My buddy Doug pointed me towards an interesting e-commerce site: woot.com

Woot.com is built around a really simple and interesting idea: Sell one product at a time, or in their words “One Day, One Deal.”

Today it’s a photo printer and digital camera combination selling for $79.99. Tomorrow it’s … no body knows! Sometimes they put anonymous items for $1 — you don’t know if you’re going to get a used set of Rush Limbaugh ties, or a new 23″ flat panel monitor. It’s like the lottery, and people get hooked. Some die hard fanatics check at midnight, every night, to try to score the big ticket items that occassionally come through the system.

Don’t you wish your site had die hard fanatics?

Update: As davebug noted, Overstock.com is an advertiser but doesn’t run Woot.com.

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Watch Your Namespace

June 30, 2006

Note: The Pages o’ Peat have moved to http://peat.org/ — please update your bookmarks and references accordingly. Thank you!

I helped a client troubleshoot a small “gotcha” in his Rails app this evening. It’s an odd problem he bumped into after refactoring a controller into a group of controllers — a particularly spiffy feature of Rails. For example, if you have a controller (say, FooController) that’s getting rather large and unwieldy, you can break it up into smaller controllers in a Foo namespace:

controllers/foo_controller.rb

.. becomes ..

controllers/foo/bar_controller.rb
controllers/foo/zed_controller.rb
controllers/foo/quux_controller.rb

… and the controller class declaration changes from:

class FooController < ApplicationController

… to …

class Foo::BarController < ApplicationController

… and so on for Foo::ZedController and Foo::QuuxController. Pretty handy! It should be noted that the controller routing changes as well, making Foo::BarController#my_action accessable as http://mysite.com/foo/bar/my_action.

So here’s the gotcha: if you’re refactoring a FooController, chances are that you also have a Foo model (models/foo.rb). The Foo model is declared as class Foo, which means you’re suddenly mucking about in its namespace when you declare a controller as Foo::BarController. You’re in trouble town with generic routing errors when you attempt to load http://mysite.com/foo/bar/my_action, and the way out isn’t immediately apparent if you’re not specifically looking for such collisions.

The solution is to change either the controller or model namespace to something else. Controllers are a bit more flexible than models when it comes to naming, so changing Foo::BarController to Foos::BarController and renaming the directory to controllers/foos/bar_controller.rb fixes the problem — if you don’t mind pluralized names.

This is a continuation of a series of articles about the basics of e-commerce. In particular, I’m discussing how to get noticed on the web. In my previous article I provided some tips on using search engines effectively, and introduced targeted search engines (particularly price comparison search engines) as a very effective way to attract people to your website. This post is about an alternative route: selling through other established sites like eBay or Amazon instead of your own web site.

I call these stores “sell through stores.”

Golden Handcuffs

The biggest advantage to running a store on Amazon or eBay .. is that it’s Amazon or eBay. They’re top destinations on the web, receiving millions of visitors every day who are interested in buying things. Taking your product to these sites and competing on the same page with the big dogs can be a very effective way to sell.

Another advantage is that you don’t have to build or maintain an independent web site to sell products. Starting an Amazon Marketplace account or opening an eBay Store is a relatively straight forward and inexpensive process, and they provide a lot of tools to promote your company and products within their sites.

Both Amazon and eBay are interested in helping you sell more, and they provide extensive documentation and private forums for sellers to come together and help each other out. Having a supportive community and well documented set of services makes it easy to get started and make informed decisions about promoting your products.

There are a few disadvantages, however:

  • Amazon and eBay charge for each transaction or require a subscription (or both). These fees are usually pretty reasonable when selling high margin items (like apparel), but they can be a deal breaker on low margins (say, computer memory).
  • Although the sites typically let you customize your company’s page to some extent, it’s a far cry from building an independent presence and identity on the Internet. If you’re interested in being known as something other than an eBay or Amazon shop, you’ll have to create an external site to promote and market your company.
  • Many search engines, targeted or otherwise, don’t pay much attention to sell through shops — some specifically ignore or forbid such listings. Your marketing efforts will be almost entirely dependent on the site you’re selling through.

