Almost everyone in our industry has some kind of showroom and sales force. It may be nothing more than a box of samples but, realize it or not, that’s a common type of showroom. Whatever you use, the problem is keeping it up to date, complete, clean, attractive and useful. For those who have a brick and mortar store, this is an on-going challenge. But have you heard that there is a new sheriff in town? It’s called the “virtual showroom,” an effective selling tool that can be used both inside and outside of the traditional showroom.
When I entered the engraving business in late 1989, there was a technological revolution going on. At the time, I was one of the few in the country to learn how to digitize and engrave logos in-house using a computerized engraving machine and that knowledge caused my business to boom. It was exciting to be on the cutting edge during this time in our industry. During the next ten years or so, more and more people learned how to digitize, lasers became more user-friendly and versatile, CorelDRAW users proliferated and the computerized engraving industry matured. That decade of maturing was nice. Not only were we making money from the new technologies, but we had time to adjust and become more comfortable with where the industry and computers were going.
WOW! What happened after that decade or so and what continues to happen today is mind blowing. The new technology is coming so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up with it. Software is upgraded sometimes daily now that the cloud is becoming its home, computer speeds are soaring, and lasers and inkjet printers are doing things we only fantasized about 20 years ago.
Along with all the technological changes, suppliers have continued to increase what they offer at such a rate that most showrooms are either completely outdated or overflowing with new products. Thousands upon thousands of products are available and there is no way on earth to fit them all into a traditional showroom. How on earth can even a large company display all of the cool stuff available, let alone the little shop owner who not only handles the sales but also does the engraving and cleans the restroom to boot?
When I entered the business, $20,000 would buy you a computer, rotary engraver, inventory and samples for a nice showroom. Today, it would cost a million dollars just to show all the products available in the personalization industry, not to mention sublimation, direct print, promotional products and all the other niches we have wandered into.
In the words of the comedian Ollie of Laurel and Hardy fame, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” And it is a nice mess to have: More products than we can display, more options than we can count. But how do we manage it all? Do we build a showroom the size of a sports arena and spend money like it was water to fill it with samples?
There are multiple answers to this question and I will cover a few of them in this article for your consideration. To be sure, we will have to become better marketers and face the challenge head-on if we are going to remain competitive.
One way to show a big selection of the products we can offer is to develop an extensive website or multiple websites to showcase all of the products. A few engraving shops have done this, but most of us can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars to a web designer to create a really professional site nor to maintain it and keep it current. In fact, I suspect that most shop owners probably create their own sites and find that the process ends up being incredibly time-consuming and unproductive. Add to that the reality that most companies that have expansive websites don’t report glowing bottom lines—at least not due to the website alone. Yet it is something of a necessary evil. You need a presence, but to think that a good website alone will pay the bills is probably unrealistic. Some trade organizations like SAGE offer considerable help with website design for promotional product distributors, but no one has really done much of this for the recognition and personalization industry. Currently, many of us in this industry have to pretty much get along the best we can with what we can afford.
There are a few glimmerings on the horizon, however, and taking advantage of them could be extremely productive in moving our stores into the Internet age.
THE MOBILE SHOWROOM
The most productive tool of all for creating a wide-ranging showroom could very well be the electronic tablet, such as an iPad, MS Surface Pro or some other variation of a Wi-Fi enabled device with a decent size screen. Cell phones also come into play here but even with the newer, larger screens, they have severe size limitations whereas a tablet can produce an image large enough for an entire room to see and can be wirelessly connected to a projector, etc. The advantage of a cell phone is that you usually have it with you no matter where you go.
With a tablet, you can load or access a variety of selling tools and virtual samples on one device that can be carried around and used anywhere there is Wi-Fi, and they are great to use in a traditional showroom too! Having one or more of these available to your customers allows them to “shop” for thousands of products that you can’t physically stock in your brick and mortar showroom—if you even have one.
The real magic comes when you take your tablet showroom on the road. With this $200-$800 device, you can carry most every catalog in our industry without lugging a single piece of paper, and have samples of your own work plus thousands of additional products all at your fingertips. The possibilities are endless and it can be yours for the cost of a tablet and a little time.
