In episode 47, we are chatting with Andy Hayes from PlumDeluxe.com. Andy shares the story about selling organic tea online. He tells us his personal insights on the pros and cons of usingWooCommerce, as well as some of the technical challenges he faced. We also get a bit of behind-the-scenes advice on what it’s like to sell custom, organic tea online.
We chatted about:
- Why he chose WordPress and WooCommerce for his store
- What he loves about WooCommerce his biggest frustration with the eCommerce plugin
- When he chose to turn his site into a subscription site, and how he did that
- The challenges of selling organic tea online
- The number one thing he wishes he had known when he first started
Bob Dunn: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the WP eCommerce show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today we are swinging back around and bringing you some insights directly from a shop owner: Andy Hayes from PlumDeluxe.com.
We like to bring shop owners on as guests because it helps other online store owners learn from their experience. And consultants, developers, and designers can also take away some solid tips of what works and doesn't work in the eCommerce realm. Today we're going to hear the story of PlumDeluxe.com.
Meet Andy Hayes, owner of Plum Deluxe, the best monthly tea subscription service
Andy, welcome to the show.
Andy Hayes: Hey Bob, thanks for having me. It's a shame that we have to schedule a podcast call to catch up. I haven't seen you in awhile.
Bob Dunn: We don't live that far from each other so.
Andy Hayes: Not anymore.
Bob Dunn: We'll have to actually do something and we can say all the stuff we want to say that we don't want other people to hear.
Andy Hayes: Sounds like a plan.
Bob Dunn: Well, let's start out by having you just tell us kind of in a nutshell what Plum Deluxe is.
Andy Hayes: Thanks. Plum Deluxe, we like to say, is the website that helps you create moments that matter. We've been around almost ten years now. Some name changes, some business changes on that journey. Plum Deluxe started as just a blog. When I started my question that I was really curious to answer was why are we better versions of ourselves when we're on vacation? This was the question that started it all.
At the beginning, it was a blog that we had similar to the show like this. We had sponsors and advertisers that would pay for the content. Think of, I guess, an online magazine kinda thing. Over the years we tried a lot of different kinds of products to make it more of a richer experience. We did themed Plum Deluxe events. We created our own store that was actually an affiliate store, so we had links to other people's products. It never was really enough to make it what my vision was.
Once I really got clear on what was the purpose of this website, which was kind of ... I spent more of my life living in Europe and I felt that here in the United States, people just never slow down and take a second and have a thoughtful conversation.
Bob Dunn: Right.
A unique business model
Andy Hayes: I felt like maybe that's starting to happen now with these great podcasts and shows, but even then people are, and please don't take offense if this is what you're doing right now because I'm not judging you, but people throw it on while they're driving in their commute. We're always doing 19 different things. I really was trying to create change by giving people tools and ideas to slow down and have a more thoughtful connection with themselves and with other people. If I really wanted to do that, I needed a business model underneath it that would really support it. That's when I decided that we really needed to have our own products. We couldn't rely on sponsorships, advertising, or selling other people's stuff.
That's when we rolled out our own line of loose leaf teas. We sell organic loose leaf teas. They're all hand blended out of our studio in Portland, Oregon. That's been the most successful thing we've done to date. We've had tea for about four years now. It took, I would say, probably two years to just establish operations to keep up with the demand because it's been so successful right out of the gate. The thing that we're most known for is a tea of the month subscription. We charge people quarterly, but it's ten dollars a month and they get a tea that we make just for club members. They get a lot of perks like free shipping. There's a really thriving community where people do gift swaps and they meet up and have tea and that kind of thing.
Bob Dunn: Very cool.
Andy Hayes: That's kind of Plum Deluxe in a nutshell. We still have the online magazine, too. We use that to kind of market the store, but it's now much more about the products and getting people to purchase a product and then that moment, that experience of slowing down.
Why Andy chose WordPress
Bob Dunn: That totally makes sense. I've been watching you and the site grow over time. We're gonna kinda start out on the technical side a little bit. This could be a long answer, but if you could kinda just encapsulate why you chose WordPress and what eCommerce plugin did you end up using?
