True Interior’s Story: Part III
Editor’s Note: This is the third part in a series going behind the scenes at new ecommerce website True Interior. In this post founder Rob Carter talks about their big move from fully hosted user-friendly shopping cart Shopify to industrial-strength (but really complex) ecommerce platform Magento.
Why We Went With Shopify
In part one of our story co-founder Paul talked about how we built the site on the Shopify platform. We looked at a few options but chose Shopify because it’s easy to work with, affordable, and has a great app store.
We know Magento well, and did consider it as our first choice. But Magento development usually involves a lot of expense and mistakes, and we didn’t want to go through all that just to get off the ground.
Shopify is a hosted solution, so works out of the box. It’s fast too. There’s no need for a lot of design and development work, so we could launch very quickly. They also have great customer support. Whenever I had a question they got back to me straight away, and were very helpful.
But software that’s so quick and easy to get started with always seems to have the same downside. You hit a wall where it’s really difficult, or even impossible, to get it to do something it wasn’t designed for. Some users will never get to that point, but we got there quickly.
Why We Wanted to Move Platform
Our products are highly configurable. Some of the reproduction furniture, for example, is available in 15 different colors and then a number of different fabrics. It becomes quite complex. We found with Shopify that when you set up variants all the different color images appear straight away on the product pages. From a customer perspective it looks confusing.
We wanted to have a lot of different page templates, so we could display different information depending on the type of product we were selling. We wanted to have more control over category pages, and we wanted to do more with merchandising. But we were finding all of those hard to achieve.
The templates weren’t quite up to the level that we needed either – we purchased two different ones at a cost of around £110 each and neither of them were up to scratch. We needed more back-end flexibility, and would have to spend a lot of money on Shopify developers to get the functionality we wanted.
Shopify is still a fairly new concept. Some of the new modules that you can buy are fantastic, and I think they will get there eventually. But for the market we are in, Shopify is just not what we needed to make it a success. If you’re selling commodity products – something where the customer knows exactly what they’re getting – then it’s great.
I would recommend Shopify for someone who wants to test the water first, to see if they have a business that’s going to grow. If I was going to start another store, something with simpler products, I would definitely consider Shopify again.
I had some concerns about moving to Magento. We’d put a lot of time into setting up Shopify, we’d found a template, and I’d got my head around using it. The whole checkout stage was working pretty well, and we’d had some good customer inquiries. I was also concerned that switching over would lose us the SEO value we’d worked so hard to build up.
Then there was the cost. We were thinking of getting an agency or just a UK-based Magento developer, but that typically comes to five figures. From our start-up perspective it just wasn’t feasible.
But still, with all the requirements we had, it was looking easier to get a whole new site designed than pay for bespoke development work on our existing Shopify store. Magento is very scalable, and has so much functionality built in. One of our main suppliers was also on Magento, so I thought it would help us to integrate with their systems so we could import stock information. It’s just a more suitable platform for a complex retail site.
Making the Move
Paul knew a very good Magento developer based in the Philippines, called Renzo. He’s very capable, quite cost effective and has exceptional English. He’s done some very nice sites in the past.
But there’s an eight-hour time difference between the UK and the Philippines. Trying to get hold of him and explain exactly what we needed wasn’t easy. But we saved a vast amount of money by going with Renzo, so not being able to sit down and explain what we wanted seemed like a small price to pay.
So we had to communicate with him any way we could – diagrams, wire frames, links to other sites and so on. For the homepage I just drew a diagram and sent him some links. For the category page we wanted a new faceted navigation which he understood. And for the product pages I wanted to have some key selling points on there which we could change ourselves, and again he understood it and created it from scratch. I used a wire frame tool called MockFlow which is free if you don’t need to design a lot of pages.
We agreed a fixed price with Renzo, and the agreement was to pay half upfront and the rest on completion. We wanted to demonstrate to him that we weren’t going to try and dodge payment, and to spur him on to turn it around quickly. It seemed to work.
From the first set of visuals, he got a development site back to us within two weeks. And after four or five weeks of communicating back and forth, the development was done. He put together a completely new site template and for the money we paid (which was three figures) we were absolutely delighted.
Since Renzo finished I’ve added some modules myself and installed others using people from PeoplePerHour. The cost to set it up was really minimal and it’s a much more serious platform that the site’s sitting on now.
So the development was a success, but we still weren’t in a position to launch. There was no way to bulk upload all the products from Shopify, so all 400 had to be added from scratch. That was demoralizing after already going through the whole process on Shopify.
But we were so pleased with how the site looks. We had a lot more options to showcase the different furniture items. If you want to change a chair from cashmere to premium leather, for example, the image changes, and then if you want to see a different color in that material you can do that too.
We were lucky because Renzo came recommended, but there’s always a risk with outsourcing. Even with a recommendation, find out what the good points were from the person who recommended them. Get some examples of sites they developed, and check them out yourself. If you have a friend that knows a bit about coding, ask them to take a look.
If you’re using a site like oDesk or PeoplePerHour, they might be cheap, but check their feedback. If they have no feedback or there are comments that they were slow or didn’t listen, then you should probably avoid them.
You also need to work hard on communication and might not be able to communicate in the way you prefer – emails and pictures instead of chatting over the phone for example. Have a back and forth dialogue before committing to anything, just to check they’re on the same wavelength as you.
So you shouldn’t ignore the offshore options out there. If you can find someone really good, you can save thousands. You have to take a leap of faith at times, but if you’re on a limited budget I think you need to go down that route.
You have to arrange your own web hosting with Magento, which is a whole other world again. With Shopify there were no server costs or anything like that to worry about. They provide it all. When you start looking around the costs and technical jargon can be quite daunting.
