If you are an admirer of nativity sets on the lawns of homes and churches during the Christmas season, chances are you seen a product from Christmasnightinc.com. Claire Henderson launched the business about seven years ago and has carved out a unique niche selling life-size scenes of the birth of Jesus.
Henderson’s business and website have evolved through the years, but simple principles have guided her business since its inception: Know your product, know your market and provide great customer service.
PeC: What served as your inspiration to launch this type of business?
Henderson: _My husband’s company, a plastics manufacturing company, made large, outdoor nativity sets, and many of the consumers were calling. Even though they didn’t supply to consumers, they did sell to companies like Wal-Mart. People weren’t able to find these sets, and they were calling and asking, “Where can I get them?” This led us to believe there was a demand for large, outdoor nativity sets, and we began a website just selling those particular nativity sets which were made by my husband’s company.
PeC: Christmasnightinc.com began about seven years ago. From that point to the present, tell us about the growth of the company.
Henderson: Well the first year was extremely small. We were just selling some of the products my husband manufactured, and we didn’t have a warehouse. We brought the products into our office and stored them all over the office, in the conference room and in the hallway. In fact, at that time, my husband wasn’t very pleased by the whole idea of a truckload of products arriving at the office. From that time on we began to grow significantly. The next year we still kept it small, probably only doubling our sales. The following year, we probably quadrupled our sales, and since then we have been growing about a rate of 50 percent per year.
PeC: Do you sell products through additional channels such as an online auction?
Henderson: No, we don’t. We started with a Yahoo! Store and quickly began to realize that we could not customize the Yahoo! Store in the way we wanted. We met up with Mountain Media (www.mountainmedia.com), who has been doing our www.christmasnightinc.com website since then. They have customized it as we want, and every year we get added features and things that help us manage our business through the store.
PeC: Given the significant growth you’ve had during the past seven years, do you attribute that to a few specific things that might have played a real difference? For example, have you used pay-per-click advertising, email marketing or affiliate programs?
Henderson: It’s mainly being there on the on the first page in the major search engines such as Google and Yahoo!. We don’t pay. We have tried payper- click campaigns and found it really doesn’t make much difference. When we are paying for clicks, say on Yahoo!, there wasn’t really any significant growth. If we’re there on the first page, perhaps that is more important than being an advertiser.
We do direct-mail campaigns to churches once a year, but I don’t attribute our growth to those campaigns. I think they provide some awareness, but I think our major sales come from being listed high on the major search engines. We do have Mountain Media work at keyword listings and content within our store, not only in what we say about our products, but we also include stories and general information. We have the story of the birth of Jesus, we have a story about St. Francis and a number of other stories. This all gives us more content on our store. Our store is very keyword rich. I probably don’t know the exact answer to your question, but that’s why we employ professionals to make sure our store is well ranked. We do target certain keywords, and we work on those with Mountain Media each year to improve our listing. I don’t know the secret recipe; I rely on somebody else to work that out.
PeC: What kind of challenges have you faced launching your ecommerce business?
Henderson: I think we faced all the same challenges as any business. We had to find warehouse space. We had to employ staff and know when to employ them. We had to get financing for our business. We had to market our business. I don’t really think it’s any different because we’re on the web or if we had some other business or a store on the street. I think we would have had to go through the same business plan for this type of business. Maybe you have to get out of the mode of a home business trying to run it own your own from your basement or garage. You have to go the next step.
PeC: How do you locate your distinctive products?
Henderson: We go to two major buying shows every year. We go to the America’s Mart in Atlanta every January. That’s a huge, Christmas-buying show. We also go to the New York Toy Show. We inventory about 99 percent of our products. We felt from the beginning to drop ship from our suppliers doesn’t give us assurance the product will be in stock when we need it close to Christmas, and also we’re not able to control when the product goes out. We want to be able to offer good service. We say on our website that we’ll ship your product in two business days. In that way, we are able to provide the sort of service having our own inventory on the warehouse floor allows us to do.
PeC: With several hundred variations of shopping carts in the market today, how did you decide on what you are using?
Henderson: It comes about because we were drawn to Mountain Media. We were with Yahoo! and Yahoo! is a very big business. We were somewhat turned away from Yahoo! at the time because they were dividing their customers into the large customers and the small customers. The small customers have everything standard and “this is the way it is.” When we met Mountain Media, for them, we were fairly large, and we would be very important to them, and they would be able to work with us and design the store the way we wanted. If we wanted some special features, they would do that for us.
PeC: Now that you are a seven-year veteran of ecommerce, do you have any advice to an ecommerce novice looking to open a store or looking to improve a store?
Henderson: The most important thing is to know your product, your market and your competition. I think they need to look at their background and choose something they really know very well and where they are well-connected in the industry. They are going to have to work with their suppliers. It’s very hard to start without, at least, being a little known. I think it’s good to start small, and I think the Internet allows us an amazing opportunity. Instead of having to go out and do research like we used to have to with focus groups or with larger research surveys, we can actually set up a small store, and try out a business. It doesn’t cost a fortune. That can now be our test, and I believe that’s really how we did it. We didn’t really know for sure that people were going to come and buy a nativity set. It’s probably a test every year with us. We’re testing new products, new ideas and what directions we’re going to go in the future. We’ve tested things like crafts that didn’t work. We’ve tested children’s furniture, and that didn’t work for us. But, it really didn’t cost us very much so it was a great opportunity. I think that’s the way anybody can start.
I believe very strongly in providing excellent customer service and I think we have a leg up there on a lot of our competitors. We always answer the phone and we always spend as much time with our customers as they want. We try to go out of our way to help them even though, in the end, it might not be of benefit to us. We are competitive in our pricing. Another thing that I think is extremely important and allows us to be better than our competition in many cases is the images we show — the photography. So often when I’m looking for something on a website, I can hardly see it. And, yet, I’m never really going to have the opportunity to see it or try it without buying it. I’d really like to see it better before buying it. It’s really easy to get a good photographer to take good photographs to show your product off well.