Andy Hayes: Excellent question. When I started that blog that was about a vacation thing, I had a website beforehand. AndyHayes.com. I had my own domain for a long time. Al Gore made the internet and then I went in and got my domain kinda thing. I have a technology background, by the way. I have two degrees. Organizational leadership and technology.
Bob Dunn: Okay.
Andy Hayes: I had a flash HTML site and I was wanting to post photos and stories and it was really hard to update. It would take forever. Do you remember when websites used to load and the pictures would load like lines at a time? Like little sections? My website was like that. It was terrible. When I was going to do this blog thing, I was part of a group that met every Friday for coffee and tea and just interesting conversation. Kind of like an intellectual business group. These were the people, actually, that helped me kinda quit my other job and do this business full time many years ago.
I said, "I gotta get something else. This just does not work." They all were like, "WordPress. WordPress. WordPress. WordPress." I had heard about WordPress over and over again and kind of had realized that some of the websites that I had been following were on WordPress. I'd been noticing kinda like, "Oh, that website reminds me of this other website." Back then there weren't that many themes and people weren't quite as adventurous with the themes. I had just noticed WordPress was everywhere so I just went with it because it felt like there was so much momentum behind it, it'd be silly not to.
I had WordPress six years when we needed the eCommerce piece. Being a tech guy, looking at all the options of ... WooCommerce was by far the no brainer choice. I picked WooCommerce because it was fully featured. It didn't cost a lot. Even though at the time it was not as big as it is now. I liked the fact that you could get underneath and change whatever you need to change. For some people that's not a benefit because you got to know what you're doing down there. That's kinda the why. The WordPress definitely came first. If we had not had WordPress, the shopping cart probably would have been a more wide open discussion. Woo seemed to be just a no brainer when that came along.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that makes sense. There's so many different platforms out there and stuff. With the WooCommerce plugin, I imagine you have a laundry list and I'm not going to have you go through everything, but has there been one specific moment where you said, "God, I am so glad I'm using WooCommerce." On the other end of the spectrum, has there been a moment where it was like the biggest frustrating part of it that you thought, "Man, is this going to work?" And maybe you finally resolved it somehow, but it was a frustration or a challenge?
The upside of using WooCommerce
Andy Hayes: Well, I'd say the ability to really customize the user experience is what makes WooCommerce amazing. Here's a great example. When you go to look at one of our products, there's a little box that says, "hey, if you join our tea club you get free shipping." That's a great offer, right? Who doesn't want the free shipping? It gets people to go and look at what is our number one product, our subscription. A lot of shopping carts it would be this huge ordeal to try to figure out how to put that in there. On WooCommerce it was two seconds to just edit a file, throw it in there ... It look longer to decide what color we wanted the background on the box than putting in the box.
What's also nice is that box is very smart. It does not always show up. If there's an occasional thing that doesn't have free shipping, it's not there. That's pretty fancy right there. Things like that are very easy to do. We don't have a lot of heavy lifting to make things like that happen. When you can put those things in, it increases your conversions. It makes it easier for people to put more things into their cart. You can make sure that your best products, your most profitable products are front and center. That's the pro for me.
The con, and you know what I'm going to tell you, is the upgrades. WooCommerce upgrades suck and I would tell them to their face if they were here. It's terrible. We're very mindful of how we implement and track all of our customizations and yet every time that there is an upgrade, it causes us lots of problems. The difficulty with that now is our store is so high volume that we cannot be rolling out upgrades whenever we want, whenever they decide that there's an upgrade coming.
Thankfully, WordPress is not like that. WordPress auto upgrades and we don't have any problems. We could never do that with WooCommerce because it takes us at least a week to figure out what's not working and fix it before an upgrade goes through. A lot of that has to do with, in my opinion, how they're implementing their changes and they change a lot of the database structure every time they roll out a new release. They need to stop with the crazy changes like that. That's the con.
I will say to people who are like, "Oh my God. That sounds horrible." You can last a long time without doing an upgrade. Your biggest problem would be if there was a security threat that you're not addressing. There's not very many of those. There hasn't been one in a long time, that I know of. The thing is, is eventually your extensions, different other parts of the system that are connecting to WooCommerce, you'll not be able to upgrade those. You just eventually kinda get stuck.
