Practical Ecommerce

Lessons Learned: Husband and Wife Team Run Alwaysstationery.com

“Lessons Learned” is a biweekly series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Tom and Fran Harrington, owners of Alwaysstationery.com. Based in Naperville, IL, the husband and wife team have been running the online paper shop for five years, and they began devoting all their time to the business after they were both laid off from their jobs in 2008. Alwaysstationery.com offers nearly 400 individual products and makes approximately $200,000 a year in annual revenue. Here we give you the Harringtons’ experiences and suggestions.

Shopping Cart Software

Fran and Tom Harrington Tom: “We use Cart32. It has most things up-and-coming carts have, and it fits our business pretty well. I tried ShopSite about four or five months ago and had some problems. Merchants should look for online merchant integration for credit card validation, different discounting schemes, and how well the cart integrates with shipping providers. Also, does it offer any report and analytics systems?”

Fran: “The business tools in the cart help at the end of the year for taxing purposes and to see what’s working and what’s not for marketing.”

Hosting

Tom: “We use Readyhosting.com. I’ve been with them for about six years, as I do web development on the side. They have 24/7 support, as well as good shopping cart and development language support.”

Fran: “Some hosting companies aren’t there on the weekends, and of course that’s going to be when you have your problems. You’ll lose business if you don’t have a reliable host.”

Employees

Tom: “It’s just been the two of us so far. I do all the marketing and programming. Fran does all the sales and customer service.”

Marketing

Tom: “We’re trying to make pay-per-click work. Right now it’s not really effective and our biggest expense outside of the products themselves. We’re also doing yellow pages and Yellowbook in print and on the web. Most of our traffic comes from organic search results, and about 20-30 percent comes from word of mouth.”

Fran: “We’re also looking into an email marketing company in our area. That’s one of our main priorities.”

Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Tom: “PPC is our main marketing tool.”

Search Engine Optimization

Tom: “We did a complete overhaul of the site with SEO work in January 2009. Has it made a huge difference in sales? No, but I can’t tell if it’s because of the economy or not. As far as I’m concerned, Google has made some changes that have caused developers to make sites ‘Google-ized’ and not for the customers.”

Expense Control

Tom: “Our only major expenses are the products, marketing and shipping, and we get the best shipping rates we can. With the market the way it is, you have to be lean to survive.”

Accounting Software

Tom: “We use QuickBooks Pro 2005. It’s been very helpful.”

Order Management Software

Tom: “We drop ship, so there’s no need for order management software.”

Shipping and Order Fulfillment

Tom: “We use FedEx domestically and USPS for international orders. We’ve had no problems with our drop shipper. Everything ships in 24 to 48 hours.”

Fran: “Merchants should look for quick turnaround time in a drop shipper.”

Credit Card Payments

Tom: “We use Authorize.net. A local company sold us our merchant account, and they used Authorize.net. Their uptime is really good, and we’ve only had a few technical problems.”

Fran: “So far their rates have been pretty competitive with other companies we checked out.”

Social Media

Tom: “I have done a little, but I know there are people who do it a lot. There are lots of things I need to get more involved in, and social media is one of them.”

Blogs

Tom: “I need to do some more reading and see how effective it really is. If it’s going to make money for the company, I’ll do it.”

Customer Service

Fran: “I handle all of the customer service and Tom calls me the schmoozer. Whenever anyone calls they get a real person. If they have something special they need, I always try to go the extra mile. I treat people the way I would want to be treated when I talk to a company.”

Tom: “People really appreciate that kind of service.”

General Business Attitude

Fran: “The nice thing about this business is it’s portable. We can take it with us wherever we go. Tom’s strength is programming, and my strength is the people aspect. Together we’re a wonderful team in making sure the business is successful.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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Comments ( 3 )

  1. Chris "Cartel" English March 16, 2009 Reply

    Inspiring article. I’m in the process of finally launching up MY OWN store within a week or so, as opposed to doing it for other people.

    I love to read the "behind the scenes" of other businesses. More.. more.. more… lol

  2. George Zlatin March 17, 2009 Reply

    Order manager software can help a great deal even if all you do is drop ship. Also, I would look into cutting your PPC spend if you find that it’s not bringing you ROI and spend more on SEO and increasing your link popularity. SEO doesn’t stop after the redesign…in fact, it never stops.

  3. Sean Collins March 17, 2009 Reply

    A blog would definitely be your best bet. The problem I see with your website is a common problem with most cart-based online stores – not enough descriptive text. Your keywords don’t do you any good if they’re not included in the page text itself. You have to beef up your product and page descriptions with relevant keywords and key phrases.

    A blog will help add regular content to your site (keeping Google’s attention) and it allows for some customer interaction (through comments). But again you still need to include keywords into each blog post in order to make them stand out in the eyes of the search engines.

    I understand how some sites focus too much on Google-izing their content. You don’t have to take it to that extreme. It is possible to be Google optimized and still speak clear English.

    Feel free to contact me if you have more questions about it.