True Interior’s Story: Part II
Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series going behind the scenes at new ecommerce website True Interior. Co-founders Paul Rogers and Rob Carter are frank about the challenges and successes their ecommerce business has faced. Catch up on all the True Interior posts here.
In this part, Rob tells the story.
Back to the Drawing Board
We started with one supplier and the original plan was to sell just their products. They are one of the market leaders within the designer reproduction furniture market, and seemed pretty price competitive. Paul knew the owner from a previous business relationship, and he was very much on board. They were perfect for us. At least that’s what we thought at the time.
When we started trading we saw a lot of traffic coming through and visiting the product pages, but the bounce rate was high. Originally we expected just to be working with this one supplier. But looking into it more it became clear that it wouldn’t work.
There were a few problems. First we’d agreed with them that they would handle customer service for our orders, seeing as they were drop shipping for us. But when we tried calling the number either it kept ringing and ringing, or it would be answered with their company name, not ours. That was frustrating.
Then when it came to adding their products to our site, with all the different colour and material options, we realised they had just one image for each piece of furniture. Customers want to be able to click on different colours and see that reflected in the product, but we couldn’t do that. With hindsight it’s obvious, but if customers can’t customize the product on-screen, conversion is going to suffer.
But the biggest problem was price. People are savvy and won’t go for the first thing they see, they’ll shop around. You only have to Google Barcelona chair and you’ll see all these other guys selling a very similar product, but at half our price. It was clear really quickly why they weren’t buying.
So there we were. One month in, lots of products on the site, good traffic from the infographic. But very few sales. It wasn’t working, and a lot of that was down to our choice of supplier.
We’d been spending a lot of time with this supplier, really focusing on their products. But we’d been looking in the wrong direction. We should have looked more at the competition, the other products that were out there, and the prices they were offering. Our “one supplier” plan was flawed; we needed to go back to the drawing board and try to get some other guys involved.
Changing the Strategy
There were some companies – competitors in fact – that we really wanted to work with and get their products onto our site. We went for the simple approach, and contacted them directly.
Some didn’t get back to us, others did reply but wouldn’t work on drop ship – they wanted to deliver direct to us, which doesn’t fit our model. We’d need a warehouse and fulfillment capabilities, which is a completely different ball game. Our strength is in marketing, and that’s where we wanted to stay focused.
Two suppliers did get back to us though, and both were really keen. They understood what we were trying to do and got behind it, so we agreed to work with them. It made a lot of sense, because they both aim to be the cheapest in the market. We could combine their ranges and make sure we were the cheapest across the board.
We also stopped doing customer service by phone, so we were no longer reliant on our original supplier. It was a little scary moving away from our original plan so quickly, but also liberating. Why stop there? We didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into designer replica furniture, so we found a canvas print supplier that was happy to work with us. Then beanbag suppliers and a wholesaler supplier that would work on a drop ship basis.
We were adding a lot of products, combined with plenty of fresh unique content to really expand our SEO reach. It wasn’t how we planned it, but it felt like our ideas were developing naturally in response to the challenges we were facing.
In total we contacted about fifty suppliers, and we’re working with nine of them now – not a bad return. A lot of the bigger companies turned us down: they liked the site but had tried drop ship in the past and it didn’t work well for them, which was disappointing.
I found the main thing when dealing with suppliers was to explain our concept correctly. One company was concerned about how it would affect their PPC ads, but we explained that SEO was our focus so it was complementary to what they were already doing. If we’re out there making sales for them, we’re essentially keeping their competition out. It took a few emails and a phone call, but they realised that we knew online marketing really well and understood what we were trying to achieve. We found a solicitor on freelancing site PeoplePerHour to draw up an agreement, and covered off the legal side.
Another supplier wanted to meet so we could explain in more detail. We met with him, had a few drinks and he got the idea. We just agreed to showcase his products in exchange for a commission when we generated sales. Making agreements with suppliers sounds like it should be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.
My advice is to persevere. Email a lot of different suppliers, and keep it short but interesting. Just get to the point, tell them what you’re trying to do, and explain how it’s as beneficial to them as it is to you. Say why you want to work with them in particular, and reference their company a couple of times within the email so they know you are interested in them specifically. Treat it a bit like a job application. And don’t get disheartened, just keep trying. There’s plenty of suppliers out there.
