It’s been an exhilarating 100-day journey and there’s so much to tell you. From celebrating the highs to despairing in the lows and everything in between. Instead of rambling on about every detail, I’ve attempted to neatly structure my journey to highlight the practical lessons I’ve learned while growing my niche online store from nothing to 700-1,000 visitors per week and a conversion rate of 3.05%.
Where It All Began
I opened the Cat Lovers store on Good Friday, which was 14th April 2017. I built the website using WordPress and Woo Commerce, and the store had eight cat mugs for sale, which I designed myself. The shopping cart was integrated with Secure Pay so that I could accept credit card payments and PayPal.
My first step was to validate my ideas without spending very much money. I announced my store opening on my personal Facebook profile of family and friends, and this is where my first few sales came from (yay for supportive friends).
The Influence of Social Media
I already had a good following on Instagram because I started it back in December 2016 featuring my two cats, Oreo and Apricot. My Instagram following is people that love cats from all over the world, but I chose not to announce the store on here just yet. I don’t have a logical reason why, it just didn’t feel right yet and I’m a big believer in listening to your instinct.
I created a Cat Lovers Facebook page and invited everyone that I knew liked cats or would be happy to support me. I then began building a real following by posting cat photos and boosting the posts with $2, targeting Australian women that love and own cats. This worked incredibly well. I followed this process for a little while. It was a long time before I started slipping in product related content because I was protective over the relationships I was building in this little community. I don’t care what others say, social media should always be about relationships first and creating content valued by your followers.
My next idea was to find partnership opportunities. I began offering free cat mugs to related business so they could use them as prizes for social media competitions, but I didn’t have much luck. I might try this again in the future when I have more brand presence or a larger Facebook following.
The Technology Hiccup
Up to this point, I increasingly had bad speed issues with WordPress. I had too many plugins so that I could have specific e-commerce functions and it slowed everything right down. The homepage would take more than 10 seconds to load, which was resulting in a high bounce rate. Plus having so many plugins meant constant updates, and you must be careful because there is potential that the update won’t be compatible with other plugins. I figured I had no choice but to have a professional developer custom build the website. My biggest obstacle was money because I had nothing left in my savings after creating and manufacturing the cat mugs.
A couple of weeks went by and I applied for a small loan but got rejected twice. During this time, I also began to hear the brand “Shopify” a lot. I jumped on their website and learned that they are not just an e-commerce software, Shopify is an e-commerce platform that has everything you need to sell online. It sounds simple, but it perfectly represents its simplicity – all e-commerce functionality is standard and you don’t have to touch the code. I didn’t hesitate, I purchased a premium theme suited to my small inventory and rebuilt my whole store in Shopify. I then re-launched Cat Lovers at the end of May.
Why I Love Shopify for eCommerce
It’s stable (I have not experienced any drop-outs, and I know this because I monitor up-time with Pingdom). It’s lightweight, so it’s fast, and it’s much easier to use and manage (front-end, back-end and design). My marketing efforts have been more effective because of the many Shopify apps available, and the mobile app is really good for managing orders on the go. If you are going to run your own online store, I highly recommend Shopify.
The Expansion of the Cat Lovers Range
Through the phenomenon of drop-shipping, I was able to add a wide range of cat-themed products to the website – cat-themed clothing, jewellery, bags, purses, cat toys, cat beds and more. If you’re not familiar with drop-shipping, it’s a retail fulfilment method where a store doesn’t keep the products it sells in stock. Instead, when a store sells a product, it purchases the item from a third party (in my case, manufacturers) and has it shipped directly to the customer. There are pros and cons, but it’s a low-risk way of figuring out what products will be popular before committing to holding stock.
The Customer Lifetime Incentive
As my ideal customer is a person that is cat-obsessed, it makes sense to reward purchases and encourage future purchases. I implemented a loyalty points program via an app, and as a bonus, every new customer that creates an account gets 100 points automatically.
The Power of Blogging
I launched a cat blog strategy for branding, SEO and increasing the time spent on the website. I would also post each new blog to Facebook and boost it for $2 to my followers. This worked really well; I get anywhere between 25 to 50 clicks through to the blog article and pick up extra followers along the way.
The Multi-Channel Multiplier
Blogging combined with sharing my cat photos lifted Facebook followers by hundreds. Existing followers engaged with the posts which attracted more followers. One night I posted an image of my new kitten Heidi, went to sleep and woke up to see that it went mini-viral, attracting over 1,000 likes, 13 shares and over 100 new followers.
I also started a Pinterest profile, admittedly I don’t know what I’m doing with it, so it’s on the to-do list to learn. Pinterest allows people to pin images to boards often themed around inspiration or wish lists, which is well suited to e-commerce stores.