Bob Dunn: Alright.
Andy Hayes: I think we're still one or two behind, i don't know at this point. It's not the end of the world, but I'm just saying, it's something to think about. Shopify, you wake up in the morning and they got upgraded. You don't have to do anything.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, right.
Andy Hayes: That's a big difference there.
Bob Dunn: Now, do a lot of those challenges you find with the upgrades, it is due to customizations versus adding extensions?
Andy Hayes: I would say, it's 80% customizations. Our style sheets, our specific ... We have some code to make sure that it says "This tea is quantity 1 per 1 ounce and the hot cocoa is quantity per 4 ounces." We have some things to make sure that the customers understand when they click "add to cart" how much they added. We got that question too many times so we really just made it much clearer. I would say it's 80% that and 20% conflicts with extensions.
Bob Dunn: Okay. I'm going to kinda switch out a little bit out of the tech stuff and ...
Andy Hayes: We went pretty deep there, I'm sorry.
Bob Dunn: No, that's alright because that was good. We need to understand that. Sometimes it is a rabbit hole, like I said, you just go down it and one thing just leads to another that leads to another but, I think you made some good points there.
How the subscription service caught on
I'm gonna kinda get back to the actual site. You started as a blog. Then you added products and then you created the membership or the subscription. How far between when you started adding products and deciding to do the actual subscription, or did those come hand in hand?
Andy Hayes: Well, I had the subscription to start. I had four or five teas in the subscription. I wanted to do the subscription because I like creating. I like being creative. I thought it would be a lot of fun to have people pay in advance or, like this custom tea that they would get each month. Kinda like a CSA? A community supported agriculture, where you pay the farmer in advance and then every month you get vegetables and herbs. I was thinking of the same thing. Some people would hate that because it means you have to create something every month. I like the idea. I would say after the first month the subscription took off as the more popular option.
Bob Dunn: Interesting.
Finding the right tools and forms
Andy Hayes: Yeah. I should say, I know we're going back to functional here, but I will say the subscription is the only thing not handled by WooCommerce. We use a tool called Moon Clerk which funnels them over to set up their ... Everything is with Stripe, by the way. All the payments are all Stripe, but I don't remember the time ... There were a few things that I wasn't liking about the subscriptions in WooCommerce, so we ended up just using Moon Clerk, which all it does is it just is a front end form so that people can submit their details to get a Stripe subscription going. Then they get a link with all of their coupon codes and stuff so they can buy things at their prices.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Andy Hayes: WooCommerce. It kinda works. I'm not sure because Moon Clerk doesn't offer a lot of membership management, nor does the WooCommerce subscription, so we may be trying to move to something else. Build our own database, the big leader in the space is Crate Joy which is not more expensive than anything else, but it also is the most functional. I just thought I'd throw that in there. Adding a membership does make it a little more complicated for your technology piece and particularly your management of members. If you have any sort of options for your subscription, you have to create something to manage all that and then who's paid, who's not. All that kinda thing.
Bob Dunn: I think that sometimes the whole membership thing, it sounds so easy but there are so many variables.
Andy Hayes: It does. It sounds great.
Bob Dunn: Just plug it in. Plug and play. In some instances, if you have a pretty basic membership or something, yeah that's true. But, all this other stuff comes up and obviously you went through that whole decision.
Andy’s advice for planning a membership service
Andy Hayes: My advice for this nice little summary onto that thread is, if you do want to do something that is a subscription or a membership, I encourage you to sit down with pencil and paper and think about that whole offer and what the experience is like for the customer in the long run. Once you understand all the pieces. Like, can people buy gifts? Can people pay in advance? What happens if they don't pay? How often do they ... All those things. Taxes. Blah, blah, blah. Figure all that out, then it really narrows down the technology that you need and what's going to work and not work. But really think it out in the long term. Think about a member for a whole year. How does it all play out?
Biggest challenge in selling tea online
Bob Dunn: So, with tea. I've talked to different shop owners with different products. Are there any special challenges in selling tea online?
