Lessons Learned: Retailer of Paper Products Stresses Cost Control

“Lessons Learned” is an occasional series where we ask seasoned ecommerce merchants about their mistakes and successes. For this installment, we asked Leslie West, owner of, an online paper and design store that offers specialty papers, cardstock and design tools. West, like many merchants, runs the business by herself out of her Plymouth, Mich. home, handling most of her shipping and inventory management herself. has been in operation since 2006 and offers over 500 products. Here we offer West’s experiences and suggestions.

Third party business resources

LeslieWest “It took me a while to learn this one. Though owning a small business doesn’t always allow you to spend money on third party resources, make sure the important ones are covered. Let an expert handle the accounting. If you can afford help with the day-to-day, that’s great. If not, streamline everything so you can focus on what’s important: growing your business. When you own a small business, especially in a creative field, you are the business. Find where you can create the most value and make time for it.”

Shopping cart software

“I did a lot of research before I opened my store and decided to go with Yahoo! for my hosting and shopping cart. They are extremely user-friendly and perfect for people with little to no programming knowledge, but they’re expensive. When I was looking for ways to cut costs it was obvious Yahoo! had to go. I’m saving about $300 a month now by using less expensive alternatives. My web programmer and friend recommended Mal’s e-commerce. It is a free shopping cart service. I paid a small fee for a premium account and for an advanced order management program that is available. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that my Yahoo! store had and is better suited for those with basic programming knowledge, but the cost savings has more than made up for the learning curve. It’s been a difficult transition and a bit more work on my part, but it’s been well worth it.”


“I use DreamHost. I have to admit that though I’m a designer, I work in print and don’t have all the background knowledge I’d like when it comes to the web. Luckily I have a lot of friends with digital backgrounds. My web programmer recommended DreamHost. My site is fast and stable, and the cost is very reasonable.”


“Employees are expensive. It’s nice to have people to rely on and share the workload, but between taxes and unemployment it can be a drain on a small business. Keep your overhead as low as you possibly can. Though it’s difficult and tiring, until you can truly afford it, do it yourself.”


“When I started my business my mentality was, ‘You have to spend money to make money.’ I was wrong. You need to make money to make money and spend as little as possible. Advertising is extremely important, but it needs to be cost effective, and you need to see a return. Don’t spend little bits of money everywhere just to get your name out there. Target your efforts and see what works best for you. I’m fortunate that my full-time job is in advertising. As a designer I’m able to handle all my design and advertising needs myself. Don’t underestimate the power of your brand. Creating a strong identity and consistent message is vital. I’d like to think that when you visit my site you don’t picture one girl in the basement of her house. Create a brand for yourself and own it.”

Pay-per-click advertising

“One word: Google.”

Search engine optimization

“I recently redesigned my site in order to improve my SEO, but I still have a ways to go. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about SEO, but I haven’t even scratched the surface. For now, I try to keep my site clean, user-friendly and relevant.”

Expense control

“You have to be lean and mean. Streamline everything, and only spend what you need to. Don’t assume the money will keep coming in, and when it does, don’t spend it. A business has to be liquid to survive. Look for savings everywhere. I look for savings in everything from mailing labels to cardboard boxes. Count every penny, and know where that penny is going.”

Order management software

“I manage my orders through a Mal’s ecommerce shopping cart; it has an add-on order management system. It took a little getting used to and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that my Yahoo! store had, but for the price there’s no comparison. I’m embarrassed to say in two years I have not had time to implement my inventory management system. I’m sure it would make things a lot easier.”

Shipping and order fulfillment

“I fulfill and ship all my orders myself from my home. I try not to drop-ship unless it’s absolutely necessary or the size of the order calls for it. I trust all my vendors, and they’ll help me out in a pinch, but building a relationship with your customer is so important. That can get lost when you drop-ship. By shipping it myself I know it’s right, and if it isn’t, I can fix it fast. I offer sample sheets of all my stationery that I send via USPS First Class mail. I may send ten or more sample envelopes a day, so Endicia has really streamlined the process. I previously had a Pitney Bowes machine for this, but found it much more expensive and less efficient than Endicia. I use FedEx for all my non-sample domestic orders and UPS for Canadian shipments. I only ship to the U.S. and Canada right now.”

Credit card payments

“I accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. I really haven’t found a need to add any other payment methods. Fortunately I haven’t had any problems with chargebacks or fraud.”

Social media

“I haven’t devoted a lot of time to this as of yet, though it is very important to increasing the visibility of your site. I’ve started link relationships with a few sites I feel are a good fit with my brand and my goals. I don’t want to link just to link. I also don’t believe in setting up a page on every networking site out there. Be true to your brand. Plastering yourself up everywhere can actually detract from your site.”


“This is an example of where you really need to invest the time in order to see the results. I did start a blog, Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to devote to it, so it’s more of a static page right now. I have a lot of ideas, just not a lot of time. A great blog can really enhance your website, not to mention increase traffic, but if you don’t put the time in, don’t expect to get much out.”

Customer service

“Customer service is what it’s all about. I can’t tell you how appreciative and, sadly, surprised people are when I return their calls or emails, as if this is something that never happens to them. As cliché as it may sound, I try to treat my customers the way I want to be treated. Would I be ticked if my order arrived wrong or late? If it would bother me, then it’s a problem. I’ve been in contact with so many wonderful people since I started my site, and though some business owners see customers as the enemy, they’re not. They’re actually very understanding and reasonable. They just want to know what’s going on. Shopping online is still scary for a lot of people. They just want to know there’s someone there to help them out if they need it.”

General business attitude

“If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you’re doing it solely for the money, don’t do it. I started because I truly have a passion for design, paper and crafts, and I love sharing it with other people. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it. However, it’s still a business, and if you don’t make money you can’t stay in business. Standardize as many of your business processes as you can and stick to them.”

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Brendan Gibbons
Brendan Gibbons
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