Profile: Branching Out

Bonsai merchant cultivates multichannel market by farming on eBay.

by staff writer
- Jan 26, 2009

Allen Roach had long dreamed of expanding his fine woodworking business beyond the local market in which he'd operated for 25 years by opening a mail-order division. So when the opportunity came along to make and sell custom bonsai tree stands online, he welcomed it.

Through a series of twists and turns, the venture grew into Bonsai-Mart, now a multichannel resource for bonsai trees, accessories and growing materials.

Roach developed his first Web site in 1998, when the Internet was still taking shape.

"Back then, the computer wasn't really a business machine; it was more like an object sitting on the desk," Roach recalls. "Nobody was sending me e-mails or anything. Then one day it went 'ding-ding,' and I had my first order.

"Well, that was motivation," he says. "So I started building more pages and reworking my categories."

My advice to anybody would be if they haven't started building a Web site, they've got to start somewhere. They can't just stay on eBay

Drive to thrive

As far back as Roach can remember he was an industrious kid. From selling lemonade on the roadside to managing a paper route to selling magazine subscriptions door to door, he's always had the entrepreneurial spirit and an inclination to foster additional sources of income.

So it's no surprise that when the Internet opened for business, Roach was one of the first in line. After a couple of disappointing Web site development efforts, he set up shop on eBay as Bonsai Market USA.

"At one time on eBay, my listings made up about 16 percent of the results for the keyword 'bonsai,'" Roach muses, though these days, he shares the eBay market with at least 100 other bonsai vendors.

"Little by little, people came in and whittled on my domain and cut me down to size. Of course, eBay's cut itself down to size on its own. But even back then, I could see that the scenario could change to such a degree that I start hinging my career and family income on one venue. So I said, 'I've got to go after a Web site.' And I developed"

Through trial and error, he learned about search engine optimization. He currently advertises with Google and Yahoo while placing free ads on sites such as Craigslist. The strategy has been successful: Bonsai-Mart receives an average of 200 to 450 unique visitors a day and 1,200 to 3,500 page views—and traffic continues to increase.

Roach now owns a number of primary domains and recently opened Though he admits his current hosting service doesn't offer the most up-to-date Web development technology, it's inexpensive and simplified enough that he plans to stick with it until he finds something he likes better.

"I'm pretty interested in seeing what Auctiva Commerce is all about," he says. "If the price is right and the labor part is reduced, then that's going to work.

"My advice to anybody would be if they haven't started building a Web site—the side-of-the-road billboard that screams 'Buy me now!'—they've got to start somewhere. They can't just stay on eBay," Roach says.

'A breath of fresh air'

When Roach first joined eBay, he used AuctionWatch (now Vendio) to list his items. That worked well—until sales on eBay dropped to the point that he couldn't justify the cost of the tools. After trying a few other vendors, he discovered the eBay listing software Auctiva offers.

"When I came over to Auctiva in 2005, I said, 'Man, this is a breath of fresh air.' And I could see things were in a steady state of rapid change and working," he recalls.

I think Auctiva is running the business the same way I am: We're happy making a living, not trying to be the biggest guys on the block—but you become that naturally

Though impressed with the look and feel of Auctiva's storefronts and the professional-looking eBay templates, Roach says he was most drawn to the friendliness of the environment and a business ethic he felt was in sync with his own.

"I appreciate Auctiva and the character of the company. They make their money in different places, but they're not playing hog in the trough," he says. "I think Auctiva is running the business the same way I am: We're happy making a living, not trying to be the biggest guys on the block—but you become that naturally."

At its peak, Bonsai Market USA was selling $12,000 a month, though sales have dwindled. These days, the eBay Store primarily serves as a "farm," where Roach cultivates a client base and leads them to his other sites. Roach doesn't divulge his sales figures, but says is now his primary revenue source.

"Of all the places I sell online, eBay costs the most money," he reports. "Dollar for dollar spent, they are milking my cow more than anybody."

But as a marketing channel, eBay is pretty tough to beat. "In the last couple days, I've thought about how much more money would I have in retention if I entirely fired eBay, and would I be able to survive without the use of eBay in farming customers," he says. "And I'm not quite sure I'm there yet."

Spreading roots

Never one to rest on his laurels, Roach continues expanding his bonsai operation. An increasing proportion of his sales come through the Bonsai-Wholesale site, and he is considering an expansion of the wholesale aspect by advertising bonsai business starter kits on Craigslist.

Lately he's been reconsidering the value of eBay as a major bonsai venue. Having thoroughly researched his competition and new, reliable product sources, he is gearing up to launch a line of Juniper bonsai trees that he hopes will rekindle the bonsai market on eBay and boost sell-through of "hard goods," such as pots, tools and other accessories.

"We've kind of gone back to our roots," Roach says. He's even thinking about pulling some of those old bonsai stands out of storage and reintroducing the product line.

"You have to use everything to your advantage to maintain what you want to do," he advises. "I hope everyone who reads this will understand that you've got to start somewhere. You can't just sit around talking about it. Just do it and have fun."

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About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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