In a time when traditional magic shops were going out of business, Sam Blankenship wanted to prove that a new magic shop could thrive. So he launched The Trick Shop in 2004 with a physical, brick and mortar store; he then launched the web component, TrickShopMagic.com, in 2005. Revenue for the combined business is now “under $500,000,” with 2009 revenue exceeding 2008 by 10 percent.
The business is located in Temecula, Calif., near San Diego. We recently visited with Blankenship about getting started in ecommerce and the lessons he’s learned to date.
PeC: How did you get started in the magic industry?
Blankenship: “I started with magic as a hobby when I was about 10 years old. Growing up, the only place that I had to purchase magic from was a small counter inside the local bookstore. My mom would take me down there every now and then so that I could pick out a new trick.
“Eventually, I outgrew the place as I got older. Once I got my driver’s license I started driving to the nearest ‘real’ magic shop, which was about an hour away. One of the fundamental problems with magic shops is that there are not that many of them around because it’s such a specialized hobby and it’s hard to keep the doors open with just magic.
“I made the decision to open The Trick Shop when I found out that my nearest magic shop in San Diego was going out of business. I was going to need somewhere to buy my own magic tricks, so it seemed like a good idea to just open my own shop. Our online presence has helped create a lot of additional income that has been really helpful when sales are soft at our brick and mortar store.”
PeC: How much of your revenue comes from brick and mortar versus online?
Blankenship: “When we started out it was almost 80 percent brick and mortar. Over time, our website has improved, but at the same time a lot of purchasing has shifted to the Internet. Now more than 60 percent of our sales come from online orders.”
PeC: Who are your customers?
Blankenship: “Our customers vary from beginners all the way to professionals. We do a lot of advertising on an industry related podcast so that sends a lot of the experienced magicians our way.”
PeC: Has The Trick Shop been your full time job since its launch?
Blankenship: “We’ve been in business for over five years now and during that time I’ve also worked for a company in the consumer packaged goods industry on and off, where I was vice president of sales throughout the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. However, given our [The Trick Shop’s] rate of growth, this is starting to become a full time job for the whole family. We never expected that we could grow this big so quickly.”
PeC: How did your prior experience play into the opening of your own business?
Blankenship: “My previous experience has taught me to be fiscally conscious of our spending, and to constantly evaluate what is best for us. No company can grow and move ahead by sticking with a static marketing plan. To get growth you must consistently evaluate your opportunities while looking at the success, or lack thereof, of your past activities. I believe that opportunities for growth need to be reacted upon quickly before a competitor swoops in and takes advantage of an opportunity that you’ve discovered. Being a small business has really allowed us to make decisions quickly and using the profits from incoming orders to quickly fund some of the ideas that we wanted to try have paid off big.”
PeC: Now, on to the website. Tell us about the shopping cart platform you use.
Blankenship: “We chose Yahoo! stores because of the brand name recognition that you get with Yahoo! I chose the cart on a whim one night and took a chance. I knew a lot more about brick and mortar and had done very little research on the Yahoo! cart. The personal trust I had in the Yahoo! name made it a logical choice for me at the time. The benefits of the cart are that it has been very easy to maintain a big list of products and assort them into user friendly categories.”
PeC: What considerations did you have when planning the site’s design and functionality?
Blankenship: “I think I’ve been able to bring a ‘real magic shop experience’ to the Internet. In our brick and mortar store, customers always have a lot of questions about certain tricks before they commit to a purchase. We’re using things like our ‘chat with a magician’ feature which utilizes a live chat service to help promote customer interaction, drive cross sells and so on. Customers’ reviews have been an important feature as well, helping aid customers make the right selections.”
PeC: How have you marketed the ecommerce store?
Blankenship: “We have primarily marketed via word of mouth and advertising within trade publications that reach our target consumers. Early on we partnered with a weekly podcast, iTricks.com, that covers news for magicians which has been a huge success in driving qualified customers to our website. We have been working with the social media channels and have started to experience success with both Twitter and Facebook. Now that our business is really getting legs online, we’re starting to explore our options with pay-per-click advertising.”
PeC: What’s your process for customer service?
Blankenship: “The live chat feature is getting rave reviews. Many of our products require a certain amount of technical skill and now, before they buy, customers are able to ask in real time and not have to call our store or wait for an email response.”
PeC: An important part to starting a business is expense control. Any advice for our readers?
Blankenship: “Try not to expand quicker than what you’re capable of keeping up with. Take small steps, evaluate, re-evaluate, and move forward with building off of what has proven successful. I’m a big believer in ‘know what you know and know what you don’t know.’ If you don’t know or don’t understand something, consider the cost to hire an expert in this area that is more knowledgeable. In the long term, I believe we have been more successful in paying for expertise that we didn’t have versus the pitfalls (and cost) of experimenting in these areas on our own. We use QuickBooks Point of Sale to tightly track our financials from both the brick and mortar and online components.”
PeC: Do you use QuickBooks for order management, too?
Blankenship: “T-Hub [order management software] is promising if we decide to stay with QuickBooks. It is the first program that we’ve found that can export into QuickBooks POS flawlessly. The drawback is it is software based and must live on a computer at our brick and mortar. That always makes me nervous.”
PeC: Now, onto lessons learned. What’s the biggest “don’t do this” advice you’d give an e-merchant?
Blankenship: “If you’re going to try to stock your items, like we do, in lieu of working with a drop shipper, try not to get aggressive and buy more than you can sell in a 14 to 30 day time frame. Consider your suppliers’ lead times (how quickly they can get your order to you) and what you sell (based on history, if possible). Sometimes we’ve learned that the products that we think are hot turn out to be not so hot.”
PeC: Any final words of advice?
Blankenship: “Be brief, be bright, be gone. I try not to waste anyone’s time or let him or her waste my time. I try to quickly make sound decisions and move forward. We have some really large competitors so we try to be more nimble and reactive than they can be.
“Know what you know and know what you don’t know. I put any ego aside and realize that I can’t be an expert at everything. I’ve made lots of friends in ecommerce and learn something from them every day. I hope I can return the favor. I’ve learned to make my business decisions faster. I struggled at first when making the leap from brick and mortar to adding the online component.”