Kathy Smith is 46 years old. She started out as a high school teacher.
“Some days it was like walking into a battle zone.” Then she was in the printing business. “Pressure cooker every day.” Then, in November 2002, she launched Star Crossed Productions at scp-inc.biz. “Rocket ride.”
With two book titles, her own and one belonging to fellow author Radclyffe, she went on line with a small ecommerce business that has achieved, in three years, ten times as much as she envisioned in five. “We’ll do just about $1 million in gross sales in 2005,” she says. “My business plan called for $100,000 this year.”
It wasn’t like she picked the biggest demographic group on the planet. She targets a community that has been estimated at something less than one-quarter of one percent of the population—lesbian women who read lesbian- oriented fiction. But then one of the keys to good marketing is knowing who your audience is. In Kathy’s case, it’s almost on a firstname basis.
PeC: Tell us about the beginning.
I had published a book and the publishing company hadn’t done a good job marketing it. Even my friends couldn’t find it. It was on Amazon.com but I was competing with a million other titles. What I wanted and needed was a place where lesbian women could easily find material they wanted to read, which included my book.
I knew there was a market out there from my involvement in the ‘fan fiction’ web community. Fan fiction is a genre based on people who watch TV shows and then write stories based on the characters and locales of that show. (fanfiction.net)
So with $700 and two titles, mine and one belonging to another author, Radclyffe, I put up the website. We started talking about it in September of 2002 and I launched in November. I built the site myself and I warehoused the books. I was still working fulltime at the print shop and so the days were pretty long, 16, 17,18 hours.
PeC: How did you drive traffic in the beginning?
I had about 400 names in my Yahoo discussion group list and Radclyffe had about 2000 in hers. We did an email blast to those people. Within an hour, the orders started coming in. We learned that there were about 35,000 lesbian women who make purchases on the Internet. So, the key was to find them and talk to them.
PeC: You obviously didn’t grow the business on two titles.
I started calling publishers and making deals to buy lesbian fiction books, which is all we do. (We have a couple of gay titles but that’s all.) Most of them were glad to find a place where many titles were offered in one place.
PeC: You mean you bought the inventory and didn’t do drop shipping?
Absolutely not. Part of my business model was to have complete control over the shipping and be able to ship inside 24-hours. I had learned that the lesbian people I knew had trouble getting things they ordered, sometimes it took six or eight weeks and sometimes they never got the books at all. In most cases it was online merchants that were selling what they didn’t have in stock, so orders were not being fulfilled. It made the publishers look bad, not the merchants whose fault it really was. I wanted my customers to know the books would be shipped the next day or they would know why. I warehoused at my home initially and then I bought a building where we do the fulfillment now. I think this is a key thing in my business. It has built a lot of trust for out customers.
PeC: How many titles do you handle now?
We have about 450 and we add 20-30 every month.
PeC: Do you still do your own site programming?
No. In 2004 I moved the site to MonsterCommerce (monstercommerce.com) because I needed more back or server side functions than I could program myself. For one thing, I wanted a gift certificate, which you don’t see that often in ecommerce. Monster Commerce set that up. I also needed serious inventory control, which is a very important thing in my business. I do not want the customer to be able to order something I can’t ship. So, if someone asks to put a book in their cart that I don’t have in stock, it won’t let them. The system also notifies me that I have a stocking issue. We’ll either get the book or we’ll take it off the site. The system also allows me to set special pricing levels of regular customers. If I see a series of orders from someone, I can go in on my control panel and set their account parameters to give them a discount of my choosing on future purchases.
PeC: Tell us about your communication with customers before, during and after the sale.
First, when someone registers as a customer they get an email right away that welcomes them to StarCrossed. Then they get a monthly E-zine and they get some targeted snail mail once a quarter. When someone buys something, they get the email confirming the order and thanking them. They get an email that tells them the order is being processed and then they get an email notice when the order is shipped. They know all through the process what is happening and when. In that shipping notice they get a tracking number and a link to the shipper’s website so they can check the shipment if they want or need to.
PeC: What do you normally put in the E-zine or snail mail?
We tell them about new titles, special sale items, and author signings. Any things that’s news or relates to the titles we sell.
*PeC: You’ve been in a “brick and mortar” business and now you’ve been in ecommerce. Is customer service any different in the two? *
Well, in the print shop when a customer came in, I had to deal with it that minute. If it was a problem, it was in my face. In ecommerce when that email comes with a service issue or even if it is just a question, it really is the same as having the customer come into the store and it is best to deal with it that same instant, just like you would if they came into the office. It is too easy to give excuses and ignore an issue in ecommerce because the individual is not there in person or on the phone. When an email drops in my email inbox that customer is walking into my store and is treated as if she were standing at my front counter.
PeC: Have you made any mistake that stands out?
Oh yes. There was one, where a publisher wanted us to be involved in some presales of a title. We took about 300 orders, but the publisher didn’t make the release date for the book. I knew I shouldn’t have done the deal but I did. So, I just started staying in touch with the customers. We kept those 300 people updated on a weekly basis as to where their order was and what we expected. When we finally did ship, I made up a coupon that went with their shipment and gave then 10% off their next order. We heard back from some of those people saying they never expected that and it was a nice thing to get. The coupon is set up as a credit in their account on our site. They have a code from the coupon I sent them that they can enter when they check out and the discount will be applied. I think that’s the kind of thing that builds loyalty even in a bad situation.
PeC: What worries you most day to day?
Inventory control and shipping costs. We allow customers ordering $40 or more worth of books to choose free shipping. That means I need to make sure we have the most cost effective shipping possible. We ship all over the world, for some customers shipping costs can be more than the books. And, as I said. we don’t sell anything we can’t ship the next day, so I have to be on top of inventory. With over 450 titles and more coming, it’s a task.
PeC: Do you have help now?
I quit the printing job, and I have two employees. But there are still some long days.