In this podcast, I chat with Jonathan Martin, President and Founder of Cool Blue Web, a full-service web development agency.
Jonathan’s agency has worked with tons of clients on eCommerce sites, guiding many of them through the process of going from brick and mortar to online. Some have added the online as a digital version of their store. Others closed their brick and mortar shops after making the move to online. Listen as he shares his experience and gives you some great tips on making this transition.
We chatted about:
- Whether physical shop owners are aware of what the transition to online takes
- The top two things that a shop owner should think about before making the transition
- How many products you should start with when launching your site
- The benefits of having both and how you can use your brick and mortar store to market your online shop
- Jonathan’s experience working with a client who shut down their physical presence after going online
- One of Jonathan’s most challenging projects when taking a client through this transition
You can also listen in as Jonathan joins us on the Do the Woo podcast to chat about: Woo Blocks, ACF, WC-Admin and New Woo Mobile App
Bob Dunn: Hey everyone, welcome back to the WP Commerce Show. Bob Dunn here, also known as Bob WP on the web. Today is the third show of our series, Starting your Word Press Online Store. Last Monday, we talked about how to make sure you have the right stuff in place when starting your online store, all the things beyond the plug-in, the theme, and building the site. The week before, we covered the plug-in part and looked at some tips for choosing your e-Commerce plug-in.
Today we are talking about a specific scenario: when the owner of a physical store decides to go online. There are some practices that apply equally to an online shop and a brick-and-mortar store. But there is also a learning curve that comes with its own set of challenges. To help you as a retail store owner to make this transition, we have Jonathan Martin, President and founder of Cool Blue Web. I know that the team there has helped numerous clients through this process, so I'm happy to welcome him to the show.
Hey, Jonathan, thanks for joining us today.
Jonathan Martin: Awesome, Bob. Thanks for the great introduction there.
Bob Dunn: So Jonathan, can you tell us a bit about yourself and Cool Blue Web?
Meet today’s guest: Jonathan Martin from Cool Blue Web
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, absolutely, Bob. We actually started out as a merchant seven years ago. I ran five eCommerce stores. They were small stores, on a different platform, called Magento. I wish WooCommerce was around then. It would have been awesome. They were great little drop ship business models. We never had to touch product. We processed orders. Then I fell in love with the building of eCommerce stores. As we were building out a web agency, everyone said, "Hey, you have experience working on eCommerce stores. Can you work on mine?" We started up as a Magento shop. As WooCommerce came on the scene, we began doing a lot more Woo. Now it’s about 50/50. That was seven years ago. We're an agency of somewhere between 20 and 25 people. All focused, all of our people here in the U.S. out of our Seattle office.
We work on stores ranging from small stores that do half a million dollars a year in business, all the way up to larger platforms that are 70+ million a year.
Bob Dunn: I also want to add that you're a huge supporter of our local WooCommerce meetup. We've had several meetups at your offices, which are always fun. And you’ve done some presentations. I want to personally thank you for that as well.
Jonathan Martin: Awesome. Thanks, Bob. It's a lot of fun. One of the great things about the Woo community is that it's broad. Some communities are all sales people looking to find something to do. It's a really broad community and the WordPress community and WooCommerce-specific community here, at least in the Seattle area, you have a broad mix of, starting out merchants, merchants that have been doing it for several years, agencies, independent freelance developers. It's a really great community.
WooConf is coming to Seattle
Bob Dunn: And are you excited that WooConf is actually going to be in Seattle in October?
Jonathan Martin: I am super stoked about that. When I heard that they were coming out to Seattle, I was excited. My wife is really going to love it, because that's another trip that I don't have to take this year. But I've had fun at the San Francisco and Austin ones. The previous WooConfs were amazing. The one downside is we don't get to walk down, what is it, 6th Street or something like that in Austin? I had a lot of fun there last year.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that's right. You'll get to be the host this time and show everybody all the cool stuff in Seattle.
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, that'll be fun.
What does it take to move your brick-and-mortar store online?
