When trying out a new business venture, failure might deter some, but not online seller Carol Schoen. Indeed, the setbacks she experienced inspired her to dig deeper, look for a new product line and get her business off the ground.
Prior to opening PersonalizedCustomGifts on eBay and, later, on Auctiva Commerce, Schoen had sold anything on eBay that could be drop shipped, plus a few pieces of jewelry. But the overflowing inventory in her home office signaled a change was needed.
"I finally decided to sell photo gifts," she says. "I know people love photos, and I had read that the industry was booming."
The seller also noticed that many retail stores in her area sold photo items like mugs, T-shirts, coasters and mouse pads, indicating a demand. Schoen knew not everyone has a major retail store in their hometown where they can easily buy these personalized gifts, and she decided to fill that void.
I actually feel I am not just selling products, I am selling memories
Schoen's inventory consists of personalized flags, signs, plaques, picture frames, apparel, engraved products and more. They're items that shoppers can treasure for years, and give to loved ones as thoughtful gifts, she notes.
"I actually feel I am not just selling products, I am selling memories," says Schoen, who has been selling online for four years.
The merchant started her business on eBay and later expanded to Auctiva Commerce, wanting to keep more of her profits and greater control over her store. Business has been good, she says.
Sales doubled in 2010 between Schoen's Auctiva Commerce and eBay stores. In 2010, the seller made more than $95,000 in sales, averaging between 400 and 450 sales a month between the two shops. Sales grow every month on Auctiva Commerce and shoppers are still buying from her on eBay, though those sales fluctuate on that site.
"My high-selling months are normally due to holidays and seasonal happenings like weddings and graduations," she explains.
'Not just sales'
One of the best things about Schoen's business is the interaction she has with customers. Schoen has really connected with her buyers over the years. Customers often share stories of why they're buying a particular personalized mug or frame. Sometimes those reasons are joyous, such as weddings and births. Other times customers are going through hard times.
She admits that some stories affect her, especially when a customer buys something to remember a family member or friend who has died.
"Oftentimes I shed a tear," she admits. "I sometimes wonder why I sell these items when I hear of tragedies, but speaking with my customers, I find that the memorial items bring a little comfort in their darkest times."
These instances remind Schoen to appreciate what she has now. "I actually get something from my customers that is not just sales," she says.
Schoen's ability to listen to customers makes shoppers feel comfortable with her, and likely to tell friends about her stores, she says, adding that she gets a lot of thank you e-mails and recommendations from customers.
But that's not to say that there haven't been a few bumps along the road in her selling journey. "eBay selling it is not always just rosy and peachy," she admits.
One of these non-rosy moments was when Schoen lost her Top-rated seller status. The merchant had been a Top-rated seller since the program debuted, but she lost the designation after a customer bought several items from her and left one-star ratings for shipping price.
"This cost me my badge, and I lost my 20-percent final value fee discount," she notes. "I was devastated because I always strive to give excellent service, and I charge shipping at the rate I pay, so my first thought was, 'It is so unfair.'"
But just because she's lost the status, doesn't mean Schoen doesn't provide "exceptional" service.
"It is just a glitch and not a problem that is insurmountable," she says.
Then wow, here comes Auctiva. I read the tutorials, watched the training videos and thought, 'I can do this!'
Tools to succeed
Auctiva has helped Schoen succeed, giving her plenty of educational tips to learn the ropes of online selling, she says, admitting she is "no e-commerce wizard." However, Auctiva and Auctiva Commerce's tutorials have been priceless, as have been the Community Forums and other resources.
"The Auctiva EDU newsletter has been a godsend," she says. "I always read it, cover to cover, and I also have saved them all for future reference. One never knows when you might need to go back for a refresher course."
Schoen was drawn to Auctiva Commerce when it debuted. She had used Auctiva's eBay listing and management service for years. She loved Auctiva's eBay templates and ease of use, which she found "refreshing," she says.
"As soon as I found out Auctiva Commerce had the ability to collect personalized information for my products, I was thrilled!" she notes. "I had tried to get this feature with other e-commerce sites, and, although it can be done, for a novice like me it was impossible. I spent hours online with techs trying to figure it out. Then wow, here comes Auctiva. I read the tutorials, watched the training videos and thought, 'I can do this!'"
Schoen thinks one day she'll only focus on her Auctiva Commerce shop, which is a "very exciting prospect," she notes.
Looking to the holidays
Schoen has close to 2,000 items in her eBay Store and another 2,200-plus in her Auctiva Commerce shop, but she'll add more than 1,000 products before the holidays hit.
"I want to give my customers more and more unique gift choices for the Christmas season," she says, adding that she expects this holiday season to be the busiest for her Auctiva Commerce Store. September can be hectic, as many of the holiday items she customizes don't become available until then.
But once she gets her inventory in place, she'll be able to check out competitors on Buy.com and Amazon to ensure her products are priced correctly for the upcoming buying season.
"If they are not, then it is time for adjustments," she notes.
Schoen says sellers should be ready to "work as many hours as it takes" to be successful during the upcoming holiday season, answering questions, providing good shipping and payment policies, and responding quickly to e-mails.
For this holiday season, Schoen will offer coupons and she may use e-mail campaigns to remind past shoppers to visit her store again.
"Last year, I was literally working 16 hours a day in November and December," she recalls. "I would work 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., have dinner with my husband and spend a few hours of quality time with him, and then go back to work at 10 p.m. and work until 6 a.m. when he got up for work. I then slept 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., daily. I know it sounds crazy, but it was well worth the effort. It was only for two months, and I managed to put away a profit of $20,000 over the holiday season. In normal months, I make a living; during the holiday season I make a killing!"
Visit PersonalizedCustomGifts on eBay and Auctiva Commerce.