Andy Hayes: We're not like food because we are classified as a nonvolatile, nonhazardous substance. If we sold meat or chicken, we would have a lot of regulatory hoops to go to. We actually have none. To make tea, you actually need a dry kitchen. Can't have any water. We use the flavoring oils. They're like essential oils and they're very aromatic so we have to have a place to produce tea that we won't be messing anybody else up. Bob, you make garlic sauce. You don't want our blackberry oil in your garlic sauce and we don't want your garlic in our black tea. We have to find production space that we're by ourselves. So far that's been fine. Here in Portland, real estate's expensive so that is going to be a challenge in the future, but for now we have a space that works pretty good.
As far as all the selling and shipping, I think the biggest challenge for us was finding the right packaging. I think packaging is hard just in general. It's touch. A lot of things come from China, which means you have to really shop around and make sure that you get the consistency that you want and the price that you want. I think that's been a challenge. The only other thing with tea is we use a lot of local ingredients. Believe it or not, we are very lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest because here you can ... The biggest wholesalers for rose petals, peppermint, and lavender are right here. That's very convenient.
However, the big tea plantations are in Indonesia, India, China, Japan, South Africa. Those are not close to Bob or I if you weren't sure. We have to plan in advance. We're trying to get to as close to the source as possible, right? That's what you want. Quality and know that you're supporting a company that you like and that when it says it's organic and fair trade that it really is. We do use companies that are freight forwarders, that help get things into the country through customs so that we don't have to deal with all that. Most things come in through Los Angeles or New Jersey, New York. That's a long drive to go and try to deal with something if there are problems, so we need people to help with that. It does require a little more advanced planning.
Given that our biggest thing is our tea subscription and people have already paid for that, we have to really be on top of things. How we deal with that is in January, so we just finished it for this year, we map out all of the things that we know we're doing for the year. We already know all the tea club teas that people are going to get for the entire year. All the way through February of 2018. That allows us to know that at the two month mark, we make sure that we have orders in with the right people for the things that we're going to need. We have to have time for everything to get here. We have to have time to allow for delays.
A great example is right now the weather has been terrible in the northwest, especially here in Portland. It's been absolutely terrible, but even in between, there have been freeways and highways closed because of ice and so no matter how good that FedEx driver is, if he or she has to pull over, they have to pull over. You have to just plan in advance to allow for flexibility. That's the problem with us. I know a lot of people, too, who buy electronics from China, you have the same thing. That boat, sometimes it takes 24 days, sometimes it takes 31. You don't know. We have to plan ahead. Thankfully, we have a food product with a long shelf life so that makes it a little easier for us.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. Some serious pre-planning for sure.
Andy Hayes: I like it because we get the plans done and then we don't have to worry about it. We have everything in the sauna. We have a sauna project that's just for the ordering and the management of that. January 7th, February 7th I get a list. It says, "Here's what you got to order this month. Get it in."
Looking back: the one thing Andy wishes he knew then
Bob Dunn: Cool. Now, the last question in. What is the number one thing you wish you knew in the very beginning when you started this?
Andy Hayes: One thing I wish I knew when I started.
Bob Dunn: Something that you down the road thought, "Oh, man. If only I had known this in the beginning."
Andy Hayes: I think I would have made sure to focus on things that we produce in-house. When I started I had gotten some mentoring and she was a woman who owned another tea company, but no competition. I feel like a lot of people in the tea world have the ethos of the rising tide lifts off ships. I help you, it helps all of us. She had helped me and so I was buying a lot of things from her and it was just too expensive and too difficult. I grew so fast, I almost broke her business, too. I keep running into this lesson. It's one I wish I had mastered from the beginning. If you can do it in-house, do it in-house. We have all these things. We have these bags of herbs, we have these teas, we have all these essential oils. It looks like a chemist lab, all these bottles of weird things. Potions and extracts. Honey and sugar. It's like just kind of a little magicians room down there. We have a lot of things that we can do and so every year when we're doing the planning I think like, "Oh, why don't we just make that in-house. It would be cheaper. We'd have more control, which means we'd have less problems with consistency." Again, delivery turnaround time, et cetera.
