When Larry Butler began selling Italian charms at flea markets in 2004, he didn't think a small ID wristband worn by his partner would spark a full-fledged business that transcends borders. But that's just what happened.
"I started with medical bracelets by accident, to be honest," says the eBay seller of nearly nine years. Now a Top-rated seller, Butler owns Steel Bells Medical ID Bracelets on eBay. The store offers 160 different kinds of medical ID bracelets, most of which come from requests. But growing his business to its current size took time, care and research—and lots of demand, which was at the root of his business' growth.
Serving a need
It all began with a traditional medical ID bracelet Butler's former partner wore. It broke at least once a week, and Butler hated fixing it. So when he found out his source for Italian charm bracelets also made medical ID charms, he had the idea to make the charm bracelets he sold into medical ID bracelets, and ordered a few from the manufacturer. The design would be stronger, and withstand more wear and tear, he reasoned.
He was right. The bracelets didn't break, and when his partner began sporting them, customers at the flea markets noticed—and wanted to know where they could get similar ones.
"It erupted from there," says the seller, who goes by steelbells.
Butler began researching medical ID bracelets on eBay, Google and Yahoo! to see what types and quality of bands were available. He found a few bracelets listed, but none of the stronger varieties went for less than $40, "and not one [was] made from Italian charm bracelets," he recalls.
The light bulb in my head came on, and I figured there were probably others with the same problem
"I guess the light bulb in my head came on, and I figured there were probably others with the same problem [my partner] had—the inexpensive medical-alert bracelets just did not hold up to everyday wear and tear," he explains.
The manufacturer Butler ordered from carried medical charms for people who suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. Butler ordered several of each type, put them on the charm bracelets he offered, and added these to his inventory.
Expanding his brand
Requests continued to pour in, not only for the three types he initially offered, but for others, prompting Butler to design others to fulfill customers' needs. He even decorated the bracelets with medical star-of-life charms. "The business was born mostly by requests," he says.
When Butler took his medical ID bracelets online in 2006, sales really exploded. He had experimented with eBay before then, selling vintage magazines collected over the years by his father, a former college professor. His father had been meticulous with the magazines, and had subscriptions to 30 magazines a month, giving Butler plenty of inventory to learn the ropes of eBay selling.
"My mom gave me a ton—literally—of old magazines and comic books," he recalls. "I sold them until they almost ran out. I got a feel for it and loved watching my feedback profile creep up."
After the magazines, Butler experimented some more with online selling, offering products like figurines and body jewelry and costume jewelry. But with the sudden explosion in demand for medical ID bracelets, he found his specialty.
Works like a charm
Finding the right niche, providing customers with great customer care and using good tools to support his growing business have all been key components to Butler's success.
While the seller never imagined he'd have a business selling medical ID bracelets, the demand for his product makes a lot of sense, he notes.
"Almost everybody either has or knows someone who has some sort of medical condition," he explains. EMTs and doctors encourage people with allergies and/or medical conditions to wear medical bracelets in case they can't communicate their conditions, so the need was there.
Plus, the bracelets he offers are discreet, attractive and durable, unlike traditional medical ID bracelets—factors that have likely helped with their popularity. Shoppers have liked them so much that Butler will soon add more bracelets for children and young adults, two groups that typically dislike wearing medical ID bands.
"They generally don't like to wear medical alert bracelets, but they don't mind wearing my bracelets because they are a piece of fashionable jewelry that they can personalize by adding their own Italian charm," he says.
Auctiva's eBay listing tools have also helped Butler grow his business. He's especially fond of Auctiva's scheduling feature, which allows him to create eBay listings in advance and then specify a time and date on which to launch the listings. Auctiva's Find & Replace and Bulk Edit features have also been very helpful, allowing him to easily update his listings when eBay policies change.
"Without Auctiva, I might have given up a long time ago," he says.
I've tried most listing services, and Auctiva is by far the best, and the one I've stuck with for years
Butler's eBay sales have helped supplement his income, and allowed him to work from home—a big benefit for someone like himself, who suffers from health issues. But the best part about selling online has been getting to know a variety of people. Butler's even sold a bracelet to a notable person for sports fans: Bob Harris, the Duke Blue Devils' announcer of 30 years.
The biggest challenge Butler faces with his online sales is advertising. "I used to think that all you needed to do was build a Web site and add products, and start raking in the money," he admits. "This is far from the truth."
He learned this firsthand after starting several online stores, and being unable to draw the volume of traffic eBay's "built-in advertising" provides, he says. So he's stayed with the auction site. Still, Butler posts his listings on Facebook and Twitter to give them added exposure.
Accessibility wins the customer
But if years of online selling have taught him anything, it's the importance of being easily accessible to customers, Butler says.
"I wish I had posted my phone number in every e-mail, every listing and at the head of each page on my Web site [when I started]," he admits. This is especially important for Butler because he sizes bracelets to fit customers for free, so customers need a way to contact him quickly.
He now includes his e-mail and phone number everywhere he can, and it's paid off, he says, adding that this helped his business take off in the past year and a half.
Another way to grow your business: good customer care—Butler's specialty.
"Customer service has always been my strongest suit," the seller notes.
"I think back to when I was growing up, and my father, who was a minister, taught me the Golden Rule," he says. "I try to treat everybody as I want them to treat me. If I get an e-mail with a question, I stop whatever I'm doing to answer it right away, no matter how trivial it might seem to me. It was not too trivial for them to take the time to ask me."
New sellers should keep this in mind, and they should look for listing tools to help them succeed, Butler notes.
"If you have ambitions to sell for a living, I would encourage [new sellers] to use a listing service," he says. "I've tried most, and Auctiva is by far the best, and the one I've stuck with for years.
Visit Steel Bells Medical ID Bracelets on eBay.