Bob Dunn: Okay, well let's jump right into these questions. I have some good ones for you and I know with the experience your team has had, I'm sure we're going to be hearing some great tips and insights. When brick-and-mortar shop owners decide to take their stores online, are most of them really aware of what it really takes? Can you give us, maybe the top two or three things they should really be thinking about before they make this jump?
Jonathan Martin: Yeah. We have several customers that started out as a brick and mortar and then moved online, some then went to online only, and others, well, it didn't work for them and they didn't do any business whatsoever online. I think it really depends on the shop.
Think about where most of your business happens
We have a customer who has a jewelry store. They have a fabulous eCommerce platform and they sell antique jewelry. It's Isadoras.com here in the Seattle area. They have a great little shop down in Pike Place Market and they sell beautiful, one-of-a-kind, antique jewelry, from rings to broaches, all kinds of stuff. Their eCommerce store is beautiful. It's focused on letting people know what kind of stock they have inside. A lot of people want to touch and feel that piece of jewelry before they purchase it. They want to see what's on the site, they see what's in inventory, they see what they have, and then they go into the store and make their purchase. While they have a beautiful online store, most of their business happens in their brick-and-mortar store.
Think about your target customer
We have other customers where they have a brick-and-mortar shop, but most of their business happens online. I think that when you are a brick-and-mortar store and you're thinking about your online strategy, you really need to think about who is your target customer and how do they experience the product? How do they figure out how to purchase a product? If it's apparel, is it cookie cutter enough apparel that they know that a medium is going to fit them? Or is it maybe designer, women's apparel and they feel like they need to try it on or they need to touch and feel it? I think that determining what they product strategy is at the very beginning is really important when you're thinking about taking your store online.
What would Jonathan never buy online?
Bob Dunn: That's excellent. I love that. In the first season of our podcast I would ask a lot of our guests, "What would you never buy online?" Amazingly there were a lot of people who said, "I really can't think of anything." But there are the people that have to do that, like I had asked someone on the show and they couldn’t think of anything he wouldn’t buy online. Then he tweeted to me later, "You know, you asked me that on the show . I’ve decided it’s pillows. I've got to feel my pillow before I buy it."
Jonathan Martin: Yeah. For me, personally for me it's shoes. For some reason I want to go in and try on a pair of shoes so I know what they feel like. My wife, on the hand, will buy them online. She'll buy two or three pair and then return the one she doesn't like, and she has no problem with it. I think it's different depending on who your target audience is as well.
Start small if you must, but get online as quickly as possible
Bob Dunn: Exactly. I'm going to set up a scenario now. You're sitting down with somebody and everything's going really cool. You're all excited about the project. Then they come to you and say, "We want to take our store online, Jonathan, and get all 2500 of our products ready to sell when we launch. Now are there some guidelines on how many products they should initially start with? What are your thoughts there?
Jonathan Martin: At Cool Blue Web, we focus on an MVP approach when it comes to development, which means a minimum viable product. Our goal is to get sites launched as soon as possible and then begin refining and adding products to them. A lot of our customers want to wait until they feel that everything is absolutely perfect and they have every single bell and whistle and every single product in their store on there, when in reality once they do all that work, they gain a lot of experience, because now they're actually online and, "Wait a minute, we made a bunch of bad choices, or maybe we really don't want this product online." I really think stores should just get started. They should open up a store and if they start with ten products and they slowly add to those, with 2,490 more products on over time, I think that's the right approach. I think the other big challenge that a lot of small brick-and-mortar stores have is photography and product data.
Are you going to use the manufacturer-supplied image or are you going to take your own shots? What are you going to do to differentiate yourself from that product being sold somewhere else on the internet? I think that there's a lot of time that can be invested into that and should be, but I don't think you should let that time be a barrier to getting up and running as quick as you can. If you only have 100 of your products that have photos, get those 100 up, get them up as quick as you can, and see if you can sell some. Gain that experience of actually running a store, and you may change the way you take your photos, you may change the way you write your descriptions, you may change all kinds of different stuff. You may decide, "Great. We only want to showcase these ten products that are selling." I think that the most important thing to do is get up there as quick as you possibly can.