For us, we could explain that it wouldn’t put any extra strain on their resources to work with us. Because most of them were already shipping direct to consumers, we would simply send a request for each sale we made, at an agreed discount. We also talked about how we were continuing to develop PR pieces, and showed our visibility across Google. It was important to let them know that we wouldn’t be a hindrance to their business, but had something additional to offer.
Adding 400 Products in One Week
So we added nine new suppliers, but we weren’t lucky enough to have them all come on board gradually. In one particular week we had four new suppliers. They were all keen to get their products on our site, and we didn’t want to let them down.
One wanted us to add all their canvas prints and lampshades, which was over 300 products. Another wanted us to add their range of beanbags. Then we had two replica furniture suppliers who wanted us to add their products as well. We didn’t want to remove all of our original supplier’s products, but we did want to replace ones that the other suppliers had cheaper. So in that week we needed to add 400 new product lines, complete with images and original copy – a must-have for SEO.
We went back to PeoplePerHour to find a freelance copywriter who would be able to do it all in a week. That’s how we found Jo. She’s a fantastic content writer: UK-based, really fast, and good value. She’s also about 75 years old.
We went through a lot of candidates before we found Jo. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the number of applications that come in, so you have to whittle it down quite quickly or you risk missing the good ones while they’re still available. We had one with great credentials, who’d written for Made.com, but we were getting so many others coming through we just lost her details. It was important for them to be UK-based because we wanted the content to relate to a UK home.
To start the process, we asked candidates to write a 50-word description for the Ant Chair. If that was good we sent them a series of questions like “why would you want to work with us”, “what interests you about furniture” and so on. You need to qualify people because, to be honest, there’s a lot of bad quality freelancers on PeoplePerHour. We’ve got a pretty solid process now for finding good copywriters.
So we’d found Jo, but knew it was a tall order for anyone to write up 400 products in one week. We gave her a brief explaining the tone of voice, which for us is informative but engaging at the same time, and specified a maximum of 200 words per product. Then we just sent links to the suppliers’ sites, strictly for reference only, and not to be copied or duplicated in any way. We asked her to wait until she’d written the whole lot, because it’s much easier for us to upload them all in one go.
So we left Jo to get on with the copy, while we worked in the background adding product data and images to the site. It’s easy to add new products on Shopify, certainly a lot easier than Magento. We split the products 50/50 between myself and Paul and worked through them each evening. We had images from the suppliers and their own websites for reference. Each product takes about five minutes to do.
Jo was amazing and got it all done. That’s when we realised just how good she was. We proofread quite a bit and had some revisions, but overall it was really good content. She even wrote a piece about the sex on furniture infographic for us. We’d been uploading products up in the background, so when we had the content it was just a case of pasting it all into the Shopify product feed.
Within about ten days of us having the initial conversation with each supplier, we were sending them links to their products live on the site. It got the relationships off to a really good start.
It Doesn’t Get Any Easier
We’d come a long way. Just a couple of months before, we’d imagined a rosy future selling just one supplier’s products. Then reality struck and we built out our supplier base as quickly as we could. The strategy was different now, but with the benefit of hindsight it felt a lot more realistic. We were on the right path.
But there were still challenges, plenty of them in fact. Shopify is great to work with, and we’d learnt a lot by launching on it. But it was niggling us more and more. We weren’t sure if it was practical to build in the sophisticated features we wanted to help convert more visitors. Traffic was pretty high, but we weren’t making the most of it.
On the one hand, the sophistication of Magento was beckoning. But that power comes at a cost – a lot more complexity, development effort, and administration overhead. On the other hand, we’d come a long way with Shopify, and invested a lot of time in our store on that platform.
Should we bite the bullet and start over with Magento? Or just keep going and find a way to get what we wanted on Shopify?
Next time, I’ll tell you which way we went.
Editor’s Note: I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. We’d love to publish more like it – if you have a story to tell about your online retail business please get in touch. Part III of True Interior’s story will be published later in November. Catch up on all the True Interior posts here.