I think that's a great lesson for anyone who has a store. Think about what is best to have in-house. Sure, you can outsource an entire eCommerce business to somebody else, but then it’s a guarding the chicken house sorta thing and that's not a very fulfilling job. That's what I think people should think about.
Online shopping question: what’s Andy’s biggest frustration shopping online?
Bob Dunn: Okay. Now, before I let you go I do like to ask a couple questions. Kinda have you get out of the tea world and put on your shopping hat. I'm sure you shop quite a bit online.
Andy Hayes: Always. Of course.
Bob Dunn: Always. What is the single most thing that frustrates you as a shopper when you're online?
Andy Hayes: Bad photos or photos that don't represent what I'm going to get. Sometimes I get photos kinda crappy and I'm actually more okay with that than photos that don't help me understand what it is that I'm getting. A great example of this is when you're buying your hot tub chemicals and it has a photo of this big bottle and you're like, "Yeah. That's the one I need, Bob. Order that." Then it arrives and it's a tiny one. The photo was of the big one. I'm sure we've all been there where it said in the description somewhere in tiny print that it was four ounces and you thought you were getting a pound. Take the photo of the real thing. Then otherwise you just have to ... You have people who are disappointed and don't say anything and don't like you anymore because you sent them something that they didn't think they were getting. Or they call or email and you have to deal with refunds and all that stuff. Photos that do not represent what you're actually getting. That's my peeve.
Bob Dunn: I know that a couple times I have had that happen to me and I thought, "If they would have had something else in the photo to compare it to where you could see the size like a hand or something that they ..." Because I bought this microphone, kind of a little portable microphone and it was incredibly tiny. I didn't quite expect it to be that tiny. If they would at least have somebody holding it in their hand or something I could have saw that. I thought when I opened it, it's like, "Where's the microphone?" It almost was loss in the wiring.
Andy Hayes: They just sent me some wires. That is not what I ordered.
Online shopping question: is there anything Andy would not buy online?
Bob Dunn: Exactly. Now, is there anything that's available online that you still have to go and purchase in person?
Andy Hayes: Clothes. I don't like buying clothes online.
Bob Dunn: Okay.
Andy Hayes: It's just a thing I don't ... I want to try them on. I know that so many clothes start-ups—or not even start-ups, I guess just a lot of clothes— have free shipping and they even have ... I think I did get something the other day because it was only online. It was the Star Trek anniversary so I got something, a T-shirt related to that. I will admit that. It came in a bag that was so well designed. It had the little strip that you opened it up, and then the bag, if you didn't like it, the bag kinda inverted on itself and it could seal again and then inside on the back of the packing slip was the return thing. You could return it in like five seconds. It took longer to open it than it would take to put it back in and send it. There's just no reason for me to have to worry about that. I still really just prefer to go in, to look, run into the dressing room. Do I look like a buffoon? No. Okay, great. I'll have this one.
Bob Dunn: I'm with you there on that one.
Andy Hayes: Yeah. Sorry, clothing peeps.
Follow Andy on social media
Bob Dunn: Well, that is it. I know you've shared some excellent tips and thoughts and I want to thank you first and secondly ... Okay, there's PlumDeluxe.com but, where else should people follow you?
Andy Hayes: Yes. If you want to follow me, the place I'm only ... I seem to have a hard time updating social media these days, but I will stay with Twitter until it goes down in flames, which could be sooner rather than later perhaps, but I am AndrewGHayes. AngrewGHayes on Twitter. That's me. My personal website, I mentioned it earlier, AndyHayes.com just says, "Sorry, I'm really busy and there's nothing here for you. Go buy some tea."
To be fair, PlumDeluxe.com, the blog, is updated twice a week, sometimes three times a week with lots of really positive, motivational, inspirational content. There's always some great free downloads. Right now, it should still be up by the time this comes out, there's an emotional wellness kit that has some inspirational wallpaper, a guide to meditation, a coupon for tea. There's always some things on the Plum Deluxe website that'll make you feel better. Even if you don't drink tea, pop over and have a look.
Bob Dunn: Excellent. I will be putting out a link in the show notes and everything as well. Andy, thanks for taking some time today to spend with us and telling us a little bit more about Plum Deluxe.
Andy Hayes: Absolutely. Good luck, everyone.