As soon as you're online and making sales, you're going to learn so much more if you're new to the game, that you're going to make your decisions totally different going forward.
Bob Dunn: There’s really a huge difference between opening up your brick-and-mortar shop compared to online, because, with your brick-and-mortar shop, you want to get as much in there and look impressive when people walk through those doors. Online it is a lot different. That's interesting.
Jonathan Martin: People worry that a customer is going to come to my site in April when I launch and I don't have all my products there and then they're going to go, "Oh, they don't have anything," and they're going to never come back. "I'd rather wait until June until I have everything in there." Well, here's the truth of it. That customer is looking for something in April. If they didn't find your site, they found somebody else's site and now maybe they fell in love with that site, and they're never going to go to you anyway. The goal is to get up as quick as you possibly can. Maybe you say, "Hey, this is 10% of our inventory. We're working on getting more in there." Give them some kind of, "Oh wait, maybe I should come back more often to check." Or give them some discount. Say, "Hey, while we're adding more inventory to our store, we want you to come back. Here's a coupon for June once we have all our inventory in there."
I think there are a lot of creative ways to get people to come back during that building-out-your-inventory phase.
Bob Dunn: Do you get that question quite a bit or is that always a pretty common issue when you are talking with perspective clients?
Jonathan Martin: It actually goes both ways. We have people who start off, "Oh yeah, we can get all the data in there. We'll have it ready by such and such a date," and then as they're gathering the data they realize it's more work than they can actually do, because they're running a business or they have other demands on their time. Then they come back to us later on and they say, "Is it okay if we launch with 20% of our products?" We say, "Yes, of course it is. Get it up and running." We have other people who only want to launch with ten or 15 percent and it's really more of a time commitment issue for them. Sometimes we say, "Great. You know what, we think you should start at least with 100 because it'll fill out your store and make your store look complete." I think it really depends on the customer and how much time and how easy it is to get that product data. Product data for some stuff is really difficult to get.
Are there advantages to keeping your physical store running, too?
Bob Dunn: I've heard a few other people say that too. Get online, get going, don't worry about getting everything on there. I'm glad you confirmed that. Now, is there an advantage when you have a physical store when it comes to marketing your online shop? "I opened my online shop, I have this store, so my store is another arm of my marketing to get people to go to my online.” Do you have any examples or have you helped stores that continue to be a physical store market their online shop through their physical presence?
Jonathan Martin: I think there are a couple of big advantages to having a physical store. First of all, not even on the marketing side, but on the product side, there are lots of manufacturers out there who won't sell to companies unless they have a physical store. If you wanted to open up an online-only store, for example, to sell motorcycle helmets, none of the motorcycle helmet companies would sell to you, because they don't want to undercut their actual physical stores that are selling motorcycle helmets around the country. What they do is they make a requirement that you have to have a physical store. It's the same in the beauty industry and the skin care industry. There's lots of these industries where they know that online's going to happen, but they want to be sure that they're supporting brick-and-mortar stores. So they make it a requirement that you have a physical store.
I think in choosing which products you're going to sell, I think having a physical store can be a huge advantage in that space. Now when it comes to marketing your shop, Google has several different ways that it classifies search results. They try to determine what you're looking for when you type in a query. What is the relevant response to this query? Is someone looking for a product, are they looking for information, are they looking for a physical location? If you are looking for a product, let's stick with that jewelry example that we were looking at earlier. Now Isadora's, they've been around for a while, they're a great local brand, but they're not Blue Nile. They're no Shane Company or E.E. Robins or whoever the big, national players are. If you type, "Jewelry," there's no way they're going to rank for those big terms.