Show Me the Money
It’s lovely to have so much social engagement, but I also need sales to cover the money I spend boosting posts, the cost of the monthly Shopify fee and the premium apps I rely on. For a few weeks, there were zero orders. I was averaging 20 visits per day, but when I looked at the analytics, they were mostly from overseas. I realised Australia is too small of a niche, so I decided to launch globally. I updated the store settings to accommodate orders from all countries.
The Global Launch Fiasco
I made the global announcement with a Facebook post and snagged an order from Indonesia right away. I was cheering until I logged in and saw that Shopify had flagged it as a fraud order because the person had tried four different credit cards from different countries/merchants. I refunded the order immediately and emailed the “customer” an order cancellation notice. I was so devastated, the thrill of receiving an order after a long quiet period and then realising it was fake was really devastating. I spent the night crying on my husband, not very mature I know. Nonetheless, I woke up the next day with renewed hope and perseverance.
The next order came a few days later from Germany, and it was legitimate, yay! After this, the orders began rolling in. Every couple of days my phone would ping with a new order notification. I was over the moon but had a very long way to go to break even.
I tried five different shipping strategies before I settled on a flat rate fee of $10 and then free shipping on orders above $49. It’s a fine balancing act. Everyone wants free shipping, but it’s expensive, and the cost must be covered. I didn’t like the idea of raising all prices to compensate, which is why I settled on a transparent strategy and included Express upgrade options.
Playing with Paid Advertising
I tried Google Shopping and AdWords which is substantially more expensive than Facebook, but I wanted to be seen by people that were specifically looking for what I am selling. I didn’t have much luck; the ads were resulting in a high bounce rate even though the keywords were super targeted. I started and abandoned these ads multiple times. I also use remarketing display ads, which have worked well to generate orders. I eventually received orders from AdWords for keywords related to buying gifts for cat lovers.
Improving the Chances of a Sale
I also opened an Etsy and eBay store with the cat mugs to gain more exposure, but to this day haven’t received an order from either. On a different note, My business name “Cat Lovers” is actually a very competitive keyword, so it was going to take a lot of work to get my website on to the first page. I searched for Australian gift directories and applied for a listing (both free and paid), plus I answered every Source Bottle and HARO enquiry that had any relevance to my business.
Selling with Instagram
I’d been using Instagram exclusively for cat photos because I was worried about turning off my cat-loving followers, but I started slipping in a product themed image between 3-5 cat photos and scored three orders. I was pleasantly surprised and will continue to slip-in promotional posts, but primarily my Instagram is about connecting with cat-loving people.
Organic rankings have started to pick up over the last three weeks, and I’m now seeing regular traffic for the keywords Cat Lovers, Cat Mugs, Cat Jumpers, Cat Bags, Cat Furniture and Cat Lover Gifts. Organic search traffic is beginning to bring in the most profitable customers. My ideal customer is a person that is cat-obsessed and buying for themselves, but about half of the orders are gifts for people that are cat lovers. A healthy mix of both is good, and I’m thinking about how to offer gift cards as well as cat-themed products.
I only had a very small email marketing list at this point but thought I’d give email marketing a try because it’s been proven time and time again that email is a profitable channel. I did a “Buy One Mug, Get One Free” offer and snagged one order from it.
Turning Browsers into Buyers
Between social media, SEO and paid advertising I was getting a good amount of consistent traffic but I was worried about my conversion rate, so my next focus was working on converting browsers into buyers.
I tried so many different types of sales, marketing and functionality apps. If one didn’t have an impact after a week, it got replaced with something else. I’d already learnt my lesson, too many apps affect speed. These apps helped to improve my conversion rate by a few points: Best Currency Converter, Conversion Plus and Privy.
I recently installed Lucky Orange which is a heat map and recording tool. I couldn’t identify an obvious reason why people abandon their shopping cart, so I’m still watching recordings regularly and have implemented an exit-intent offer. During the recordings, I did notice a couple of the “conversion boosting” apps looked annoying, so I got rid of those.
My Next Steps
Approximately every two weeks I add new drop-shipped products, and I’m getting close to placing my first stock order. I’ll be purchasing popular products and placing them in the “Gifts in a Hurry” category for people shopping for a cat lover. I’ll be able to cover the stock purchase with the revenue I’ve made in the store over the last couple of months.
I’m getting ready for my next email marketing campaign, and I’m excited to see what the result will be with a much larger email list. I’ll also be spending much more on Facebook advertising.
I’ve also just implemented an affiliate program offering 20% commission on successful orders, but I haven’t made the time yet to do outreach to invite people to participate.
I’ll finish my journey update with a very embarrassing, but funny story. One Friday evening I was at home and got two really big orders online! I decided to make Margaritas to celebrate. Apparently, I made them a little too strong because I ended up with my head in the toilet. So, what started as a celebration quickly turned to regret.
The best part of the experience so far is connecting with other cat lovers through Facebook and Instagram. I love that we can share our cat photos and stories without judgement! To everyone that’s taunted me for being a crazy cat lady – passion is a powerful motivator.
Meow for now!