Have you ever had an ‘A-ha’ Moment? That’s the feeling you experience when something that should have been obvious all along suddenly comes into focus. I had one last September, and now the future of my business has completely changed direction.
I’m about to transition from being an eBay-only seller to having a multi-channel selling strategy once I launch my own website. I’m sharing my story of why and how I decided to go multi-channel, so you can learn what the challenges of this process are if you, like me, wish to transition from having eBay or Amazon as your only sales channel.
In 2008, I was working in San Francisco as a financial analyst for a commercial real estate firm. I started to get concerned for my livelihood when I noticed that our clients were starting to have a lot of trouble getting their commercial loans. All of them were having trouble. And then banks stopped lending completely. We were in the Great Recession.
When you work for a company whose sole purpose is to facilitate these loans, you start to get nervous. We had one product, commercial loans, and the product was essentially off the market. I realized there was a very real possibility that I could get laid off or the firm would close (firms were falling like dominoes all around us). If that happened, I wouldn’t be able to find another job in my field.
I needed to take action to find my own way, create my own job. I remembered a friend in college telling me about all the amazing office clothes available in San Francisco’s thrift stores for $5-$10 and I also remembered that it had cost me over $1,000 to set up a basic work wardrobe when I graduated. I did a little research and couldn’t find any on-line stores that sold gently-used office clothing. I found my niche!
I started thrifting and listing items for sale on eBay during nights and weekends. Selling on eBay was amazing part-time income when my hours were cut. By the spring of 2012 my eBay income exceeded my day job, so I left corporate America to run Office Threads full time.
I was on one platform, eBay. Month after month my sales increased. And then they didn’t. Quite suddenly, my sales started to drop like a rock (a 70% drop in traffic from one month to the next). My traffic was gone. Eventually I realized that it was probably due to early beta testing of eBay’s new Cassini search engine on the fashion category.
So I worked harder. I doubled-down on creating new listings. I did more of what had worked in the past, and didn’t realize that the old approaches weren’t working anymore.
Last September, I attended John Lawson’s ICE Retailer Conference in Atlanta. Before then I’d been to every eBay event under the sun and was very active in my local eBay Meetup group. This event was different. There were a handful of eBay-only sellers like me, but nearly everyone was a multi-channel seller. I listened carefully and all the same speakers said the same word: “diversify.” Some spoke about diversifying distribution channels, some about diversifying product lines, and others about diversifying marketing approaches. And I remembered why I got into eBay selling in the first place: my former career in commercial real estate lacked diversity, so when a downturn came we were all in trouble.
When “diversify” registered with me – that was my A-ha Moment.
It became crystal clear that it was risky to operate my business on one platform. eBay already was not working for me the way it used to; I needed to try something new. Amazon doesn’t accept the sale of used clothing, and the other alternatives such as Bonanza and Addoway hadn’t worked for me when I’d experimented in the past. I realized in that A-ha Moment that I needed to launch my own website and go multi-channel.
For the last 8 months I’ve been preparing for launch. During this process I’ve become quite appreciative of all that eBay had been doing behind the scenes for years without my even knowing it. It’s almost overwhelming, but with careful planning, and some helpful insights from sellers that have done it before, this is manageable for anyone.
What follows next is a summary of the new responsibilities that come with operating my own website. If you are considering making the same change, you can use this as a sort of checklist to help you prepare.
The first thing I needed to decide on was where I would host my website. Given I do not have the technical knowledge to build a website, there were three basic options. I could hire someone to build it for me (very expensive, highly customizable), I could hire someone to build it for me on a platform I could update myself like Magento (less expensive, still required some technical knowledge), or I could build it myself on an out-of-the-box, fully hosted website platform like BigCommerce or Shopify (least expensive, limited customization). I opted for #3.
With eBay, when an item sells the listing ended and no further inventory control was involved (I sell used clothing, so each piece is quantity of one). But when I open my own website, I will need to manage inventory on multiple channels. When an item sells on my website, I want my eBay listing to end (and vice versa). This is where inventory management software comes in handy. Not only will it end listings when needed due to sales: it will keep track of my cost of goods sold to help me at tax time.
When I am eBay-only, shipping is easy because I print everything through eBay labels. When I move to my new website, I will need to ship from two different channels. Services like ShipStation will import your orders from both platforms and let you do your shipping all in one place, and then will send tracking information back up to eBay for you (for eBay sales). While I will lose the eBay Commercial Plus discount from USPS, the improved efficiency and accuracy from using a single shipping solution makes this worthwhile and cost effective.
