An ecommerce merchant in St. Louis, Mo. launched his business in 2006 after having written the programming code for his own shopping cart. That business, called Vat19, sells offbeat gifts and it has grown to more than 300 SKUs and up to 2,000 shipments per day. Its founder and owner, Jamie Salvatori, explains how it was done.
PeC: Tell us about Vat19, and how you got into ecommerce.
Jamie Salvatori: “Vat19 is an online gift store where we specialize in what we deem are ‘curiously awesome’ products, just sort of unique gifts. My background was in running a video production business and we decided to try to take our strength in video production and see how we could make some money online. We decided to start a website selling products online with a big focus on video. We started right around 2006-07. YouTube, was launched in 2005, and it made it so accessible for video online, that we really dove in.”
PeC: Roughly how many SKUs do you stock in your store now?
Salvatori: “We have a bit over 300, which doesn’t probably sound like a lot, but our focus is in really trying to do an excellent job promoting each item in terms of our photography and videography and explanation. We usually only put up about two new products a week, and we’ve been trying to add about a hundred a year since we started.”
PeC: What are a few of the top-selling products on Vat19?
Salvatori: “One of our most popular items is a 5-pound gummy bear, sort of the freak of the candy world. We’ve also got toys for kids, like a ball that can bounce up to 75 feet up in the air. We have a really popular tea mug that is constructed so that you can actually keep the tea bag on the outside of the mug itself.
“We carry a wide range of items, usually under about $40 apiece and somewhat unique; but usually hoping to provide some sort of function so that we can show that function with a video.”
PeC: How many orders would you say you process a day, on average?
Salvatori: “When it gets really busy around the holidays, it could be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 orders a day.”
PeC: What sort of shopping cart do you run on Vat19?
Salvatori: “I have a background in computer science, so I’ve written all of our shopping cart [code] myself. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the smartest in thing in the world to do, because why reinvent the wheel? But, it does give us some level of control over certain things that you might not find in something that’s off the shelf.
“As far as the order fulfillment and processing, we actually do all of that here out of our warehouse. It’s a custom solution that we wrote ourselves. For accounting, we just use QuickBooks Pro. Everything that we ship out that day, we just batch into one invoice into QuickBooks each day. So, it’s pretty simple even with that volume of orders. It works pretty well.”
PeC: Do you use a third party email vendor for your newsletter?
Salvatori: “Yes. We originally tried to do it ourselves and we made some mistakes. We were automatically signing people into our newsletter once they placed a purchase, and this upset a lot of people and made it very difficult for our emails to get delivered.
“So, about two or three years ago, we switched to AWeber to handle our newsletter. That was a good decision because we haven’t had any problems with AWeber at all and we’re quite pleased. I think the price is good and the service is pretty good.”
PeC: Did you just start from scratch and write the shopping cart code yourself?
Salvatori: “Yes. Like many small businesses, we were trying to cut cost wherever we could, and programming was just something that I knew how to do, and I thought, ‘This can’t be that complicated.’
“When we first started, we only had a couple items. There weren’t multiple shipping options, and we kept everything simple. Then, as the business grew, I’ve sort of added more and more complexity to the cart, as well as our order fulfillment. I just wrote what I needed for my business and have just adapted it since.”
PeC: Tell us what forms of marketing you do.
Salvatori: “That’s probably the hardest thing in the world is to get those eyeballs to your site. We do pay-per-click, with all the usual sites, Google and Microsoft and Yahoo!.
“We do work on SEO. We don’t obsess over it too much. You don’t want to have manic swings of depression or elation because you moved up one position or moved down one.
“We also do a lot to try to get our customers to come back. Repeat business is the most important thing for a small business. So, we do everything we can to keep our customers happy and satisfied.
“We also do TV advertising using Google TV Ads. It is an incredible platform for small businesses to get TV commercials out there without having to go through an ad agency. (I feel like I should get like a check from Google here.) But, it’s an incredible system for getting your ad made and getting it put on the air. It is a smaller system. I think you’re only on Dish Network, but that’s still 13 million households. You could run a TV spot for maybe $50. So, I would encourage online retailers to look there, because most everyone obsesses over their Google AdWords and pay-per-click, but if you go on TV, you’re going to be where your competitors probably aren’t.”
PeC: Can you track Google TV Ads?
Salvatori: “Google has some abilities. I think if you put in a ‘1-800 number’ on the TV spot, they can track that somehow. But what we do is, at the end of our order process, we ask people how they found out about us. About 85 percent of our customers answer that question, and so we can see what percentage of our sales are coming from people that have seen our ad on TV.
“You’re not going to get the same level of detail as pay-per-click, but you can start and stop your ads whenever you want, and you upload your ad right from your computer. I used to do TV advertising a long time ago through ad agencies and the cable companies, and Google TV Ads just blows that away.”
PeC: Do you manage SEO and pay-per-click in-house, or do you outsource that management?
Salvatori: “We do that here, in-house.”
PeC: Looking back over your business since it launched four years ago, tell us about some decisions you wished you would have done differently.
Salvatori: “I think I should have started doing the type of TV advertising that we’re doing now earlier. I feel like I shouldn’t have been obsessing so much over search engine ranking and pay-per-click as much as I used to. I wish I would have started our Facebook fan page earlier. The number one thing I wish I would have done was putting all of my videos on YouTube earlier. We used to host the videos ourselves for about a year-and-a-half, and I wish I would have posted all that stuff on YouTube the day we started. And, if you saw the list of retired products on our site, you’d see a bunch of items that I shouldn’t have purchased.”
PeC: Do you have any ecommerce advice for our readers?
Salvatori: “Don’t give up. It’s usually whenever it seems like it’s the worst and it’s all downhill—but, keep going. Usually, things turn around all of a sudden pretty quickly.
“The other small piece of advice I would give is to not get too attached to any one thing. You can get obsessed over trying to get a particular pay-per click campaign to work, but if that’s not working, just pause the thing and move on to something else. If no one is reading your company blog, just shut it down. You don’t have to have a blog just because people say you should. If it’s not giving you any benefit, spend the time working on something else.
“Another thing that I remember being fairly obsessed about for a while was our conversion rate and trying to measure up to other websites. But, all that really matters is how many orders are you getting.
“Make changes to your website and test them. Does your conversion rate go up or down? All that matters on your site is whether the change you’ve just made over the last month or so has helped or hurt your conversion rate. Actually, the only number that matters really is how much money you got in your bank account, and if you have enough to pay the bills.”