Launching a business takes a tremendous amount of planning and research, but launching a multichannel endeavor within a 12-month period can provide a unique set of challenges.
Bill Mirabito, founder and president of Sunfitters, has done just that. In November 2006, the company launched its beach products website. Combined with launching a sales endeavor through various comparison sites and auction sites, Sunfitters has made a big splash in just a few months. What does it take to pull of such a sizable undertaking? Mirabito says it was a lot of research.
“I would say just make sure that, when you go into business, have a real strong plan you can believe in,” he said. “I would say take it to some of your friends and ask them what they think, especially business colleagues. I would say it is not a field of dreams — just because you build it does not mean they will come — so you’ve got to have a very strong marketing plan if you hope to achieve success.”
In the spring of 2005, Mirabito and his wife were discussing their careers, and what the future might hold for their professional lives. That was also about the time the two were planning a vacation to the Carribean.
Mirabito said they love to travel to beach locations, but often find it difficult to find things they needed for some serious fun in the sand and sun.
“In this particular case, we were looking for snorkel gear and just could not find it,” he said. “My wife said to me, ‘It would be great if we had a beach store around here.” From there, the seeds for an entrepreneurial effort were hatched.
The duo didn’t quickly build a castle in the sand; the ideas, research and planning took another 18 months before the online operation was created. Mirabito did have an advantage — he was no ecommerce rookie.
He spent four years helping run the ebusiness program at BJ’s Wholesale Club, a publicly-traded retailer with more than 170 warehouse stores in 16 states that competes with Sam’s Club and Costco. When he left the company, Mirabito was assistant vice president of ebusiness and played a key role in jumpstarting the organization’s ecommerce business.
“The experience I had in that multichannel retail environment was critical to helping me get established here,” he said.
Hanging around beach products all day may not seem like work to some people, but launching a multichannel business endeavor around a niche market has been no easy task.
PeC: How did you analyze the marketplace to determine that a beach store was the way to go?
Mirabito: We were looking for an opportunity to serve an underserved market. We also wanted to do something we felt was in our wheelhouse — something we were passionate about. We travel quite a bit and cannot find the things we are looking for. So, we took a look at this opportunity and said, if you do not live in the resort community, you have to, invariably, turn to either a surf shop — which is geared to the young sports enthusiast — or you have to turn to a department store that only carries this merchandise a few weeks a year.
PeC: Are you interested in selling on eBay, Amazon or any of the shopping comparison sites?
Mirabito: We are actually doing it now and very successfully. We sell on eBay, Amazon, Froogle and Yahoo!.
PeC: How do you push products to these various environments?
Mirabito: It is definitely a mix. For instance, Froogle has provided its own connector into that. It is called the Google Base Store Connector that will pull the products down from your Yahoo! store, which is who we have chosen as our ecommerce vendor. Yahoo! has its own feed directly from the Yahoo! store into its shopping arena. However, with Amazon, it is a manual process, and with eBay, it has its own set of tools.
PeC: Do you have a different sales and marketing strategy with for each marketplace or comparison site?
Mirabito: Yes, we do not sell all of our merchandise on each one of those marketplaces so we are selective. We tend to take the higher-ticket items and try to sell those on eBay. We typically start off with a very low reserve price or in some cases no reserve price. We find that actually does spur more activity very, very quickly, and we try to time it so that the auctions end on a weekend. We seem to have higher sales and more activity when they do end on a weekend.
PeC: What appealed to you about using a Yahoo! shopping cart?
Mirabito: I think, first of all, it was pretty much turnkey and very, very flexible. There were plenty of developers out there who can work within that platform and some significant retailers are using it today even still. Second, they have embedded in their large network a content distribution network like Akamai, and that helps with the images. It essentially distributes the images out so that my large images are close to my audience, and they are not traversing across the country from a single server, trying to get those images to load.
PeC: There are some big box stores carrying some of these products part of the year. Is there something you are doing to help distinguish yourself in this marketplace from those other retailers?
Mirabito: I think we are trying to brand ourselves as a beach shop. We really want people to think of us as a location for finding goods for their beach vacation. That is a little bit unique. Department stores do serve the travel market, but they can only do so fairly infrequently.
PeC: How do you find the right products to sell?
Mirabito: We actually talked about this on our blog, The Modest Merchant at Modestmerchant.com. We talked a little bit about some of the challenges we are facing, and one of those we talked about is sourcing products. We have been going to trade shows, and there is a surf expo in the Orlando area twice a year. We do also go to some of the local shows around (the Northeast), and there is nothing like feeling and touching the product, and those shows do give you an opportunity to do that. I think a lot of it is just selling yourself into a manufacturer’s suppliers because they want to make sure their brand is protected as well, so you need to make them comfortable knowing you are going to represent them in the best light.
PeC: I am curious how you envision using the blog. Your blog doesn’t promote your retail store directly, but, instead, seems to be a guide for others starting a small business.
Mirabito: What we are trying to do is to provide some of the knowledge and experience we have for the benefit of other people who have a similar dream of starting their own retail business. We are sharing some of the ups and downs and some of the smart decisions we have made and some of the lessons that we learned and we all go through hard knocks. I just feel passionate about helping other people where I can.
PeC: How do you handle fulfillment for your products?
Mirabito: We are not doing any drop shipping right now, and we are not outsourcing fulfillment. We do all of our fulfillments through our own warehouse, and we do that because we want to maintain the quality experience for the customer. We want them to know that we can ship quickly. Oftentimes, what we find is when we get some of these shipments in from the vendors and we are unpacking some of the orders that we have made so that we can put it on the shelf, we will find items that are damaged or items that have problems. Having that level of close scrutiny nearby is imperative. In a drop-ship environment or in an environment where you are outsourcing fulfillment, you lose that sort of control, and I think the quality shows.
PeC: How do you market such a new site?
Mirabito: We tried using Google’s cost per click, and we were getting great response from that in terms of click-through rates. However, if you look at it from an ROI standpoint, after a while, it did not make sense. The cost per clicks today are far higher than they used to be a few years ago. There was a point a few years ago where you could buy clicks for 10, 15 and 20 cents a click. Now, just to get on the first page, they are starting at around 50 to 65 cents. We have found that you’ve got to work on the SEO first and make sure that your page relevance is as high as it can be because that page relevance actually affects the cost per click. It is in the formula that Google uses. So, if you want to pay lower per click, you’ve got to have a great SEO rank first.