Mixing Worlds

What about using eBay and Amazon as outlets for your independent web store? Well, the essential problem is that selling on multiple sites requires you to independently manage inventory and orders on each site — your own web site, and each of your sell through stores.

There are a couple of solutions to this: you can do it by hand, or you can do it with software.

Doing it by hand isn’t so bad if you’re dedicated and don’t have very many products. If you’re selling sock monkeys, and you only have five kinds of sock monkeys, than keeping everything up to date would take a couple of hours per month. No sweat!

On the other hand, if you’re a seasonal retail shop with thousands of products, you’re either going to have to hire several very dedicated typists, or get some smart software to automatically link your independent site’s inventory with your sell through stores. What does this entail?

  • eBay and Amazon have different methods for interacting with their services, so you’ll need to find a developer (or a team) familiar with them.
  • The developer(s) will have to access your site’s database of products as well, in order to retrieve inventory information to push to eBay and Amazon.
  • Time and money. Depending on the experience of your developers, and the complexity of the management you’re performing, these links could take several months to build and test.

That said, being able to manage your inventory and orders from a single site is a tremendous boost in productivity, and cuts down on errors and miscommunication … allowing you to focus more on attracting customers and selling products.

What’s Next?

Next we’re probably going to hit the blogs and aggregators in search of ways to get noticed. How do you get talked about and linked … and what about advertising? Good questions! And what do you want to read about, anyway? Let me know.

In my previous post about e-commerce, I provided a very general outline of e-commerce, and touched on the essential problem of standing out from the crowd. Generally speaking, the web is maturing, and business on the web is becoming more like traditional business: if you’re in an established market, lots of other folks are competing for your clicks. If you’re creating a market, it’s time to create some buzz.

First, the basics …

Search Engines

Unless you’re an established site with lot of regular visitors, the vast majority of people will arrive from somewhere else on the web — a search engine, someone’s blog, a news article, advertisement, or other web site.

Search engines are a good place to start, and something to consider when planning your site. There are two types of search engines: general search engines, and targetted search engines. General search engines (like Google) can provide a solid base of traffic, but things get really exciting with the targeted search engines (like ShopZilla). More on that in a bit.

Appealing to general search engines is relatively straight forward, if you have a good web designer and a knack for being social:

  1. Do find other sites to link to your home page and products. The biggest influence on how high your site shows up on search engines is the quantity and quality of sites linking to yours. Know (or employ) any bloggers? Have them put in a good word. On good terms with your manufacturers? If you’re buying enough product, or know the right people, get a link. Are there any web bulleton boards about activities related to your products? Offer to sponsor them. Don’t create other web sites just to link to your site — search engines have a tendency to permanently delist sites that use such questionable tactics to improve their rankings. Setting aside a few hours per week to build relationships and get links can pay for itself quite quickly.
  2. Do use clean, semantic markup. Put product names in <h1> tags at the top of the page and in the <title>. Avoid using tables in your layout. Don’t do keyword stuffing — keyword headers are ignored by modern search engines, and adding a list of all of your products to every page polutes the content and will most likely be counted against you (and besides, it’s ugly and a turnoff for potential customers). Any good web designer can help you through this process.
  3. Do use search engine specific site maps. Google, Yahoo, and others can be seeded with files that describe all of your pages, and ensure your site gets crawled entirely. Again, if your e-commerce platform doesn’t support site maps, you’ll have to find a developer to help you out.

Targetted Search Engines

Lets say I’m looking for a jacket. I already know what kind of jacket I want, and now I’m just looking for a reputable dealer with a good price. Now, I can go to Google or Yahoo and search, but most of the time those searches don’t tell me either the price or reputation. So, I head over to Froogle, or ShopZilla — search engines specifically designed to help consumers find the best deal on the products they want.

