How it started
In late 2018, my friend and I decided to start our own business. We always had an interest in entrepreneurship and we wanted to learn everything that goes behind running a successful business. To challenge ourselves, we decided to launch an online store. We believed there was a lot to learn from running an online store because it required a wide range of skills and responsibilities, such as marketing, fulfillment, shipping, customer service, and supplier relationships.
Finding a supplier
We were more interested in the operational aspect of running an online store, which is why we decided to find a supplier instead of manufacturing our own products. Plus, it would cost less and we would get higher quality products for our customers. Thanks to Oberlo, a dropshipping application owned by Shopify, we were able to find a supplier in China that had a collection of 200+ pairs of socks with eye-catching designs. We reached out to them directly and agreed to exclusively sell their socks on our store.
Setting up the store
Shopify was the obvious choice of platform for us to launch our store: the built-in functionalities and integrations with other apps helped us get our store up and running with all of our products in just a few days. I highly recommend Shopify to anyone who wants to run an online store.
Designing the packaging
Since our supplier provided socks with no labels or packaging, we wanted to design our own using our brand. We designed labels to place on each pair of socks on which we put our logo, website, and a 15% discount code (which ended up being used a lot!). We also decided to include our Instagram handle to generate organic traffic to our page and gain followers.
The gift box
When we started the store, we knew socks would be a popular gift idea, so we designed a gift box that can hold 4-5 pairs of socks. These gift boxes became our bestsellers during the holiday season.
Our primary method of acquiring customers was through social media: it was the best way to reach people in their 20s and 30s who would be interested in our socks. To minimize our dependence on ads, we wanted to get organic traffic to our Instagram page. What helped us the most was customers tagging us in their Instagram stories and posts, which increased our exposure and helped us surpass 7,000 followers. We had customers from around the world tagging us within our first two months of launch!
To convert our followers into customers, we integrated our Shopify store with our Instagram page to allow our followers to shop directly from Instagram. We could tag individual products and show prices directly on our stories and posts, which led to a significant increase in organic traffic and high engagement from followers. We also used Instagram's Story Highlights feature to create a visual catalogue of our different sock categories to allow visitors to easily browse our vast collection. To measure our success, we included a 10% discount code in our bio which was used more than 200 times.
As we were getting more customers, our email list started growing which opened up a new and cost-effective way to get more orders. Like any online store, we encountered a problem with abandoned carts (customers adding items to their cart without checking out). To address that, we created an automated email marketing campaign using Mailchimp that sent a reminder to customers about their items as well as a 20% discount. We also ran occasional campaigns during holidays such as Black Friday and Christmas by offering generous discounts to our previous customers.
The most surprising thing that happened to us was receiving messages from "influencers" wanting to promote our socks to their thousands of followers for free! The most prominent one was Elsie Hewitt (@elsie), a model with over 900,000 followers who ended up promoting our socks on her story and page.
Excellent customer service is essential
The most challenging part of running an online store is shipping physical products to people. It becomes even more challenging when you're getting a higher volume of orders: late packages or wrong items being sent are inevitable. We wanted to offer excellent customer support since we thought it was the most defining part of the entire customer experience. We believed that even if a package was late or an item was missing, being transparent and customer-centric would help us maintain a positive brand image. Some of the things we did include:
- Giving free products: whenever a package was delayed beyond our expected delivery date, we offered customers one free pair of socks that they could redeem at any time with no minimum order requirement.
- Replying to customers quickly: shopping online and waiting for your order can be frustrating, so we responded to customers' emails in less than 24 hours.
- Offering hassle-free refunds: if a customer was not satisfied with our product or service for any reason, we would offer them a full refund.
Customer support chatbot
As we were getting more orders, our customer support email was being flooded with emails. We noticed that the majority of customers were asking us the same questions:
- Where's my order?
- Which countries do you ship to?
- What are your shipping options?
- What sizes are your socks?
Although we included all this information on our store, we realized that customers might overlook them as they're focusing on browsing our extensive collection of socks. To help customers get answers faster, we integrated a chatbot into our online store using Tidio. The chatbot allowed us to pre-program responses and even helped customers track their orders by integrating it with our store (Shopify integrations save the day again!). In situations where customers wanted to speak to a human, we would be able to take over from the chatbot and pick up the conversation directly and reply to them.
An unforgettable 10 months
From the time we launched the store in September 2018 until we decided to sell it in June 2019, we generated just under $50,000 in sales which equates to almost 10,000 pairs of socks. Not bad for two people who had no prior experience running an online store!
Things I learned
Email marketing is a gold mine
Although they can target your audience very well, Facebook and Instagram ads can become extremely expensive: running your store strictly on ads may harm you in the long-term since you need to keep pouring money into them. For this reason, it's important to start growing an email list of previous and prospective customers. This can be easily done:
- For former customers, simply compile the email addresses they used for their orders. If you're using Shopify, this is done automatically.
- For prospective customers, AKA people who are just visiting your site, add a signup form for them to receive emails about special offers and discounts.
The best part: email marketing is cheap. On Shopify, every 1,000 emails will cost you $1. Think about it: if you only get one sale out of these 1,000 emails, you already made your money back. The beauty of email marketing is setting up automated campaigns: you can surprise new subscribers with a discount, or offer loyal customers a free item!
The power of social media
Social media, especially Instagram, is a great way to stay engaged with your customers and gain new ones. I learned that the most important thing is to stay active and keep posting content. You may think that it takes a lot of time, but using a social media management tool will make your life so much easier with little effort. For our Instagram and Facebook pages, I used to plan an entire month of posts using Buffer, which helped me automate posts on both platforms without having to do it manually. The best thing that can happen, but which you can't force, is getting customers to tag you in their posts and stories. To increase the likelihood of that happening, add your social media handles on your website, emails, and product labels: word of mouth is more powerful than you think.
The mobile shopping experience is critical
Out of the 74,000 visitors we got in our 10 months of business, over 80% of them were visiting our store using their mobile device. The shopping experience on a mobile device is completely different than the desktop experience. With less screen real estate, each component has a significant impact on your conversion rate. Initially, our site was optimized for desktop and the mobile experience wasn't great. However, we implemented a few small changes that helped us boost our conversion rates and make the mobile experience much smoother:
- Slide-out shopping cart: if your cart redirects users to an entirely new page, it can negatively impact your conversion rate since it will require users to navigate back to keep shopping. By using a slide-out cart, customers can seamlessly view their carts without having to navigate to a new page, which allows them to maintain their shopping "rhythm".
- Easy payment options: the advantage of being on mobile is that users can use Apple Pay or Android Pay, which makes the checkout process so much easier. Drop off rates can be high on checkout pages since there are many fields that users have to fill in for their personal, shipping, and billing information. Apple Pay and Android Pay solve this problem by letting people fill all these fields with one tap.
- Sticky "Add to Cart" button: when customers are viewing individual products, they'll scroll through the entire page to read about the product. It's important to keep the "Add to Cart" button visible at all times, which can be done by making it stick to the bottom of the screen as users scroll.
The end of the journey
To focus on our final year of school, my friend and I decided to sell the store in the summer of 2019. We
achieved our goal of learning what it takes to run and grow an online business and found immense joy in
putting smiles on our customers' faces with our unique socks. Launching Art Socks was one of the most
memorable and stimulating experiences of my entire life. Looking back, this experience made me realize that
I want to start my own company in the future. The sense of ownership and responsibility, combined with the
satisfaction of making people happy, is incredible.
As of July 2019, Art Socks has been managed and operated by new owners.
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