On eBay, I accept PayPal for payment processing. On my own website I could still offer PayPal, but I can also use different merchant processing services like Stripe or Amazon Payments.
The eBay Buyer Protection policy helps establish trust for me on my eBay Store, because buyers know eBay will protect them from bad sellers. I won’t have this trust pre-established on my own site, and trust is important for getting your customer to complete transactions. Some trust-building considerations are to purchase an SSL certificate (provides encrypted communication with buyers), write an “About Me” page and provide contact information on the website, use a built-in messaging service like Olark so customers can ask questions while they are shopping or provide a customer service phone number to call, and lastly look professional: maintain an attractive site free from grammatical errors with functional links.
Similar to establishing trust, I now need to develop the brand message I want to deliver to my customers. I will need to focus on the customer experience, being unique, and developing my niche. If I don’t create a unique brand I will have to differentiate by price (which is unsustainable). I need to find ways other than discounts that will encourage shoppers to buy from me. Some early ideas are to offer shopping consultations, a fashion blog, or excellent return policies.
Search engine optimization
While I already have a strong conceptual knowledge of search engine optimization, or SEO, I don’t have a fully developed technical skill set. This is an area where I will need to do more studying. One change I will need to enact is to create descriptive file names for my images and use image alt tags. On eBay this wasn’t possible because eBay overwrites my image data every time an image is uploaded.
Taxonomy will be very important, that is, using categories effectively and keeping Google Shopping category names in mind when I set mine up.
I will also need to “Panda-Proof” my site. Google’s Panda algorithm determines the quality of content on web pages. I need to keep pages simple, free of clutter, and write useful descriptions to describe the items I am selling. I will also need titles that are easier to understand, and to avoid eBay vocabulary like “OOAK” and “NWT” because non-eBay shoppers will not understand it.
Once my site is up and running, I will need to verify my Google+ page by dropping a small amount of code in the site. This is easy to do with Google’s instructions. This is important not for social media marketing, but rather because this is a way to get my item pages that I link-to on Google+ indexed faster in Google, so they will rank more quickly in search results.
In April, according to comScore Google controlled 67.6% of search queries so I need to be ready to embrace Google for my new site. I will need to learn how to purchase and maintain Adwords and a Google Shopping data file if I want to be in Google Shopping. I will need to learn to submit a site map to Google and keep it updated. I will need to learn to use the Structured Data Markup Helper in Google Webmaster Tools to mark up my items so Google can get price, quantity, and other important info on my items. I will need to add the Google Analytics tracking code and be sure to enable the conversions tracking function. These are not difficult, but they are new so I see many hours of YouTube video tutorials in my near future.
I’ve been marketing with social media for over two years for my eBay page. Now I will want to make sure that my website is optimized for Facebook’s Open Graph. I will need to make sure that my Open Graph tags are set and working properly. I will also need to make sure there are social sharing buttons on my product pages so shoppers can easily share my products with their friends.
Marketing is going to be the most time-consuming new task once my site is operational. There are many factors to consider. First, is the URL itself. I’ve owned the URL for my eBay store, www.OfficeThreads.com, for several years. My custom URL has been on all my marketing materials, and was redirected to the eBay store’s URL. When I open my site, I will stop redirecting to the eBay store and instead assign the URL to be the address for my website. This allows my current marketing materials to stay valid.
Another new marketing opportunity for me is to publish my own blog. I can reach new customers with blog posts on fashion advice, how to save money on dry cleaning, recipes for family-friendly quick dinners, and other topics that would be of interest to busy working women. This is already the approach I take on my Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ Office Threads pages so I feel comfortable to begin blogging soon.
eBay considers e-mail marketing to be spam, and it is prohibited by eBay policy. E-mail marketing is perfectly legal as long as we follow the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (United States) and Canada’s new anti-spam legislation (CASL) which goes into effect July 1st of this year. E-mail marketing is an important way to stay in touch with your customers and build repeat business so it will be a very important part of my marketing efforts.
One of the best pieces of advice I got as I am going through these planning stages is to purchase an item on my own site as soon as it’s live. This test transaction will let me go through the customer flow and also practice the back-end fulfillment to see if there are any bugs that need fixing.
Launching a new channel, particular your own ecommerce site, is both a lot of work and a lot of fun. Done right with smart planning and smart tools, the decision to go multi-channel can be a game-changer for your business and help it grow beyond what you once thought possible.
I’m hoping to have my site ready to launch in September and will share with you how it goes!