One hurdle to this approach is that there are a fair number of companies in our industry that don’t offer an online catalog without pricing. However, more and more companies are working to offer this selling tool. For example, Condé Systems, Mobile, AL, just recently introduced an unbranded, unpriced sublimation products catalog for online use that works perfectly for a virtual showroom. Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT, offers four different dealer catalogs. All you need to do is download the catalog and/or link to it through your own website. When possible, I like to have both a PDF and a link to each catalog. The reason for both is that a PDF works when there is no Wi-Fi available but it doesn’t allow for the search feature which is really helpful for super large catalogs like the ones from Marco Awards Group. Having to take several minutes to find a product by flipping pages isn’t helpful to your image or your sale.
Using a branded catalog with the supplier’s name on it can be a disadvantage since it arms customers with the information they need to do online research themselves, although I don’t think I have ever had a person actually do that in lieu of buying from me. Promotional product companies have, for years, labeled their marketing tools with a fictitious name that doesn’t lead the customer back to the supplier when searched for online or through other sources.
Likewise, using catalogs that list prices can also be tricky. When I absolutely have to use a catalog with prices, I cover the prices with a Post It note and don’t let the customer actually take the tablet from my hand. I admit, it is very awkward and these catalogs can’t be used on devices the public has free access to.
Other industries are light years ahead of us in this field. Programming companies like SAGE, which has partnered with the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), offers 80,000+ products through one gateway for an annual fee. They do all the work, including updating the products, refining the search engines and incorporating your name and logo into the site. This is definitely what we need in our industry but until that happens, you can create your own and, while it may not be as efficient and fluid as the SAGE/PPAI software, it can get the job done.
The one requirement for creating your own virtual showroom is that you must know your products, who sells them and pricing information. I have tried to convince some suppliers in our industry to help us with pricing by incorporating the net price of a single item into the product codes in unpriced catalogs. It might work like this: If the product code for an item is TIE002 and the price for a single piece is $3.69, the final product code would be TIE002-0369. It may not be a perfect solution, but it would give us the information we need to price products “on the fly” rather than just leaving pricing out altogether or making up some inflated retail price that does more harm than good.
See the sidebar accompanying this article for examples of industry suppliers that offer catalogs, many of which are active on my tablet. Of course, there are many more sites and catalogs available. You will probably want to create your own list of what you use or might logically use with a potential client. To organize the catalogs on my tablet, I created a “shortcut” to each catalog’s hyperlink and then moved them all to a single folder on my desktop named “Catalogs.” (Right click on your desktop, click on “shortcut,” fill in the blank with the link, title it and move it into a folder.)
Remember, the key to this marketing/sales approach is that you know your products and, hopefully, you can find and open the catalog that you need quickly. Having to hunt for the right catalog while saying, “I know it is here somewhere” is death to a sale.
Although you don’t want to overdo it by including every catalog known to man (after all, you can always do a Google search for something you normally don’t sell), you do need a reasonable sampling of the products you are most likely to sell. In some cases, it’s just better to say, “I’ll do a little research on that and get back to you later today” than to stumble and hunt for something unique to you. What you don’t want to do is let that customer go to someone else for anything related to what you do if you can help it. “One-stop shopping” is the theme of this decade and people will pay more for an item if they can consolidate trips.
Some companies, especially those without suitable catalogs online, will provide you with pictures from their catalogs for your use. You can download these and create your own catalog of “Best Selling Products.” And by all means, take photos of your own work. Getting into the habit of taking pictures of my own creations has been difficult, but I’m beginning to get a small collection. These are, without a doubt, the most useful selling tool I have.
Asking customers to add a link to your website (assuming you have one you can be proud of) through their own websites is a great way to gain exposure for your personalized products. Many places such as schools, churches, civic and community organizations, clubs and hobby groups are willing to do this—often with no compensation. To make it work, the best idea is to have photographic samples of products that people visiting those sites might want to buy. A school, for instance, might want to see license plates, picture frames, key chains and T-shirts with their mascot on them and personalized with a name. Or a funeral home might want to have a link to the personalized memorial gifts that you offer. Within your website, it is easy to create a page with samples for each of the groups who link to your site and direct their link to that page. This is most effective when you are set up to accept payment for products on line. The process is time-consuming at first, but if the organization is large enough and your samples hit the desires of your potential customers, it is worth it.
A company called iPersonalyze Network is offering what they call a personalization app that is a software solution that may well revolutionize our industry. The app is essentially an “online designer” that allows customers to personalize the products they wish to buy themselves and then you simply fulfill the order. Designed to interface with Facebook (that’s where people store their favorite photos), this package can also be embedded into any ecommerce site via a link or the company will build you a new site.