If you type in, "Jewelry at Seattle," they're going to show up, because they have that local presence. Google says, "Hey, this is a local company and this is somebody who’s looking for something in a local zone." I think that if you actually have a physical store, you have a chance to capture more early search results before you’ve built up your SEO, before you've built up all your marketing, because Google's going to determine, "Hey, this search result is more relevant to someone searching in this physical area." Google will show different results in Seattle and different results in L.A. and different results in Florida. The local results rise up higher in the rankings. I think that actually having a physical store is a big boost for that.
On deciding to close your physical store after launching your online one
Bob Dunn: Good stuff. Now you mentioned earlier that you have worked with clients who have shut down their brick-and-mortar shop after they moved online. Any thoughts on that transition? What they might prepare themselves for or how you've actually helped them do that?
Jonathan Martin: Yeah. We had an architect in New York and he sold great design objects: stuff for interior design, shelving units, shelving systems, really great gadgets and desk toys and stuff. He had an actual physical store in New York and then he opened up an online store. Over time, that online store began to build more and more traffic and started doing more and more sales. While he actually still did more sales in his physical store, the expense of actually having the footprint within New York and the retail district that he was in, the expense of having someone there from 8:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night or whatever their hours were, actually became less profitable than his online store. He made a big transition to be an online only store, closed down his physical store.
He still needed to have space, he still needed to have inventory, move that out to a cheaper location outside of town, didn't need to have someone there for eight to 12 hours a day, only had an employee that was working there doing shipping, somewhere working four to six hours a day, and then what he focused on, instead of making sure the store looked good, and spending all his energies on the physical store, was he turned his attention to content and focused on writing great articles and writing great product reviews and writing great comparison reviews. Over time, his online store eventually started making more than the previous total for both his physical store and an online shop combined, because he was hyper-focused. "I'm going to focus on this one thing that I think is going to have a lower expense and a greater upside for potential."
Bob Dunn: That's a cool story. Did he have any, I don't want to say backlash, but any feedback from customers saying, "Oh man, we really miss your store." Did he hear any of that or was the transition pretty smooth where people thought, "Cool, now I can just buy it online”?
Jonathan Martin: I think he definitely did have some blowback from it. He had the store. I actually hadn't been to it, since it was in New York and I'm out here in Seattle, but he had a store that you want to walk through and play with and touch and feel and do this stuff, but a lot of those stores you have people coming in and manhandling your products, but they don't necessarily buy anything. They're like a Brookstone or the Classy Image. They actually closed down and went to online only as well. They're another great example. They have stores in malls where people went in there and they looked at products, but they didn't necessarily buy. The products got used and then they couldn't sell them. He definitely had blowback because people loved going into his store. He had cool stuff, fun stuff to play with, but it wasn't making him money. He was like, “Sure, there's people who are going to be upset, but that's not why you're in business. You're in business to sell products and make money, and put your kids through college, hire employees, that stuff, not necessarily make everyone in the world happy."
Bob Dunn: The kind of store where somebody says, "Oh, I have 30 minutes to kill. Oh, that's always a fun store to go in and look around and play around," but they never buy anything.
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, like Barnes and Noble. I love going to Barnes and Noble. I never buy books at Barnes and Noble.
Bob Dunn: I know. It's great in there, touching them.
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, but I'm going to buy it on Amazon. I can get it cheaper on Amazon.
Bob Dunn: Right. You look at, "Boy, this is a good book. I'm going to go back to my office and get it on Amazon."
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, you know the marketing department at Barnes and Noble hates that we're saying that now, but it's the truth.
An online success story: Cupcake Royale
Bob Dunn: Okay, last question. Do you have an interesting example, something unique of a particularly challenging project where you took someone online?
Jonathan Martin: Yeah. Cupcake Royale is a great example. Cupcake Royale is a local company here in Seattle that they have, I don't know, 12, 15, man, they might even have 25 physical locations where they sell cupcakes here around town. They're a coffee shop and a cupcake shop and they have kids’ parties and adult parties and some of them even serve beer. It's a great company here in the Seattle area. They came to us with a great-looking WordPress site, and the initial start to a store online where they were selling icing and t-shirts and stuff. But what they really wanted to do was start pre-selling cupcakes, for businesses and for parties, so you could go online and say, "Hey, I want to buy two dozen whatever the seasonal cupcake is, and I want it waiting for me when I get there tomorrow, so it's all ready to go and I'm going to pre-pay for it now."
