"If you work hard, eventually it'll pay off," says Michael Ades about running his business, Heavenly Treasures, which offers a unique selection of fine jewelry at discounted prices.
Michael's brother Abraham started the company in 1994 with a catalog and about 70 SKUs. Michael joined him two years later. Now, they have 15-20 employees (depending on the season), carry 3,500 SKUs, and sell from both their catalog and a Yahoo! Merchant Solutions web site.
Learning Through Trial and Error
The Ades brothers haven't found success with everything they've tried, but they haven't let that stop them from constantly trying new things. Through persistence and careful tracking, they consistently improve their business, marketing, and rate of return.
Take their web site, for example. Because they started the catalog business in the mid-1990s, they wanted to build a web site right away. It's what all the catalog businesses were doing, so the Ades' knew they needed a web site to stay competitive. "We originally built our main site on a different platform, and used Yahoo! Merchant Solutions as an additional store," says Michael. "We decided to switch full force to the Yahoo! platform in 1998."
Yahoo! Merchant Solutions fit the bill because of how simple it is to get up and running. "Originally, we didn't have the HTML skills to be able to build a web site from scratch," says Michael. "As we progressed in our web knowledge, Yahoo! has progressed as well, adding on new features and customizations." For Ades, the best thing about Yahoo! Merchant Solutions is dependability. "It's incredibly rare that there's any downtime," he says. And, he and his employees can all update the site quickly and easily.
Yahoo!'s flexibility helps keep the Heavenly Treasures site looking stylish and current, like the jewelry they sell. "Every season we'll do a small change to the site to keep up with the seasons. We've done full redesigns every two years or so."
Finding the Right Marketing Mix
Trial and error has also helped the Ades brothers find the right mix of marketing techniques to build a loyal and growing customer base. Now they rely on a newsletter, search engine placement, banner ads, direct mail, and an affiliate program.
Ades says tracking is of the utmost importance in all the programs. "We had some failed advertising campaigns at first. Because we didn't track them, we really had no idea why they failed. Now, we've gotten much more sophisticated with the tracking we do. We're especially careful with web marketing. We always get references from other companies when we try a new company."
Because of all the issues with spam, Ades says the only email marketing they do anymore is through their own newsletter. They use IntelliContact to manage the newsletter, which they send every two weeks. Heavenly Treasures ask customers to subscribe to the newsletter during the checkout process, and provides a sign-up box on every page of the web site. In addition, the print catalog directs people to the web site to subscribe. The newsletter generates sales from current customers on the mailing list, customers who signed up for the newsletter but have never purchased before, and entirely new customers who get the newsletter from current customers.
The Ades brothers also make sure their web site shows up on search engines: both pay-for-performance engines and non-pay-for-performance engines that require hand submission. Both have delivered sales, but the pay-for-performance engines offer the advantage of tracking tools. Heavenly Treasures purchases both Overture and Google keywords.
Through trial and error, Heavenly Treasures has found success using banner ads. Some of their early "failed" campaigns were expensive banner ads that didn't deliver results. Nowadays, they're much more careful, especially when trying out a new ad placement service. Ades recommends always asking for references to learn whether or not other advertisers have seen results, and cautions, "Banner ads can work, but you have to get the right price, and you have to get tracking, so you can see right away if they're working or not."
"We used to run pop-up ads, but we stopped. People don't like them, and they weren't selling anything for us," says Michael.
Since the company started with a direct mail catalog, the Ades brothers have also used direct mail marketing to boost their sales. They print and send postcards to advertise new items, spread the word about special offers and promotions, or just tempt their regular customers with the latest trends.
Again, Michael attests, they've honed their direct marketing with trial and error. "We started out with a book on direct marketing." Once they understood the basic strategies and what kind of results they could expect, they priced different vendors, asked for references, and made their decisions based on all the information they'd gathered. These days, they're working with reliable, affordable printers and mail houses to do the printing and distribution.
Heavenly Treasures has an affiliate program-a network of "affiliate" web sites that provide a link to Heavenly Treasures in exchange for a commission on the sales they deliver. They pay an outside vendor to manage the program. "The affiliate program definitely brings in orders, but you do have to put work into it to get it to work," says Michael.
Keeping Your Customers Happy
Not only has Heavenly Treasures been creative and persistent with marketing to get new customers, but they go out of their way to keep the ones they have happy-and coming back for more. "Customer service has a tremendous impact on sales and customer retention," says Ades. "Returning customers are a big part of our business. We've had many of our customers for years."
How do they do it? In addition to their newsletter and direct mail marketing, the Ades brothers have the customer-service basics down pat. They keep their web site up to date, offer gift certificates, and keep good records-that always come in handy when handling delivery issues and returns-using Order Manager (by Stone Edge Technologies, Inc.), and a customized version of Microsoft Access software. "Yahoo! integrates really well with the software we use to run the business. The export features it has make it easy to export web orders from the site and bring them into our order-management system with the export features that they have."
On top of that, Heavenly Treasures offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee, issues refunds for items that are damaged (and replaces them with express delivery), and will special order items on request. If an item is backordered and a customer has been waiting for a long time, Heavenly Treasures will express ship the item free of charge.
To help new customers feel more secure, Heavenly Treasures features the logos of the associations they're affiliated with, including the Direct Marketing Association, Jewelers Board of Trade, and Jewelers Vigilance Committee.
The biggest business challenges they face, aside from finding new customers, are competition and keeping up with the fashions in jewelry.
"To stay competitive," Michael says, "we're constantly looking around, checking out our competition, and attending jewelry shows to make sure we know what's in style, what's out, and what the new trends might be. We also solicit feedback from our customers about what they want, and what they've seen other places. We'll make a special order for one customer, but if lots of folks start requesting the same thing, we'll add it to our inventory."
Using a similar approach as he does with marketing, Ades discontinue items that aren't selling anymore so he can focus on his most profitable merchandise.
Taking advantage of different media
The Ades brothers know that each different medium they use to sell products has its own strengths and weaknesses. By using both a catalog and a web site, they get the best of both worlds.
For example, in their catalog, there's limited space to describe each item. On their web site, they have as much room as they need. So, the catalog descriptions now direct customers to the web site for more detailed information.
Knowing your business
Most small business owners can tell you how seasons affect their sales and probably toss in a couple of colorful stories to boot. "We cut back in the slow season, and ramp up for the busy season," Michael says." That includes marketing campaigns, inventory, and employees."
But again, the Ades brothers give themselves an edge by applying the same thinking and dedication they use to tracking their marketing campaigns to tracking their annual sales. With the information they gather, they can compare their sales week over week, month over month, and year over year.
When you track your actual sales data, instead of relying on memorable moments and customer stories, chances are you'll see patterns-and be able to prepare for them-sooner. In the long run, that preparation will save you money.
Believing in your business
Michael Ades says he didn't start to feel really successful until about five years ago-five years after they started-but the one thing he says he'd do differently if starting over again might surprise you. "I'd go in stronger from the start," he says. "I'd try to get more funding so I could start bigger instead of working up to it slowly."
Yahoo! Merchant Solutions
Order Manager by Stone Edge Technologies, Inc.
Exporting Orders in Merchant Solutions
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