We went with South West Broadband who have been absolutely fantastic. We gave them our requirements – average page load times, number of products and so on. I wanted the site to be fast, because there’s nothing more frustrating to customers than a slow website. They came back to us with a bespoke hosting package at a really decent rate. I would highly recommend those guys as well.
Their level of service surprised me too – in a good way. For example, I asked Renzo to logon recently and update something. Within an hour I got an email from South West Broadband saying, “Someone in the Philippines has accessed your server on two occasions, has that been authorized?” From a small business perspective it’s nice to know you’ve got someone looking out for you like that.
Another time when we were migrating over from Shopify we deleted a couple of important files, but they were able to retrieve them quickly for us. When you’re a bit of an amateur like us, it’s helpful to have someone reliable on hand that knows what they’re doing.
These days technology platforms are only as good as their development community and third-party apps. Magento is no different.
We installed the One Page Checkout extension, which improves the conversion rate of the site. Instead of creating an account then going through two or three pages before you get to the card details, you just get a summary of what’s in your basket then you’re straight onto the checkout page. We’ve certainly seen a positive impact in the conversion.
We added Zopim live chat so we can talk to customers that come onto our site with questions. You need to be available to do that, which is hard for a start-up, but I’ve had help from friends and family and that’s worked out well.
I’ve also added the Trusted Shops extension. We contact customers to generate reviews for the site, and help build up confidence in ordering with us. We’ve now got over 30 reviews and once you get to that level the reviews should start pulling into Google AdWords.
There’s also a Color Swatch module so you can see the different variations when you click on the colors. There’s so many to choose from, and a lot of them are free, but each one takes time to learn how it works and how best to use it. You shouldn’t just install all the ones you find and not really know how they can help your business. Those are the key ones for us and I think they will have a really significant impact on the performance and success of the site. Other than the Color Swatch extension, they’re all free.
The Big Launch
We launched around the last week of November. Since then we’ve seen a much lower bounce rate, and page views have increased.
We had a few problems with 404 “page not found” errors because the old Shopify URLs still come up in search results. We’ve got redirects in place but it isn’t really ideal – they all redirect to the homepage. It’s not the best solution, but it will take a lot of time to identify all the equivalent pages to redirect to on Magento.
From the launch and analyzing how we’ve been doing on Google Analytics, I don’t think there’s been a negative impact on search rankings, and there’s evidence that the user experience is a lot more positive. All the signs are good.
If We Could Start Again…
Sometimes, it’s good to start simple to test out the business feasibility. But for us, if we could start again, we would have gone straight to Magento. The costs weren’t as high as we expected from our initial research, and we would have got to where we are now a lot quicker.
Mistakes are definitely necessary, and we’ve learned so much, but at the same time mistakes can be quite costly. There are some things we’ve had to do three or four times, and it’s cost us three or four times as much as it could have done. It’s important to put the right amount of time into things – do enough planning to get it 90% correct but not so much that you never take action.
What’s in Store for 2015?
There’s still plenty to do this year. The margins can be quite low for designer reproduction furniture, particularly as we use drop shipping. So I’m keen to expand the range of up-sell and add-on items. A lot of the opportunity is in add-ons with higher margins like leather care products.
We’ve brought on a new provider of bar stools who are giving us a decent price, so we’ve got a higher margin for that. We’ve also brought in a new pet furniture supplier – another area of higher-margin items we can expand on. The new look site does help get new suppliers on board.
We did another infographic, called The Home of the Future, which was featured in the Daily Mail last week. Unfortunately they used a nofollow link, which is a bit frustrating. It didn’t take off like the Sex on Furniture piece, but for the cost of the infographic (about £100) to get featured in the Daily Mail was a worthwhile investment. We’ll continue with our link building approach, looking for more quirky ideas to try and generate those top tier links.
In terms of paid search marketing, it’s tough to break even with the kind of guys we’re competing with. We did trial some PPC, and it’s easy just to look at the top line number. We saw the sales come in but when we analyzed it and looked at the total cost of the sale including transaction fees, we were actually making a loss. We need to be a lot more calculating when we invest in marketing channels, so again I’m looking for more niche items like pet furniture where the cost per click will be slightly lower.
Then there’s ongoing site development. We are still essentially an unknown furniture provider, so we need to try and build that confidence across the site for customers to know that they can shop safely with us. We’re upfront on the homepage about who we are – a small online furniture business based in London, and we’ve used our names.
The live chat helps, so people can go on and ask us questions. We’ve set ourselves an SLA, so if we’re not able to answer live we’ll get back to them within the same day, and we’re keeping to that. Then we’ve ensured our business model can cover “no quibble” refunds. We’ve only had one issue so far, and we made a slight loss on that product.
I’d also like to expand our email database. Our customers tend to be professionals, aged about 20 to 35, and split almost 50/50 between male and female. It’s mostly young professionals who seem to want that modern look.
A lot are based in London. It’s not so much that they want to impress their friends, but they are looking for inspiration and want to be guided, rather than already having a strong idea of exactly what furniture they want. In my mind it’s lawyers, city guys, with a decent level of disposable income. They just want the nice things in life.
It’s still early days for True Interior. If we can finish the year breaking even, with a decent number of new customers and the reviews built up, I think we’ll be in a really good position.
And personally, I’ll be absolutely delighted. At this stage, it’s all about reinvesting and growing that customer base. I want customers to return to the site and I want to reward their loyalty, because it costs a lot more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one.
Editor’s Note: This wraps up our series about the launch of True Interior. We’ll keep following them and wish them a lot of success. Look out for an update on how they are doing later in the year.