Lessons Learned: From Police Officer to Wedding-products Retailer
If Erica Tevis had passed her firearms test as a rookie New York police officer 12 years ago, it’s highly unlikely the New Jersey girl would have become a wedding products online retailer.
Tevis, who has a bachelor’s and master’s in criminal justice from St. John’s University and Iona College respectively, passed all her physical and psychological exams to be a homicide or special investigations detective in 2001. But she failed the final test to pull the trigger 16 times within a minute.
Instead, she became a revenue officer for the IRS. It was while she was working there that Tevis battled to find all the “little things” for her destination wedding — ranging from wedding favors to bridal accessories — which was expensive with shipping charges from multiple websites.
The personalized coffee packs she gave as guest favors proved such a hit that when she had her son a year later, Tevis decided to sell those online.
She researched wholesale wedding products, and sold about 2,000 items under her eBay store, “littlethings*favors,” in 2003. Within months, she realized she couldn’t compete against rivals undercutting her prices, while the eBay selling fees consumed her profits.
“I read everything I could find about building a website to learning SEO and developed my first website, Two Hearts Favors, in 2006. Over the next year, I realized that the platform in which I built the website, while it was ranking fairly well, the backend management system left much to be desired,” Tevis said.
In August 2007, she relaunched Two Hearts Favors as wedding-products retailer LittleThingsFavors.com, which was complemented by her baby shower favors and gifts website, LittleThingsBaby.com, in 2009. Tevis says she has been on the front page of Google for many of her main keyword terms since 2007.
From her initial sales on eBay in 2003 of $12,000, annual sales grew to $1.3 million in 2010, $1.9 million in 2011 and a slight increase to nearly $2 million in 2012.
Shopping Carts, Order Management, Hosting
Tevis cannot remember how she found the entry-level ecommerce template company CityMax — “it was a basic drag and drop template website service on the web” — when she was running Two Hearts Favors. But she moved to the Yahoo! Small Business platform in 2007 after doing some competitor analysis.
“At that time, 8 out of 10 top-ranking websites for my main keyword terms were running on the Yahoo! Small Business platform. I thought there must be something in the way Yahoo! stores are indexed, or possibly the ease of use, that so many of my competitors were using them.”
Fees start at $33.95 per month with a 1.5 percent transaction charge on the basic plan. Tevis pays Yahoo! $254.90 per month with a 0.75 percent transaction fee on her annual contract.
“I use them because they have fabulous uptime, support and features. I have a dedicated account specialist and any site issues are handled immediately. They have everything I need to support a huge catalog. The support is outstanding. The ease of backend management is great. It includes analytics and a host of resources. We’ve never had any issues with downtime or issues with hosting.”
Little Things Favors had a major redesign in August 2012. In November it introduced product reviews, which Tevis believes will help SEO by bringing in original, unique content.
Tevis advises new retailers to write unique product content as the search engines penalize vendors with exactly the same descriptions of products.
“If you and 100 other ecommerce sites carry the same product, your item won’t rank in the search result pages if your description matches everyone else’s. Rewrite your content, and take your own photos and videos as well. This will help differentiate you from your competitors – both with the search engines and with customers.”
Tevis was browsing online when she discovered a website she liked, a Yahoo! store design by Solid Cactus, in 2007. She has used Solid Cactus since then to implement the design, and subsequent redesigns, of Little Things Favors’ websites.
“Their support is phenomenal and I would highly recommend them for any company looking for a web design firm for an ecommerce store or blog.”
Credit Card Payments
Tevis has been using PayPal for merchant processing since 2003 and has a dedicated manager there.
“We have never had an issue with them. PayPal is easy to use and install and their rates are competitive. Our rates vary from the standard rates due to the volume of sales we process through them. We pay 1.9 percent plus a $0.29 cent transaction fee.”
Inventory Management, Shipping
Little Things Favors does not stock much inventory. It drop-ships its merchandise with a few select products carried in-house. Those few products that are shipped directly to customers are sent via UPS, which Tevis has found to be the most reliable.
“We don’t carry inventory as our showroom location and offices are quite small. Carrying products would ultimately drive up costs, which in turn, would cause increases in our retail prices. We’ve been drop shipping for almost 10 years and have had very few issues with it. The key is to work with reputable suppliers. By drop shipping, we can keep our retail prices low.”
Tevis and her four full-time employees work from the company’s office showroom location in Sayreville, New Jersey.
Tevis started hiring in January 2008 — four months after Little Things Favors was launched. She ensures all employees are trained in every role so the business isn’t affected if someone is absent.
“We have tried summer employees, high school co-op programs, and hired through the local colleges for temp help during our peak months. But I prefer to hire permanent employees because they have a vested interest in the company.”
One full-timer handles customer service; Tevis’s office manager can run the day-to-day operations if necessary. The full-time graphic designer assists with customer service and social media campaigns. And the social media director also handles advertising and marketing.
Tevis’s young assistant manager knows the company inside-out as well, joining her in 2008.
“I have trained her in SEO and she works with me on the site’s continual updates. She also blogs, writes copy, answers our phones — she can do everything.”
Search Engine Optimization
Tevis learned SEO hands-on since 2003 from books, blogs, and by trial and error. She is clearly good at it, getting Little Things Favors on the first page of Google for many of its keywords.
