Practical Ecommerce

Lessons Learned: Brides’ Village Owner Achieves Success On Own Terms

“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we visited with Cathy Ward, owner of Brides’ Village, a Pennsylvania-based retailer of wedding accessories.

When Ward’s son was born in 1998, she sold her brick and mortar bridal shop, in order to be a stay-at-home mom, and opened an online version of the store. This was a way to earn extra money, but the store grew quickly and within two years it was enough to generate a full-time income.

Economics and changing business practices have led the business through ups and downs, with revenues expecting to hit around $340,000 in 2009. Ward shares some lessons she’s learned through the years, below.

Cathy Ward

Cathy Ward

Beginnings

“When I began I did not even know how to tell what a link was. The Internet was still fairly new and ecommerce was young. I have an associate’s [degree] in accounting, so the same logic and structure that applies to accounting functions could be applied to designing the store and the creation of the business functions. It was, and remains, an exciting challenge to learn and grow something you created from an idea with perseverance and sometimes, just plain stubbornness.”

Shopping Cart Software

“A friend, who was president of a local Internet service provider, assured me Yahoo! stores was the way to go. And it certainly was. When I began, all Yahoo! stores were part of Yahoo Shopping, which is what propelled us to success. The store functionality was easy to learn, and participation in the YourStoreForums for Yahoo! storeowners provided support. The cart is consistent and familiar to many, providing comfort to the consumer with the security of being a trusted cart.”

Business Structure and Employees

“We are a sole-proprietorship with 5 part-time employees: one staff accountant, one writer/site manager, and three customer service/shipping personnel. Our staff is chosen for their commitment to the work ethic I expect. Each enjoys the laid-back office atmosphere while performing their functions with professionalism. Unlike drop-ship companies, we stock the majority of our product line. Our volume and 17 years of experience in the industry has enabled us to buy with accuracy, and purchase some items in volume, thus reducing cost of goods sold and eliminating a large percentage of drop-ship fees.”

Marketing

“Our marketing focus is primarily organic search engine optimization, although we have recently decided to begin a pay-per-click advertising campaign. Rather than make costly mistakes in that learning process, we have hired Exclusive Concepts to design the campaign. Our Facebook and Twitter presence is still relatively new, with the site currently being redesigned to include social media participation. Email campaigns and magazine ads have had limited success, so we are working to improve and refine our marketing strategy in those mediums.

“I am completely fascinated with organic SEO. We are currently implementing a structured support system of informative articles and consumer-interactive campaigns such as contests, story submissions, and an item-level rating system.”

The Economy

“We’ll see a slight decline in revenues from 2008 to 2009, but the decline would have been much sharper had we not invested in marketing. The decline in revenue is not impacting us as hard as it could have, for we began trimming expenses long before the recession was official. After we trimmed variable costs, we then trimmed fixed costs we didn’t think we could trim. The only expenses we didn’t trim were staffing and marketing. That would have been a mistake.”

Controlling Expenses

“The most important lesson I have learned is to not get ahead of yourself once your business begins to thrive. Be careful with expenditures such as travel, additional phone lines, new office supplies and furniture, and so forth. It’s easy to get excited when you show the beginning glimmers of success and spend as if you are already successful. But the ever-changing and evolving world of ecommerce can take you by surprise if you do not have money put away for expansion, enhancement of the site, marketing, sudden need for new equipment, or a recession.

“To new ecommerce operators, be conservative with all costs possible, from phone lines, insurance, and packing supplies. But don’t be so conservative that you cripple your business. From a customer service standpoint, email isn’t enough. Having a phone line is critical to giving your site credibility.

“Spend intelligently on marketing. Take advantage of all virtually free things you can do to enhance your online presence such as posting on Facebook, Twitter, responding to blog posts, forums, and Yahoo! Answers.”

Accounting

“We recently moved to QuickBooks Enterprise from QuickBooks Pro to increase capacity and enjoy some improved functionality. Basic QuickBooks for a new e-merchant is relatively inexpensive and easy to use.

“We do not use order management software. We have researched it several times, including obtaining advice from [a] QuickBooks expert, and based on our needs and uses, QuickBooks Enterprise is a more effective solution than adding an order management system at this time.”

Credit Card Processing

“We are in the wholesale processing program for Yahoo! stores through Interchange Merchant Services. We manually run all charges on a terminal rather than having it automated through the store.”

Biggest Mistake to Date

“We purchased a second website which I prefer not to name. The firm hired to load the product line inadvertently loaded a great deal of duplicate content, including linking to Brides’ Village files instead of its own files. By the time we caught the mistakes, the secondary site was in supplemental purgatory and Brides’ Village was penalized. We did not keep up with the changing landscape of ecommerce, and did not know the very negative impact of duplicate content until it bit us. We’ve had to invest a lot of time in getting things back to normal.”

Best Business Decision to Date

“We hired a new, very efficient site manager/writer in January 2008. Together we took a business that was quickly slowing, took a deep breath and dove into learning organic SEO and rebuilding the site. And we’re still waiting to exhale! In spite of the economy and state of finances, we invested in a site redesign and marketing package which stabilized us and prepared us for the next growth stage.

“I discovered I am truly fascinated with organic SEO, which rejuvenated my spirit and my mind. The more we have learned, the more we realize how much more there is to learn. It’s an ongoing challenge, which equates to a bit of a rush for me.”

Time Management and Leadership

“The first two hours are crucial to whether we have a good day or bad day. Everyone is in a push to take care of problems, emails, phone calls, and getting orders started. Some days I am more involved in helping the staff with those decisions. Other days I can spin off by 10 a.m. into whatever chosen projects I’ve decided to take on. I stay updated on all site or marketing projects with my site manager, who works from home, via Yahoo instant messenger. I take care of choosing new product lines, finding new vendors, updating pricing, and doing keyword research. It’s hard to describe a typical day, because most of them aren’t typical. I could be choosing wording for a newsletter, buying shipping supplies, or otherwise dreaming up something to add to our to-do list. I seem to answer an awful lot of questions throughout a day. That’s probably because I’m so bossy and give everyone so much to do.”

General Advice

“Do what you know and hire what you don’t know. My time is most effectively spent on the things I know well rather than constantly trying to learn and master the many facets of ecommerce. That being said, if you have an aversion to learning new things, you will be swallowed up whole, spit out and danced on.

“Capitalize on your knowledge and strengths, find your niche(s) and become the expert. Live your dream, but don’t lose sight of your family and friends. Balance this, as with all things, for true success and happiness. Never sacrifice your integrity.

“Also, strive for success, but stay realistic. Some may say that I have no major achievements compared to what others may be able to claim, but my idea of success is much different than many. I don’t dream of being anything different than what I am. I’m successful solely because I can provide a home and life for my son.”

John W. Dawe

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