Taking advantage of targeted search engines requires some technical expertise, but the pay off is worth it: one of my client’s sales grew 1600% in a single quarter after we plugged his site into Froogle and ShopZilla. Unfortunately, if your e-commerce platform doesn’t already support the targetted search engines specifically, you’ll have to find a developer to plumb the depths of your database.

Comparison search engines are growing and multiplying quickly. Chances are there are a handful that are well suited to your particular business. Here’s a quick list of some of the prominant sites:

Outside of the mainstream comparison search engines, there are industry specific directories and databases, like the Thomas Register — if you’re a manufacturer of any sort, chances are you want to be listed on their site.

What’s Next?

Search engines are one thing — but why not go to your customers? What does it take to sell through eBay, or Amazon? Read on in Getting Noticed, Part Two

Notaphilist, Part Deux

June 23, 2006

This afternoon I had the opportunity to scan some of my German Reichsmarks, dated from 1908 through 1923. A pretty dramatic example of hyperinflation is the twenty billion mark bill that was only printed on one side. Check ’em out at flickr, tagged with “reichsmark

Notaphilist?

June 23, 2006

I found my box of old German bank notes today, and it renewed my interest in paper money. “Yeah,” you say, “I’m interested in paper money too!” Well, I’m not interested in that way. I’m interested in bills from interesting places and times, and I have been for as long as I can remember. As a little kid I designed my own currencies for a lunar colony I built with Lego bricks. Terribly ugly stuff, but never-the-less an interesting venture.

What is it about paper money? I think it’s a combination of the feel of the paper and printing, the colors and designs, and the inherent story of obsolete or devalued money: that people once had faith that it was worth something more than paper and ink.

So, bit by the bug again, I spent some time on eBay this evening. Fortunately, this stuff is pretty cheap! A set of 13 Iraqi Dinar notes is less than ten bucks; likewise for a set of 35 miscellanious bills from Asia and South America.

Anyhow, I’m keen to see if anyone reading this is interested in this sort of thing.

Update:  The notes have arrived!  Check out “Money in the Mail” for more info.

E-commerce is not a solved problem. Sure — the concept of putting products online, charging for them, and shipping packages is relatively straight forward. You could do that in the late 90’s without too much trouble, and today you can build a pretty good looking storefront with free tools and a little elbow grease.

It’s great because the barrier to entry is very low and it’s relatively simple for any mom and pop shop to get online … but that’s also a problem: how do you get noticed when your competitors also have sites? And if you do get noticed, how do you manage the growth?

This is the first article in a series about marketing, technology, and the day to day operations of a successful e-commerce shop. This isn’t about a specific shop, but drawn from my experiences over the last ten years of helping small businesses get online and compete against larger, better funded, better equipped corporations. It’s also about my start up: we’re building a better way to do business on the web.

But first, let’s set the stage. What is e-commerce?

E-commerce is easily defined: buying and selling things over the Internet. It’s usually broken into two categories: B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer). B2B is manufacturers and wholesellers selling to retailers and other business consumers. B2C is people like you and I buying things off Amazon and eBay.

In 2003, people and businesses spent $1.6 trillion over the Internet, in the United States. That’s the latest figure from the US Business Census, and although it’s a bit dated, independent firms say that e-commerce has grown steadily at 20% to 35% per year.

The vast majority (about 93%) of that business was B2B. The remainder, about $106 billion, is accounted for by about 80 million people who need books, iPods, and collectable bowling pins.

Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of product, a lot of people, and a lot of money. FedEx and UPS are pretty thrilled about it.

What’s next? Well, I’m going to skip over the bit about setting up an e-commerce shop — there are a few thousand articles out there about choosing the right platform, and I don’t have anything particularly meaningful to add (yet). We’re going to get straight into the meat of it: how do you attract customers to your site, and how do you handle the load?