“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Micheline Hellwege, owner of The Collector’s Hub, an online store based in Howell, Mich. The Collector’s Hub sells collectibles, figurines and gifts, representing between 1,200 and 1,300 SKUs.
Hellwege’s first attempt at ecommerce began in 2001 when she briefly opened an online store selling horse equipment and tacking supplies. “It was right around the time of 9/11,” said Hellwege. “The economy took a hit and I was forced to close the store, but after a couple of years, I missed it. So, I started up The Collector’s Hub in 2006.
“We’re taking growth very, very slowly, but it has been just about doubling sales every year,” said Hellwege. “With all the search engine optimization I’ve been doing all summer, I’m hoping to hit the $70,000 mark for annual gross revenue by the end of 2009.”
Hellwege talks about specific aspects of her online business and offers the benefit of her experiences in ecommerce below.
“I use Yahoo!. I used it before with my [now defunct] horse equipment store, and I liked it. I chose Yahoo! because it was easy to use and easy to get started.
“Then, when I started The Collector’s Hub, I researched shopping carts again. I checked out a lot of other carts–Volusion was one–but I didn’t think I would get the type of support that I can get with Yahoo!. And, not necessarily just from Yahoo!, but also from the preferred Yahoo! vendors. There’s a lot of good support out there, and that was one of the biggest pluses for me. That’s why I stayed with Yahoo!. I still felt that it was the easiest to get started with and the easiest to integrate with the different merchant accounts, such as PayPal or your bank’s merchant account.”
Credit Card Payments
“I’m using PayPal Website Pro. Not only can I accept PayPal, but I can also accept all the major credit cards.
“One thing that’s lacking between Yahoo! and PayPal, however, is the communication when a customer enters incorrect data. Sometimes there’s an issue with that. It gives a very generic error message and it confuses the customer a little. But other than that, I’ve been very happy with PayPal.”
Development and Design
“I hired a couple of the developers at EYStudios to do a few modifications to my store, and I am planning to do a lot more after the first of the year. I plan to revamp the look and feel of the entire site, and add some features.
“I’m not an artistic person by nature. So, that piece of the business is difficult for me. I struggle with that. I have done all the graphics with the exception of my logo, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. So, I’m going to turn that over to the developers and let them help me.”
“I keep track of my orders not only within Yahoo! Merchant Solutions, but also on my own laptop. I download the orders and I have a program that I created myself to help me manage the stock that I actually carry here.
“I don’t have to manage a lot of my inventory because it’s with my drop shippers. The only problem that I ever had was when one of my drop shippers discontinued a very major line for me without advance notice. I had to scramble to get alternate sources and to fulfill those orders.”
“Just myself. My family helps on the crunch time, but as a general rule, it’s just me.”
Search Engine Optimization
“I’ve basically been doing SEO myself. I started out doing reciprocal links, but I don’t think that that has as much value as it used to, so I’ve kind of put that on the back burner.
“My background is in IT and so I’ve been doing a lot of research into the various ways to optimize for search engines. So far, I’m ranking very well on some of my top keywords.
“I write all my own content just to make sure there is no duplication on other sites for the same product. That is another area that’s a little bit difficult for me, but I take care to modify all the descriptions that I get from my vendors.
“I try to keep an eye on the keywords when I write content, but I also try just to write for my customer. I want it to sound natural. I don’t want it to sound like it’s just keyword stuffing.
“I also do meta descriptions. I will put some keywords in meta tags for those search engines that may use them, although I don’t think that is as important as it used to be. But, mainly I focus on the page content and the description and, of course, the page title. Putting keywords in page titles is important.”
“I also do a lot of Google Alerts on certain of my keywords and my vendors and my brand names so that I can keep track of what’s out there on the search engines, and I comment on some of the other blogs where it relates to my site. So, it’s a combination of SEO and social media.”
“I use either UPS or the U.S. Postal Service, depending on the size and weight of the package. Generally, anything under three pounds is cheaper to go Priority Mail. We do have a lot of small items, so a lot of our packages go out Priority Mail. But, some of the larger items, or orders with multiple items, will go out UPS. I look for the most cost-effective way to ship the package and that’s the shipper that I’ll choose.”
“One of the challenges is finding good merchandise. I use drop shippers in addition to carrying some of my own inventory because of the difficulty in finding good inventory to offer to my customers.
“I found my drop-shippers just by doing research on the Internet and typing in the different keywords along with ‘drop shipper’ or ‘wholesaler.’ One thing you do have to be careful about is a lot of them that you see are not actually the drop shippers. You really have to make sure that it’s not just a middleman dealing with the actual drop shipper.
“We’re not big enough to make sourcing overseas worth our while at this point, although I am starting to get contacted by some of the companies overseas. Maybe in the future we will, but it doesn’t make financial sense right now.”
“Right now, it’s my own accounting software, although I am looking into possibly expanding out into QuickBooks Retail Edition to leverage the expertise of QuickBooks. Accounting software is their core product, so QuickBooks would be better at keeping up with accounting trends and the features that you would need for an expanding business.”
“Currently, I keep expenses down by doing as much as I can myself and keeping the development and graphic works in-house as much as I can. That’s probably the biggest cost savings right there at this point; but as we continue to grow, I will need to step it up and take it to another level with someone who is more experienced at that than I am.”
“I have our toll-free phone number right at the top of all of our pages. I also try to make sure that if I can’t get to the phone immediately that I call back as soon as possible.
“Also, we have a very lenient return policy. For instance, if there is any kind of damage in our shipments, we generally do not require them to send it back. A lot of companies wait until they get the damaged item back before they send out a replacement, but we ask that they send a picture so that we can see the damage, and then we send out a new item right away.
“We’re just trying to make things as convenient as possible for the customer. It saves some money, too, because you don’t have to pay the return freight, so, it benefits you both ways. It works because we’ve got smaller, lower-priced items, but if you have very expensive products, that probably wouldn’t work for you.”
Advertising and Marketing
“I have a Google AdWords account. It’s a very small budget, but just enough to keep us out there, but I do get a lot of visitors from my pay-per-click [PPC] ads. The conversion isn’t as high as I would like it to be, but you never know how many of those people are actually coming back at a later time to place an order, maybe in another week or a couple of days, even. So, sometimes it’s a little hard to understand the direct benefit of PPC ads, but I can see a real difference when I discontinue them.
“I also advertise with some of the directories that specialize in our type of merchandise, such as Ornaments.com. They are strictly Christmas ornaments and we have a lot of holiday items, so that one gets us a lot of visits and a lot of customers.
“I don’t do any kind of radio or TV or printed advertising at all.”
“I have been very, very cautious, and maybe that’s my biggest mistake–that I haven’t been aggressive enough to grow the business quickly–but it’s worked for me. It’s kept us relatively debt free. Any income that comes in, I’m putting right back into the business, but it’s very slow. So, it may not work for everyone, but it’s worked for me so far.”
“The fact that my business is growing in the economic climate that we have right now tells me that I’m doing something right. I put a lot of time into the business. A lot of time. I’m putting in more time now than when I was working for other companies. I’m working on my graphics or on SEO or on my ad copy at least 12 hours a day, and I think the effort is starting to pay off. It’s showing in the increasing amount of visitors that we’re getting, and also our growth in income.”
“One of the things that I’ve learned about ecommerce is that you can take it at your own pace. It’s a little different working an online store than it is with a brick-and-mortar where you need to show a profit fairly quickly. With an ecommerce store, you can take it slower, you can put your money back into the business, and you don’t have to follow a timeline.”