“There is no formal college degree for SEO. So every SEO ‘guru’ is self-taught in some way. I have performed all of the SEO, SEM, SMM and SMO work and I compete with some very ‘big box’ retailers in the top spots.”
She stresses that retailers should never duplicate content, but write original material that people will want to share with their friends online.
“When you do produce content, be it articles, blogs, infographics, or videos, make sure there are social sharing buttons so your information can be shared.”
She also advises retailers not to buy links from companies that promise you a certain number of links in a matter of days.
“Search engines want your link profile to feature ‘natural’ keywords and in a variety of websites. They know if you have purchased them as your link profile will begin to expand rapidly — an immediate signal that you are building unnatural links.”
Tevis said social media is becoming important in driving traffic.
“Statistics show that 10 percent of Pinterest users buy through photos they have found on the site. Put your company profiles on all the major social networks and interact with your user base. Additionally, users on social media don’t like sales pushed onto them. So find what posts will best engage your fans.
Tevis suggests you provide photos, links, ask your fans questions, post contests, create information, and generally give them “exclusive” content.
Pay-per-click advertising has not worked for Little Things Favors. Tevis said she has gained the best return on investment through affiliate marketing campaigns through ShareASale.
“Our affiliates promote us through their websites and blogs and the more traffic they send our way, the more commission they earn through each sale they generate. We pay our affiliates 10 percent per sale they generate. So it is a win-win situation. They send us the most targeted traffic, better than any PPC campaign!”
Little Things Favors sources its products through industry trade shows. Established in the industry for almost 10 years, the company now has vendors approach them.
Tevis launched LittleThingsBaby.com as a sister website because she saw that as the next step in the customer acquisition line.
“We also added party favors for all of life’s events to LittleThingsFavors.com to capture repeat customers. My website now boasts over 7,000 products for weddings, bridal showers, and engagement parties. But we also have an increasing line of birthday party, holiday party, and religious event favors.”
Tevis notes marked differences between Generation X (older) and Generation Y (younger) in what they prefer to buy for their weddings.
“Gen X mostly buys traditional wedding items, while Gen Y wants unique, quirky, handmade and something different for their wedding. Gen Y definitely wants their wedding to stand out and be like no other wedding their friends and family have been to,” Tevis said.
Little Things Favors’ longest-running, best-selling items include personalized apothecary jars and personalized lip balms.
“We help consumers who are looking for certain items. We had several brides recently ask us to find a producer for personalized ice tea mixes for their upcoming wedding. I contacted our beverage supplier and requested they look into ice tea mixes. I am happy to say we expect personalized ice tea and sweet tea mixes to be coming out soon.”
Little Things Favors has a blog, 2,386 fans on Facebook, 1,472 Twitter followers, 75 followers on Pinterest, 79 on Tumblr, and the company also has a presence on Foursquare.
Tevis has different strategies for each channel. “We use Facebook for contests, funny photos, questions, polls, and exclusive content for fans. We engage in chats and conversations with fellow industry professionals on Twitter. We pin unique items on Pinterest.”
Tevis believes Little Things Favors’ best promotional tool is happy customers who give good word-of-mouth promotion. The company obtains feedback via direct email surveys and invites customers to review them on Wedding Wire.
Brides-to-be can be anxious customers, so the Little Things Favors’ showroom is open to the public so they can see the items they want to purchase in person.
Little Things Favors offers money-back and low price guarantees, and has received much positive feedback from customers that its prices and service is significantly better than larger companies that also sell the same products on the web.
Customers can find the company in the Association of Wedding Professionals, and the Jersey Shore Wedding Association, and Tevis has helped contribute to the books Planet Wedding and How To Plan Your Wedding and Enjoy It!
Tevis believes it is a mistake to hire friends and family because they seem to think they have an advantage and do not have to follow the same rules as other employees.
“One of my friends left her position here because of personal reasons. We were very upset to see her leave and left her position open for quite some time hoping she would return. But ultimately it hurt my business as my other employees had to pick up her job duties.”
Tevis also regrets paying $1,800 per month for outsourced SEO.
“The company was charging me $1,800 a month to tweak five keywords and write three articles, something I can now do myself in a few hours. That only lasted two months.”
She said pay-per-click advertising with Google, Yahoo!, and Bing just didn’t convert customers to sales.
“It brought traffic, but the customers just weren’t ready to buy. We convert much better managing our own social media, SEO, and social media. That is our biggest cost savings.
“I advise a new retailer to learn the basics of SEO, SMM [social media marketing] and SEM [search engine marketing] themselves by buying books, reading blogs and educating themselves before they hire any outside companies. This way they know what the company should and should not be doing.’
Tevis cites one of her biggest successes as hitting number 1 for her top keyword organically in the summer of 2012.
The other success was being featured on The Today Show in 2010.
“They asked us to send them samples to feature on the show. We were featured for our ‘double duty wedding favors’ and our ‘inexpensive favors’. It gave us a huge spike in traffic for that day, although it was hard to tell how much more in sales we did just from being on the show alone as we were already ranked number 3 organically for our main search term ‘wedding favors’,” Tevis said.