Last night I shared my experience of running an online business at a ‘Shopify meet up’ event and absolutely loved it. The nice people at Statement Agency got in touch and said they wanted to know how we cope in times of peak online trading ( hint- we often don’t) and if we would share our insight with similar small businesses. I wasn't really sure if I was an 'expert' in this but..well, we’ve had our fair share of absolute meltdowns and I definitely feel I’ve learnt, over the years, what’s right for us and what’s not. And that seemed to resonate. So here I’ve put together a quick guide on how I think you can sell lots without selling out.
Having a ‘good’ business.
To me, this isn’t really about growth, scalability or how much investment you’ve had. It’s about creating a product from desire, curiosity and wanting to innovate, and push yourself. It also means having an ethical grounding or why even bother? And if that’s a food company it doesn’t just mean sound traceability when sourcing your ingredients- but small, everyday steps to building a good business. If you are employing people to work with you on creating your dream company- don’t expect them to intern for 6 months without a salary. If you’re employing graduates to sample your product in organic grocery chains- make sure you’re rewarding them with a wage they can live off. If you’re selling your product as being made from fruit- don’t pack it full of ‘natural fruit flavourings’ or ‘fruit powder’ in an attempt to garner ‘health’ or ‘wellness’ plaudits. Be self aware, source responsibly, pay better and be good.
These are the things I like to think guide me, but I also know that if you run a small business and have key points in trading .i.e. Black Friday and Christmas, a lot of this can go to shit.
So let’s start on the things you don’t want to compromise on. If it’s having a team who are not overworked and maintaining good morale then what can be done now in advance so you’re all ready? We never, ever, ever, get our act together in time for ‘Christmas in July’ every year I fail to have my Christmas offering designed and printed in April and distributed to press in July. And, I just have to live with that.
But what I do have is my marketing strategy, my blog posts written, my mailouts planned and my bespoke ‘Ta Very Much’ cards written to customers. This month I’ll make sure I have enough outer boxes, tissue, tape so they can be produced from good quality materials and arrive on time.
Customer service and tone of voice is super important to us so I try to make it easy by getting ‘set’ responses in place for key questions. This means you can personalise emails without losing consistency, and crucially, without getting ‘snappy’ when you just don’t have time to respond how you would like to. So I have responses planned for:
When will I get my order?
My discount isn’t working/ How do I add my discount code?
I want to give this as a present…how long do they last?
I would also trial how you’re going to dispatch each order- We’ve recently moved our shipping to Hermes- we can export a CSV file straight from Shopify then print orders directly and track each parcel. This makes it easier for everyone to trace and respond when a customer is worried that an important hasn’t turned up. Having used Royal Mail for 7 years and received enough ‘you’ve ruined Christmas’ emails when a hot chocolate kit has gone missing on the 23rd December- this is game changing for us.
Expecting the unexpected
Are your PR activity, stock levels and your actual ability to cope all linked? And do you all know what the other is doing? You’re probably bored of me telling you about our huge online viral success story from last January- but that’s not going to stop me rolling it out another time; In January this year our CBD marshmallows featured on ITV This Morning. This was planned- we had targeted the show, sent out samples and our wonderful PR, The Wern, chased, cajoled and harangued the producers for us. And ta-dah…we got our feature as part of a ‘Is cannabis the new wellness trend’ review. When the programme aired the presenter response was better than we could have hoped for…immediately, our online shop went bananas. And later that day ITV press office released the clip so we then featured on the online news site of every paper from The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Metro and….we couldn’t keep up! The sales kept coming. It was AMAZING, however, we weren’t prepared for it. Not at all. We didn’t have anywhere near enough stock made and 3 hours after the programme aired we realised we had run out of packaging. Packaging that is handmade, bespoke, gold foiled and normally has a lead time of 6 weeks to turnaround. If we had kept an accurate online inventory- rather than- yeah, ‘we’ve got loads, it’s January.’ This wouldn’t have happened. Shopify has a simple inventory tracker- please us it properly! We had hundreds of customers waiting for our fabulous product and nothing to give them. The best thing ever had happened to us and we were having a crisis.
So what did we do?
We were honest- We wrote a lengthy, personal email to each customer we explained what had happened. What we were doing to fix it. And we were upfront about timings. The response was incredible. I don’t think we had anyone criticise us, in fact, we many actually emailed back with messages of support and encouragement.
We then incentivised their loyalty- we offered each customer 20% of their next order for bearing with us. There is not a huge margin in our product -because we spend so much on making our marshmallows- 20% off is giving away a substantial part of our profit. But it means we got to keep the customer.
We tried to stay upbeat and positive with our suppliers- we pulled in favours, bestowed groveling thank yous and, importantly, tried not to stress them out- after all, it’s not their problem to solve. We then followed up and engaged them in our journey. Again, we were honest, we didn’t see this one coming- you don’t have to pretend that you’re something you’re not.
The power of NO.
This is something I feel very strongly about at the moment. If you have a thriving online presence and a good product you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time responding to 'can you supply us with...' 'can you come along to...' emails. Especially on the run up to peak trading times it can seem too good an opportunity or fabulous exposure or just an easy way to make some extra cash. But you know what? NO.
We don’t need every contract- If it doesn’t pay us enough to make what we make in the way we make it- in our case this is paying a living wage to staff and using premium ingredients. Then, it’s not our contract.
Staff, suppliers & supporters need to know we’re in control- its our business and everyone around us needs to know that we’ve got this. Staff need to be able to depend on us, suppliers need to be able to get hold of us and our family and friends need to feel confident that running our own business isn’t going to damage our health and relationships. This is easy when it’s ticking over but when it’s busy, you have no money, you’re focused on growth and wanting to say yes to everything that comes your way sometimes you have to recognise the power of 'NO'.
I’ve definitely learnt this the hard way and it’s getting a lot easier to walk away from contracts that although might be ‘growth’ on paper are not good for me or the team. We have to be striving for something better than that. After a few years of trail and error we’ve found that sticking to this has allowed us to manage busy peaks without cutting corners on the things that are important. We have a business that we’re proud of and will make us happy.