The app offers a total package of product sales from start to finish, allowing the customer to choose the product, create the design and pay via credit card. All you have to do is produce the product and ship it out—no design work on your part, no mistakes to worry about, no proofs to send—just download the file the customer creates, sublimate or engrave it and ship it.
Currently the program offers all of Condé System’s sublimatable products and you can also import your own products, including laser engraved items, direct print items, etc. The company indicates that they expect to add products from other distributors as well. The cost of the program ranges from $59 to $99 per month and the packages vary in what they include, so those interested will want to consider the options carefully. At the time of this writing, I haven’t done anything with the program, but I intend to try it out as soon as possible. This is a great solution for those who don’t know or don’t want to learn CorelDRAW but want to sell personalized products. The packages are all-inclusive with a merchant account, personalized pages and total control over what products are available and what the prices are. There is even an option to allow someone else to produce the products for you that you can’t make in-house. Billing, accounting, and all payments are done automatically. Even when someone makes a product on your behalf, they will be paid automatically directly from your account. No checks to write, no records to keep. It is all done for you. This is just about as “idiot proof” as it gets and iPersonalyze’s CEO promises this is only the beginning.
Although I hate to give away this secret, Amazon and eBay are excellent opportunities to market our products. I list selected items in both locations and although it certainly doesn’t pay the bills, I ship an item for one of these every day of the week. These are sales I would not otherwise have and the cost for posting them on the sites is low. The key to both is making it easy for the customer to find your product, so select your key search words in Amazon and your title in eBay very carefully. If your product doesn’t sell, change the title.
Personalized products will sell on these sites, although the customer has to send you a message or email with the message to be engraved because the sites aren’t specifically set up for personalized products. Still, I offer numerous personalized items, including laser engraved coffee cups, gift items, coasters, gift boxes, etc. Items that can be used as wedding gifts for the bridesmaids and groomsmen, such as flasks and photo albums, are excellent sellers. Interestingly, so are gavels and gavel sounding blocks. I suggest you price your product to include engraving and then advertise FREE engraving which promotes the idea that they aren’t paying any extra for personalization. I also sell a variety of items that aren’t personalized, including wall hangings, engraving tools and a CD of photographs I have put together.
Products sold through these online sellers obviously require shipping. Amazon’s method of calculating shipping is a bit strange and complicated to customize. Even offering free shipping on a product and building the cost into the product is complicated (you have to build an Excel sheet and import it into their software) and usually isn’t worth the effort. To save time and mistakes, I set up my products in Amazon, note what they determine a good shipping rate is and adjust my selling price accordingly.
Amazon also offers a service where they will inventory your products that don’t require personalization and ship them for you. This affords customers the opportunity to use their Prime accounts and receive free two-day shipping. It also takes the hassle of shipping off of you. However, this should only be done with items that are proven sellers since there are fees for this service and it ties up your inventory over three or more Amazon locations.
Selling on eBay is really easier and offers a variety of options. You can set your own shipping costs or ship free and build the shipping into the cost. You can also easily make changes to how your product is listed and how it is going to be sold. You can auction it off, which sometimes produces surprising results, or you can set a starting price and let bidding start from the least amount you will accept or you can just set a price and offer your item for sale.
Having a good, professional looking photograph of your item is key to selling on any of these sites. Remember, too, that these sites have a lot of fees so don’t forget to build them into your price. Payment on eBay sales is through PayPal. Setting up a seller’s account with PayPal is easy and quick. They pay directly into your checking account at the end of each month so you don’t get immediate payment. It is like having them on a net 30 account. All the fees, etc., come out of that amount before they make the deposit so accounting is easy.
TIP: Try to focus on selling higher ticket items to help justify your time. Taking pictures and posting them on either of these sites is time-consuming. Selling items you make only a few dollars on is fine, but selling an item you can make $20 or more on after fees makes this method far more attractive. I sell a fair amount of $20 items but an equal number of $70 items so higher priced items DO sell.
TIP: I have found that selling on eBay and Amazon is a great way to get rid of old inventory. I have actually seen what I call a “buying spree” on products that I couldn’t give away otherwise. It was amazing. Try it, you have nothing to lose.
Some say people won’t buy these products and pay shipping on top of the price, and to some degree that has to be true. Yet, I sell products every day that have shipping attached which proves that if people find what they want, they will pay a reasonable price plus shipping to get it.
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