In adding that functionality to their website, we had to have location-specific sections on the store so the customer lands on the website and they choose. Great. What, am I buying this for pick-up, am I buying this for delivery? Because they also added delivery as well. People would choose. "I'm buying this for pick-up." Well, which store are you going to pick it up at? Let's say you choose Pioneer Square. That information on that order gets sent directly off to that Pioneer Square location. Then they also had some stuff that was for delivery. Those orders would go off to a central kitchen so that they could be delivered and then there would be different pricing based on what delivery zone you were in. If you're in the downtown Seattle area, delivery's free.
If you're out in West Seattle or in Shoreline, delivery is $10 or $15. I think that was a really challenging project for us, because it wasn't the standard buy a product, throw it in a box, put it in UPS, ship it out. There was a lot more nuance to how the product is delivered, where it comes from, where the inventory gets reported on. We actually had to create different reports for each individual store. A store typically stores, I don't know, 500 cupcakes, but they knew that they had 60 orders coming in for pickup. Those 60 orders had to be accounted for differently or in additional to their standard 500 cupcakes. It was a really fun project to do. They had a local creative agency do the design A beautiful store, and great cupcakes. It was challenging becuase you had to think about all the different aspects of how that product could be delivered and the customer had to walk through that experience one step at a time.
Bob Dunn: Actually we had Matt on the show talking about Cupcake Royale. He was talking about how working with Jonathan stressed him out. I had to throw that in. The temptation was too much. Anyway, it was a great show. Talked about his own challenges and stuff. Yeah, they seem really happy with what they got. Congrats on that one and it did sound like you had some particular, unique challenges there.
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, eCommerce, buying stuff online is not the same. It's different for different kinds of products, for different kind of industries, for the way inventory's managed or delivery. There are so many different variables that go into running an online store. It makes the job fun. We're learning stuff every day.
The challenges of getting the taxes right
Bob Dunn: That's what I love having this podcast because I hear from the developer side, the agency side like you, I hear from the owner side and yeah, there are so many variables that people don't even often plan for or understand when they start getting into this. We had a whole series on taxes. I thought, "Now I know why I don't have an online store."
Jonathan Martin: Yeah, we actually just had a very interesting ask. We have a customer who is selling software. They're selling software and it's actual software that gets installed on your computer and, when you buy a license for the software, the software has a very specific user, and a specific address. When a business buys their software, they're buying it, for example, for their remote employees, they actually have to charge a different tax rate for each item that they're buying. Rather than the standard, "Hey, we're going to calculate your tax rate based on your shipping address, they have to calculate the tax rate for each individual item differently in the cart." Taxing is a nightmare.
Where to find Jonathan on the web
Bob Dunn: I'm glad you do what you do and I do what I do. Now I know if you're a store owner facing this challenge and it's on your horizon, I would definitely recommend what Jonathan has shared with us today So, besides slaving away in your office and hanging at your clients’ offices, where can people find you on the web?
Jonathan Martin: They can go on our website. It’s really the best way. Go to coolblueweb.com. You can email me directly, [email protected] You can often find me on the weekends at Ercolini Park in West Seattle with my kids. I'm there just about every Saturday playing with them on the swings. That's how you can get a hold of me.
Bob Dunn: Oh, perfect. I like that last one. Somebody asked me, "I have a question about starting an online store." I look, it's a weekend. "Oh, you are in Seattle? I know this park you could go take a little walk in."
Jonathan Martin: There you go. Yeah, it's right in West Seattle. Come on down.
Bob Dunn: Well, excellent. Again, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today.
Jonathan Martin: Bob, it's been a lot of fun. Thank you.