has yielded a 63% boost in sales! They’ve found that Tuesdays and Fridays are especially great days for sending promotions and that customers responded best to promotions for gift items and discounts on the item of their choice. “Everyone likes something different so they can choose what they want to buy that way.”

Want to start an email marketing program or improve your existing one? Here are some articles on that topic.

Tried these tactics?
Discuss your experiences with offering deals and discounts in the comments below.

<< Read Part 1: Self-Promotion
<< Read Part 2: Twitter
Read Part 4: Expanding Your Line >>
Read Part 5: Success by Association >>
Read Part 6: Well-Timed Campaigns >>
Read Part 7: Stimulating the Senses >>
Read Part 8: Harnessing the Press >>


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February 18, 2010

4 Things Your Outgoing Orders Should Contain

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 11:09 am

When you ship merchandise from your e-tail website, there are certain things your package should contain, in addition to the actual merchandise of course.

1. Branded Invoice
Don’t simply print a receipt from Etsy or Paypal. Instead, design a professional, branded invoice with your logo and fonts. Include details such as date, billing address, contents of the package sent and their price.

Bonus Points: When customers place an order on my retail site, they can check a box to indicate that the order is a gift. When they do this, we mail a gift invoice instead of a regular invoice. Our gift invoice does not include any pricing information and includes a note from the sender. Implement a similar feature on your website so gift recipients get a special invoice with their order.

2. Return Information
On your invoice, or someplace else in the package, you should reiterate your return policy and return instructions.

3. Contact Information
Provide customers a way to get in touch in case there is something wrong with the order. Include your website URL, your contact email address and, if possible, a customer service phone number.

4. Swag
Provide a little something extra that will surprise your customer, preferably something they will keep, like a pen or magnet, although samples may make sense too if you sell edibles, cosmetics or bath/body goods. More on that topic here.

Bonus Points: Enclose a coupon for the customer’s next purchase.

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