“Lessons Learned” is a biweekly series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Saurabh Abrol, president and CEO of WineChateau.com. Driven, competitive, focused, innovative, tight-fisted, and as sweet as the dessert wine he sells, Abrol, 29, considers himself a “digital entrepreneur with old-school values.”
“I grew up in the beverage business, working after school and on weekends to help my father [Arun Abrol] manage, rehabilitate, and build three local New Jersey liquor stores into a successful enterprise. I used my background in business and computer science to use online shopping to transform our neighborhood liquor shops from bricks to clicks into an operation without boundaries. We moved from three retail locations in South Orange, South River and Metuchen, New Jersey, into a wine and spirits mega-merchant, serving over two million customers in 46 states.”
Shopping Cart Software
“We use a shopping cart called BevMedia designed for wine and spirits retailers online. We chose this shopping cart because it was built from the ground up to satisfy the specific needs of an online wine retailer and because it is completely customizable to our needs.”
“We host our website on four servers maintained by BevMedia. By spreading the site over four servers we balance the traffic load, and build-in redundancy and a measure of disaster protection that allows us to be in operation 24/7/365, because the servers are manned by a live person.”
“Our 22 employees are a major part of our business. They help our company grow, thus they grow in return with us. I guess you can say that they are part of our family.”
“We use a wide range of marketing strategies, which include SEO, PPC, email and online advertising, PR and brand building.
“We have done very well with Google AdWords and by listing our products on shopping comparison sites. A little more than 20 percent of our revenues are generated through direct email marketing to our registered customers and to our house email list. In conjunction with pay-per-click and email marketing, we worked very hard for the past few years to do search engine optimization. For example if you type ‘buy wine online’ in Google, we are listed on the first page. We tried print and radio and surprisingly, for our online business, they were the least effective.”
“The best piece of advice my father gave me once I joined his business was to ‘keep expenses as low as possible and grow the business with the profits you gain.’ Start slow, work carefully, and question every single expense.
“More online companies go bankrupt because they overspend their budget. Because we were able to control our budget during the life of our business, our company was not hit hard during the economic downturn. We did not have to lay off any employees, we did not have to buy less inventory and, contrary to most businesses, we doubled our marketing expenses since we got great deals and more bang for the buck.
“Save money wherever you can, but still be smart by investing enough of it so your business can run efficiently.”
“We use an accounting firm that manages our businesses’ cash flow. But, for new entrepreneurs, I would recommend using a simple but effective accounting software program, such as Quickbooks. Believe it or not, by using software from a well-established company, the prices will be low and their customer service will be superior.”
Order Management Software
“We use an order management system that is part of BevMedia. This was a project developed jointly by WineChateau.com and BevMedia as a custom integration into our website. It tracks the thousands of bottles that are ordered each day, from the time they arrive in our warehouse to the point at which they are packaged, processed, and then shipped.”
Credit Card Payments
“We use Authorize.net to process our credit card payments as they have good tools to detect fraudulent transactions. Most payment gateways are more or less the same, but because we have a large volume of sales, we are more concerned with fraudulent transactions than anything else. We would love a 100% guaranteed way of detecting fraudulent credit card authorizations, but of course there is no such thing. Look for a payment gateway that has the best price per transaction.”
Web Design and Usability
“We just went through a major redesign. Whoever said, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ wasn’t in ecommerce. We found that choosing the colors and layout of the homepage was extremely important. We also have over 18,000 items so a good search function and left navigation with well thought-out categories was important. We also made sure to make the important buttons like ‘Add to Cart’ extremely visible.”
“We do have a small presence, but our industry demographic tends not to be widely active. At least, we have not seen a huge return from our Facebook page or Twitter name. Instead we choose to focus our attention on other channels.”
“Our customers have much more than a passing interest in wine, they have a hunger to know more. They want to know more about winemaking history, winemaking processes, more about pairings with food, and how wine connects with occasions. And, they are actively seeking opinions about taste and quality. Brian Freedman from The Wine School of Philadelphia and Contributing Editor for Philadelphia Style Magazine is our resident blogger in the “Uncork Life Blog,” which is totally integrated into our site.”
“We have a customer service center on site and don’t outsource at all. In our business our reps become experts on our product line and with our customers. They really become account managers after awhile, and we have customers who will ask for a specific rep when they call in. Customers will call in looking for specific items, checking inventory, placing orders or checking order status. I actually will answer at least five calls a day personally just to keep my finger on our customers’ collective pulse.”
General Business Attitude
“In any type of business, the major rules are keeping your cost as low as possible at all times but still being able to run your business efficiently. Pay your employees a couple dollars per hour more and they will appreciate you much more. The key is to retain your employees almost forever, as you will be investing your time and money by training them. Develop tight profit and loss statements every week. Then, as your business grows, do them once every month. This will give you a good bird’s eye view of your business’ health.
“Go into this with your heart and your mind. Enter your place of business every morning and think about what step you can take today to become one of the top in your industry. I understand that my business may never be the biggest or most profitable in my industry, but the excitement for me each day comes with being the hunter, not the hunted.”