Thursday, April 3rd, 2008
Here at Yahoo! Merchant Solutions, we’re fortunate to have a substantial partner network devoted to our customers’ success. Our developer partners represent technology professionals with diverse types of expertise ranging from RTML development to custom design, and from backoffice integration to online marketing. Over the coming months we’re going to be inviting our developers to share some of their knowledge with our merchants, passing along lessons learned from years of experience with the Store platform.
Melissa Chaika Sobel
Yahoo! Small Business
Developer Spotlight: Your Store Wizards
Tell me a bit about Your Store Wizards. How long have you been building stores for merchants?
Your Store Wizards (formerly Y Store Tools) has been part of the Yahoo! Store community for over 8 years now. We started out as store owners when I opened my very first store back in 1999. Your Store Wizards grew out of that business because of two major factors. First, as a store owner and a programmer, I never liked having to do anything twice. So I began to work on tools, programs, and other ways to automate tasks I needed to take care of as a store owner. Second, I found out from many other store owners, through what was then a Yahoo! Store owners club, that they were facing similar challenges and workloads. So once I began to get things automated for myself, I found I could use those same tools and skills to help out other store owners.
This was the very beginning of Your Store Wizards. We are different from other design firms in that we can do full store builds but we specialize in the add-on market. We build additions to stores to expand functionality but also give the store owner tools to modify and adjust how each feature works without having to pay for many common adjustments. We have always had a passion for helping out store owners. We like to make sure they have the tools to do as much as they’d like on their own – whether it’s simply educating them on how to work the store or figuring out how to make all the technology do the things it’s supposedly not able to.
What is the biggest change you see between when you first started and today?
Wow, biggest change. That’s a tough one. There have been so many changes in the Yahoo! platform, technology, and ecommerce in general. From a merchant perspective one of the largest changes has simply been the amount of competition in every retail sector online. We’ve seen not only the growth of sites like Amazon but also just about every major retailer going online along with thousands and thousands of smaller stores. The good part is despite the amount of competition, there are so many more people purchasing online that the pool of potential customers has grown as well. Even with competition there are still many ways to make a profitable store by either finding a good niche or by making yourself stand out to the customers.
What is the biggest tip you would pass along to new merchants?
There are a number of things that a completely new merchant really should know. First, and possibly foremost, is to not expect some kind of immediate retirement plan through monstrous growth. A merchant can grow a profitable, successful, and fulfilling business, but it’s not as simple as so many infomercials will tell you. It requires work, patience, learning, and motivation. It’s not a flip of a switch and you’re rich, but at the same time if you can make it work and are willing to do what needs to be done, it can be very rewarding. Just be ready to learn a lot as you get started. There’s a lot to learn, and you don’t have to be an expert at everything, but as they say, knowledge is power. In the case of ecommerce, that’s very true.
I guess my other “tip” really has to do with what is my passion as a programmer which is automation. Not every store owner can start out with a big budget and every system built and ready to go when they start. A key for long term growth is once you find your business is working, find a way to start automating so you can work on expanding the business rather than just operating it. This can range from using software to process orders, using RTML and the capabilities it has to help make your store more usable, using database uploads to make data entry quicker, or a number of other ways to improve. The point is to take at least some time looking at what you do every day and try to think big picture as to how can you cut down those repetitive tasks. If you cut even one minute a day that could add another 6 hours every year. I know there are plenty of tasks where much more than a minute can be cut.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention joining the Y Store Forums. There are so many helpful store owners, as well as designers and other vendors, who have a wealth of information to share. Tapping into a community that uses the platform, deals with all the various issues on operating a store, and really does a ton to help each other out, can make a huge difference in making a store work or helping it grow.
Do you see any common mistakes or false assumptions merchants make?
One thing I’ve learned over time is merchants should make sure to find their focus and their specific niche. Yes, a store can open up, list every product on the planet they can find to sell, cut prices, and possibly make sales. But realistically, unless you’ve got a lot of finances to put behind making yourself the next Amazon or Target you need to find your niche. Some of the most successful stores are ones who found a particular niche and filled it. It’s amazing, but even a small niche can make a viable business when your market is the entire U.S. or potentially the entire world. Find the right market, and with the right marketing you’ll have the customers.
As a side note most merchants should find a way to make their store stand out through more than price alone. Low prices are great and can even work to get traffic, but you not only have to make sure you’re profitable, you need to find a way to make customers remember you and return. If, as a merchant, you’re only cutting prices to have the lowest, you can pretty much count on someone undercutting you soon. But if you find your market and can provide reasons for customers to return other than price, such as good selection, good customer service, and a well designed and usable site, they’ll come back and you’ll be more profitable.
One other marketing tip I would warn new store owners about has to do with paid advertising. I’ve seen so many times where store owners pay for pay per click advertising through the various providers, and they simply shoot for too broad of terms that they’re trying to market to. Particularly with paid advertising the key is getting the most bang for your buck. For example, if I had a site selling aftermarket car parts, one of the worst things I could do is place an ad for a search term like “Cars”. Yes, this word will have more traffic than just about anything else, but it will be the most expensive and it’s going to convert to sales at an incredibly low rate. When a person is searching for something like “cars” they could be looking for car reviews, car insurance, car pictures, cars to buy, etc. Now on the other side if I bid on something like “2007 Dodge Ram 2500 Air Intake Kit” I’ll probably pay about as low per click as possible and have virtually no competition for the term AND if I sell the item, it’s going to be a pretty well qualified visitor. Of course in reality you can’t bid on every single term you may have, though some tools can really help. You need to find the middle ground that will qualify your shoppers so they’ll buy and get you enough traffic to make it worth your efforts.
What are your most popular design enhancements or services?
We have so many varied items we offer as well as so many custom projects we do that it’s tough to pick out a few. One of our biggest sellers that we’ve had for a while is our Automated Meta Tags generator. We also have a new image popup feature, a new quick shop feature and a new hot links feature that is generating a lot of interest.
We’ve also got our very popular Data Feed Service which provides data feeds for different uses (shopping portals, affiliate feeds, etc.) as well as providing data and image backups and a forum membership too. We currently have over 100 different data formats available (not counting that each one can be customized for each store) and we seem to add a new feed about once a week due to customer requests for other services. This is one of my favorites because we have so many different data formats but also we can hand customize feeds for customers in more ways than you can imagine.
We’ve actually got a number of new projects that will soon be released, including some new cart and shopping features, and we’re always working on ideas that customers bring to us.
You also manage a Yahoo! Store merchant forum. Where can new merchants find that and what do you think merchants can get from reading and participating in that group?
Yes, the Y Store Forums is a great group. I got involved with it back in 1999, soon after it launched as a Yahoo! Store Owner’s Club. It was part of the reason I ended up at Yahoo! with my first store. The community we’ve built there through all the years is amazing. In my very biased opinion there is no better place to learn about ecommerce as well as Yahoo! Store in particular. We have hundreds of users asking questions and providing help on anything from credit card processing, fraud, Store Editor questions, and so many other areas. It’s great to be able to connect with and tap into all the experiences of everyone there. We’ve got members who just opened a new small store to multi million dollar stores, stores that do catalog sales as well as online, and some that have opened retail stores. With the breadth of experiences, knowledge, and abilities, you pretty much can find out just about anything you need to know. There’s nothing better than finding out that the problem or issue you’re dealing with has been dealt with by someone else, and getting to know all the pros and cons of the solutions before you have to overcome those same hurdles.
Thanks Don, for starting off our new series with your helpful information and advice. Remember to keep an eye out for our next Developer Spotlight in the weeks ahead.