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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A foray into e-commerce

My dad, who works a lot with China, one day asked me if I had any interests in selling violins. He had a contact who manufactured violins, and since I'm a violin player myself he figured he'd ask. I was intrigued, since I had just bought a new violin (the first since high school), and someone told me it was actually made in China. Turns out Chinese-made violins have gotten pretty good.

I got a catalog from the manufacturer, and the prices seemed low enough to get a good margin. My parents, who happened to be heading to China for a visit, bought two sample violins and lugged them on the plane back. Over the holidays, I played it and had a violin teacher friend of mine play it too. He confirmed the market price would be something where I could make a nice margin.

But how do I go about selling violins? I had no interest in setting up a retail store. So I figured starting by selling on-line was the way to go. There are lots of questions. Are people willing to buy a violin on-line? Who do I market this to? How do I set up an e-commerce site? I had an idea... why not sell Chinese made violins to Chinese people? Not to propagate stereotypes, but that's quite a large market (I myself belong to the Chinese violin playing demographic). It would be pretty easy to target advertising, and you'd think the trust factor would be there.

I was pretty pumped up about this over the holidays. I even got a fortune that said "An interesting musical opportunity is in your future." (Apparently taking pictures of fortunes with the iPhone doesn't work that well.) Recently, I figured I should take the next step... which I believe is to set up an e-commerce site. I'd ideally love to set up a cheap, if not free, site where people could click on a "buy" button. Then I could at least test the idea to see if any traffic was generated.

But this proved to be a little dauting. I asked Adam McFarland on his blog, and he suggested Shopify. I checked it out, but it was $25 a month. So I did some Google-ing, and found a tutorial on how to set up an ecommerce website with Wordpress in 5 minutes. Then I discovered the difference between Wordpress.org and Wordpress.com. I needed to host my own site in order to set up the e-commerce plug in. After way too many hours of researching hosting sites, I paid $80 or so to set up a bluehost.com site for a year.

It took me about 2-3 hours to set up the Wordpress e-commerce site (had to do a little debugging). I then had trouble customizing the site to look decent. So it was back to the drawing board.

I checked back on Adam's site and @nethy suggested I try Weebly, which allowed you to drag and drop your way to an e-commerce site for free. I tried that out, but I wasn't happy with shopping cart because it dumped me off on Paypal. I figured if someone was going to pay that kind of money for a violin, it'd hafta at least look like the cart was on my site. So back to the drawing board again.

I looked at Godaddy's e-commerce solution... $9 a month. It got bad reviews. 1and1's web hosting was $9.99 setup fee, and required a year subscription. Its reviews said it was hard to use for newbies (that's me!). Yahoo was like $30+ with a percentage of revenue too. I think my next step is going to be Shopify, Adam's original suggestion.

I keep wondering if I'm overcomplicating this process. I'm already out $80 for hosting. I'm to the point where I think I need to just suck it up and try one of these sites, thinking I'll never learn if I don't try. And now I'm wondering if this is even a good idea. Any advice from the experienced crowd out there?



kvr said...

There are free (as in beer) shop scripts like oscommerce. But I strongly recommend to go with a paid solution like shopify. You do not want to loose business over a technical failure (your in the violin business not the build-a-webshop-in-php business) Besides if you don't see a way to earn back $25 a month then maybe your in the wrong business.

Anonymous said...

Check out this artical on www.highlandebusness.co.uk covering Choosing e-commerce shopping cart software http://www.highlandebusiness.co.uk/features.html Good Luck!

Adam McFarland said...

Dale -

It's definitely a good idea...certainly worth spending a little time and a little money to try, regardless of the software you use. It sounds like you have a good "in" to get these violins at a good price from a company that not everyone has access to. That's a huge competitive advantage to start with.


James Yu said...

I know nothing about the instrument market, so much of this is based on assumptions gone wild.

1. Think about creating a brand for your violins. If your brand becomes successful, it'll be easier to distribute the violins through retail channels.

2. You need reviews and mentions from the top influencers for your target market. Find the top blogs/websites out there that violin players and music teachers visit. Contact the editors and offer them demo units. Bigger publishers tend to keep product, but include prepaid return labels just in case.

3. Offer a generous return policy and advertise the hell out of it. If the product is good, people will keep it and/or they won't bother with the effort of following through with the return.

4. Put together some quality evergreen content about violin playing that might bring in violin students via Google. If your site become a trusted reference, your product gets the halo effect.

Mike said...

Sounds like a good idea. How are you going to handle inventory once you get started? How much are you planning on taking on? Or is it some sort of drop ship configuration?

I'd love to start something like this. I always thought the real trick was to get a good supplier.

Dale said...

@James Yu: Definitely true on #3. I'm sure shelling out hundreds to thousands of dollars on something that you've never seen and can vary so much requires a return policy.

@Mike: I'm thinking drop ship to start... Assuming they'd be willing to do it. I'd like to not need to keep inventory until I prove out the model.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I have only just stumbled upon this article. Sounds like a good idea. I'm a web developer and would be interested in joining you in a revenue sharing partnership.
If you are interested drop me a line at jimkentuky at gmail.com

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