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Retailer of Paper Products Stresses Cost Control

Lessons Learned is an occasional series where we ask experienced ecommerce merchants about their successes and mistakes. With this installment, we requested Leslie West, owner of Bluedotpapershop.com, an internet newspaper and design store that provides specialty papers, cardstock and layout tools. West, like many merchants, runs the company by herself from her Plymouth, Mich. home, managing the majority of her transport and inventory management herself. Bluedotpapershop.com has been in operation since 2006 and provides over 500 products. Here we provide West’s experiences and suggestions.

Third party company resources

“It took me a while to learn this one. Though owning a small business does not always let you invest in third party tools, guarantee that the important ones are covered. Let an expert deal with the accounting. If you can afford help with the daily, that’s excellent. Otherwise, streamline everything so that you can concentrate on what is important: developing your business. When you have a small business, particularly in a creative field, you’re the business. Find where you can create the maximum value and make time for this.”

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Shopping cart software

“I did lots of research before I opened my shop and decided to go with Yahoo! for my hosting and shopping cart. They are incredibly user-friendly and perfect for individuals with little to no programming knowledge, but they are expensive. When I was searching for ways to reduce costs it was obvious Yahoo! needed to go. I am saving about $300 per month now using less costly alternatives. My internet developer and friend recommended Mal’s e-commerce. It’s a free shopping cart services. I paid a small fee to get a premium account and to get an advanced order management plan that’s available. It does not have all the bells and whistles which my Yahoo! shop had and is better suited for people who have basic programming knowledge, but the cost savings has more than made up for the learning curve. It’s been a tricky transition and a little more work on my part, but it has been well worth it.”

Hosting

“I utilize DreamHost. I need to admit that though I am a designer, I work in print and do not have the background knowledge I want in regards to the web. Luckily I have a whole lot of friends with electronic backgrounds. My internet programmer recommended DreamHost. My website is stable and fast, and the cost is quite reasonable.”

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Employees

Employees are costly. It’s wonderful to have people to rely on and share the workload, but involving unemployment and taxes it can be a drain on a little organization. Keep your overhead as low as you possibly can. Though it’s tough and tiring, until you can truly afford it, do it yourself.”

Marketing

“When I began my company my mindset was,’You have to spend money to generate money.’ I was wrong. You will need to create money to earn money and invest as little as possible. Advertising is vitally important, but it has to be cost effective, and you will need to find a return. Do not spend little pieces of money everywhere simply to get your name out there. Target your efforts and find out what works best for you. I am fortunate that my fulltime occupation is in advertising. As a designer I am ready to deal with all of my design and advertising needs myself. Do not underestimate the power of your brand. Developing a solid identity and consistent message is very important. I want to think that if you visit my website you don’t picture 1 woman in the cellar of her home. Create a brand for your self and get it.”

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Pay-per-click advertising

“One word: Google.”

HT20ML

“I recently redesigned my website so as to improve my SEO, but I still have a ways to go. I’ve attempted to learn as much as I can about SEO, but I have not even scratched the surface. For now, I try to keep my site clean, useful and user-friendly.”

Expense control

“You need to be lean and mean. Streamline everything, and only spend what you will need to. Do not assume that the money will keep coming in, and when it does, do not spend it. A business must be liquid to endure. Start looking for savings everywhere. I search for savings in everything from mailing labels to cardboard boxes. Count every penny, and understand where that penny is going.”

Order management applications

“I handle my orders via a Mal’s ecommerce shopping cart; it’s an add-on order management system. It took a little getting used to and does not have all the bells and whistles which my Yahoo! shop needed, but for the price there is no comparison. I am ashamed to say in two years I’ve not had time to execute my stock management system. I am sure it’d make things much easier.”

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Shipping and order fulfillment

“I meet and ship all of my orders myself from my dwelling. I try to not drop-ship unless it is absolutely necessary or how big the order requires it. I trust all of my vendors, and they will help me out in a pinch, but building a relationship with your client is so essential. That could get lost when you drop-ship. By sending it myself I know that it’s correct, and if it is not, I can repair it fast. I provide sample sheets of my stationery that I send via USPS First Class mail. I may send ten or more sample envelopes each day, so Endicia has streamlined the procedure. I had a Pitney Bowes machine for this, but found it far more costly and less efficient than Endicia. I use FedEx for all my non-sample national orders and UPS for Canadian imports. I only ship to the U.S. and Canada at the moment.”

Credit card payments

“I take Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. I truly have not found a need to bring any other payment methods. Luckily I have not had any issues with chargebacks or fraud.”

Social media

“I have not devoted plenty of time to this as of yet, even though it’s extremely important to raising the visibility of your website. I have started link connections with a couple of sites I feel are a good match with my new and my targets. I don’t wish to link just to connect. I also don’t believe in putting together a page on each networking site out there. Be true to your brand. Plastering up yourself everywhere can actually detract from the website.”

Blogs

“This is a good example of where you need to invest time so as to observe the results. I did start a blog, Bluedotpapershop.wordpress.com. Unfortunately I have not had the time to dedicate to it, so it is more of a static page at this time. I have a great deal of ideas, not lots of time. A excellent blog can really improve your website, and of course increase visitors, but if you do not set time in, do not expect to get much out.”

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Customer service

“Customer service is what it is all about. I can not tell you how appreciative and, regrettably, surprised men and women are when I return their calls or emails, like this is something which never happens to them. As cliché as it might sound, I try to treat my clients the way I would like to be treated. Can I be ticked if my order came late or wrong? If it would irritate me, then it is a problem. I have been in contact with so many amazing people since I started my own website, although some business owners see clients as the enemy, they are not. They are actually quite understanding and reasonable. They only need to know what’s happening. Shopping online is still scary for a whole lot of people. They only need to know there is someone there to help them out whenever they want it.”

General business mindset

“If you do not love it, do not do it. If you are doing it solely for the money, do not do it. I began Bluedotpapershop.com since I have a passion for design, crafts and paper, and I really like sharing it with other men and women. If it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing this. However, it is still a business, and if you do not make money you can not remain in business. Standardize as lots of your business processes as possible and stick to them.”

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