Lessons Learned is a biweekly series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment we interviewed William Villiers of Select Wallpaper, an online seller of wallpaper and wallpaper borders based in Dundee, Tayside, U.K.
“Select Wallpaper launched its online store in 2006 to fill a gap in the market. With only one retailer online selling wallpaper, owner Rodric Soutar and [I as the] developer saw tons of opportunity to corner the market. We jumped in and have worked every hour available over the last three years to ensure we stay at the forefront of a now over-saturated market. Revenues from 2008 reached £360,000 [$594,000 U.S.] and are expected to jump another 50 percent in 2009 to £540,000 [$891,000 U.S].”
Background and Experience
“I studied website design in college, and I ripped apart a handful of ecommerce scripts just to see how they worked. I recall breaking osCommerce and its fork, Zen Cart, on numerous installations. I also maintained a handful of not-for-profit sites, some of which are still online today.
“After college it became evident that I needed to get a ‘real job’ outside of tinkering online. Interior designer Rodric Soutar saw an ad I had placed online and we met to discuss starting a website to sell leading wall coverings online. I’ve been with the company since day one.”
“We chose CubeCart v4 due to its search engine friendliness, the option of having paid support, XHTML valid output, and an easy-to-grasp template management system.
“The CubeCart platform wasn’t written specifically for us, therefore some features that we might find to be annoying or unnecessary may be invaluable to another company. We’ve found adding multiple images to be extremely tedious, however we handled this with a custom modification of our own.
“While we have been able to review scripts and features from third-party developers, the encrypted nature of these scripts make it difficult or impossible to customize them to fit our needs. We have therefore worked to create our own scripts.”
“We are hosted with Mosso.com, now known as the Rackspace Cloud. There have not been any major outages in the year we’ve been with them. A great advantage of Rackspace is the live chat support. Whenever we have a question about our website being temporarily unavailable we can get immediate responses, an explanation and an ETA.
“We have used other hosts; however we were being charged excessive fees for ‘bandwidth overages,’ which were not expected. Rackspace accommodates our bandwidth needs at a reasonable cost.”
“Founder Rodric Soutar owned and operated a successful decorating business in our local area for 30 years prior to us making the venture online. On a daily basis he and his partner, Deborah Balbirnie (who also works full-time for Select Wallpaper), answer customer inquiries from around the world, scan new patterns for our website, receive and ship orders from our secure warehouse premises, look after trade and manufacturers accounts, manage stock levels, pay the bills, and everything else that comes with the day-to day life of running your own business.
“I also help with customer service as needed, however my primary duty is maintaining all aspects of the website. It involves everything from planning, designing and developing, maintaining our blog, Twitter account, Squidoo lenses, link building, and marketing.
“We also have a handful of other office staff, some part-time. They are available to us when it gets a little hectic in the office. We employ two full-time people in our warehouse for packing and shipping orders.”
Third Party Developers
“For over a year we tried outsourcing some of our programming to third-party CubeCart developers, however we were never satisfied due to either their lack of availability, level of commitment or their knowledge.
“We needed someone who really knew what he or she was doing and could give us the time we required at an acceptable rate. We work seven days a week and required a developer willing to do the same. I’m pleased to say we now have a regular developer who receives consistent work from us. It’s lightened my work-load which gives me more time to focus on other areas of the business that have needed developing for some time.”
“We tried Google AdWords and Yahoo!’s pay-per-click campaigns. During 2006 we were getting all major keywords at rock-bottom prices, [but now there are] a dozen or more companies competing for the same keywords and hiking up the prices, so they don’t offer us any consistent return of investment anymore.
“We’re competing with Argos, Tesco, John Lewis and other major companies, all of which have advertising budgets in the millions. We obviously had to rethink our approach to finding traffic that converted.
“We’ve recently been using Twitter. We advertise our Twitter URL on our website, in our ‘order dispatched’ emails and on our Squidoo lenses.
“We occasionally send out an email newsletter to our subscribers offering discounts for their family and friends, engaging with interior design-related blogs and websites to discuss private advertising opportunities.
“We have recently started supplying wallpaper to television production companies, which looks promising, and we have been recommended in numerous national newspapers and magazines.”
“Always keep a close eye and study your return of investment. This is made easier online by the use of Google Analytics. Monitor how much you spend on advertising campaigns and see if the traffic you’re paying for is actually converting to sales. We’ve found that there are times we’re wasting money going after the premium keywords and have shifted to target specific niches instead.
“It’s worthwhile remembering that not all savings are to be made online. We saved thousands per month simply by changing our shipping company. We were very effective playing competitor rates against our current provider to get even lower [fees].”
“Our accounting is handled by a third party who uses Sage [business management software].”
“We have a custom solution built into our website that enables us to quickly see at a glance which orders have been shipped and what the current order status. When an item is out of stock our system will automatically alert us and email the order directly to the manufacturer. Our supplier ships the order directly to our customers on our behalf instead of first restocking our warehouse. This speeds up the delivery process.”
Credit Card Payments
“We currently use PayPal Payments Gateway Pro which allows for credit and debit card transactions to be handled directly on our website and in a secure environment. It also allows PayPal users the opportunity to quickly and easily check out without needing to type the billing and shipping address.
“For customers who don’t want to use PayPal, we have a terminal in our office that connects directly with our bank, allowing us to take telephone payments. We’ve recently been looking into new payment gateways to see if a better deal can be had elsewhere. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, so I know we’ll be staying with PayPal for at least the next few months.”
“When we originally began selling online we used an alternate domain name that was similar to our competitor at the time. After trading online for over a year and climbing our way to the top of Google we found ourselves being chased by their legal departments, demanding that we switch domains. We paid our lawyer thousands only to be told that we should indeed change domain names.
“Two [lessons here]: Don’t use a domain name similar to your competitors and pick your battles. We don’t deal with our lawyer unless it is absolutely necessary now.”
“While seeing our name printed in magazines certainly has the ‘wow factor,’ I consider our biggest success to be the fact that we’re continuing to grow and develop our brand.
“During the early days of Select Wallpaper, it was daunting to rely entirely on our website sales to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. Now that the company is three years old, we’re a lot more stable; we have multiple avenues to explore for increasing sales, and have many plans for our future growth. We are happy to continue developing the business knowing that our most difficult years are now behind us.”
General Business Attitude
“Don’t undervalue your time, services and products. People are generally willing to pay that little bit extra if they know they will be dealt with in a friendly, personable and yet professional manner. Undercutting your competitor’s prices might well result in more sales, but that only takes up more of your time and you’ll quickly start neglecting your customers who otherwise might have provided you with years of business.
“For example, we charge a nominal fee for sample patterns to be shipped, yet our competitors do it for free. We tried the free sample feature on a competitor’s site and received the sample more than a month later. (I’d actually forgotten all about it).
“When we did a trial run offering free samples we were snowed under with requests, people were just ordering them for the sake of [getting freebies]. But it slowed down our productivity and didn’t actually increase sales of the wallpaper patterns themselves. We had to take on two extra staff just do deal with the requests.
“By charging a small amount for samples, we’re trimming the fat so to speak. Only those who are actually interested in purchasing the wallpaper will pay for the sample, and it will be delivered within 24 to 48 hours, along with a discount code reimbursing the customer for the sample cost on their next purchase.”
“It’s always worthwhile to monitor your competitors, but you should always be more concerned about your own website than theirs. Instead of trying to rip off the other website, take a good look at your own and ask yourself what you would like to see improved. Better yet, ask your customers.”