Should You Start a Home-Based Animal-themed Gift Store?
By Paula Fitzsimmons
Have you ever seen a darling pair of dachshund earrings, a must-have giraffe tee-shirt, or a hand-crafted cat toy, and thought, I could sell that or I could make that. Selling your wares online may seem straight-forward enough (and in some regards it is once you gain experience) but there’s much more to the process than slapping a few products on a website and hoping for sales.
It’s imperative to know what you’re doing – not just in order to succeed, but to avoid losing your money – or sanity – in the process.
One of my previous income streams was running an online gift shop. All the items I sold – which consisted of animal-themed totes, jewelry, socks, and such – were cruelty-free. And most were made in the USA, fairly-traded, and eco-friendly. . . yes, I was very mindful of whom I did business with.
For a few years, profits were solid . . .until about 2008, when the Great Recession hit. Then two things happened: consumers suddenly had less access to disposable income available, which hit retail hard. And there was a noted increase in resellers entering the field in hopes of earning a full or side income – so competition greatly increased. The economic downturn was just one reason I closed my store; the business was no longer challenging or fun.
I can’t tell you whether or not to open an online store or sell online, because I encourage you to decide this for yourself. But I can tell you about some of the benefits and drawbacks (as I see them), and offer tips and resources for how to succeed.
• Being your own boss. Creating a business from scratch and watching it grow into something you can be proud of, is pretty satisfying. And if you create your own wares, you benefit from knowing others love your work. (Note: owning a store isn’t the only way to accomplish this.)
• Learning new skills. I learned a lot of valuable things, including great picture taking, effective marketing and promotion, and numerous new software programs, to name a few. These are skills which I still find useful.
• Sourcing items. This one could also easily be placed in the Drawbacks section. It can be quite difficult to find sustainably-made, quality, marketable, profitable items. But when you do, it’s quite a sense of achievement.
And the drawbacks
• Facing constant competition. If 20 online stores are selling the same item, each trying to out price the other to make the sale, you can quickly become caught in a race to the bottom . . . which can impact your profit margin.
• Not being able to get away for long periods of time. If you have employees or partners this is not as big an issue, but it was for me as a solo entrepreneur – especially during the holidays. Somebody has to be on-hand to answer questions, solve problems, and ship packages.
• Dealing with unrealistic consumer expectations. Some of the larger stores have set standards that are insanely high, in my opinion. People have come to expect rock-bottom prices, low or no shipping costs, and super-sonic delivery. It can be difficult for small shops to keep pace.
• Finding new customers. It can be a challenge, especially for newer and smaller stores with non-existent marketing budgets. Setting up a store or placing some items online does not guarantee sales. You really have to work at finding – and keeping – customers.
What can you sell?
The following are some general categories, but whatever you decide to sell should ideally be unique, to lessen competition. Most importantly, don’t copy someone else’s idea or business model – do your own thing.
Coupon deals. You’ve probably heard of coupon books, but what about trying something innovative, like City Tins does? The premise of securing discount coupons from vendors is the same, but the presentation is much different. Can you offer something unique that might appeal to animal lovers in your area?
Subscription boxes. These are quite popular right now – Graze, Bark Box, and VeganCuts are just a few companies who offer this service. What can you offer that’s unique and different? (Please note that Vegan Cuts is an affiliate link. When you click the link and purchase a product, it may result in my earning a commission.)
Handcrafted items. If you’re able to create your own jewelry, tee shirts, bags, companion animal toys, home decor, or other items, you’re in a good position because what you offer is unique. Etsy is just one venue specializing in handcrafted merchandise. This article, which appeared in Business News Daily, explores some alternative markets for indie artists.
Information products. What topic do you know about (or that you can research) that can be turned into a book or e-book? Self-publishing has come a long way in just the past few years, and is easier for more to achieve. There are several awesome (and not so awesome) guides and resources for would-be self-published authors. One I like is Joanna Penn’s Author 2.0 Blueprint, which is free to download.
If you do decide to forge ahead
• Find unique merchandise to sell. I can’t stress this enough. It’s hard to make a profit if a large number of other stores are selling identical items. Creating your own product, or making an arrangement with an artist or manufacturer is ideal.
• Partner with an animal welfare group. I partnered with Born Free USA, as well as a local animal rescue, donating 20 percent of sales they helped generate for me. This is a great way to find new customers, establish good will, and donate money to a worthy cause.
• Do things differently and be willing to evolve. Cookie-cutter doesn’t work well in the e-commerce world. You have to find a way to differentiate yourself from the myriad of stores out there.
• Realize that retail is not an fast and easy way to make a living. And expect to put in long hours, especially at the start and during busy seasons.
Of course you’re in business to make a profit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run it ethically. Are your items sourced ethically, with regard for people, animals, and the planet? Can you trust your vendors and business partners? Are you truthful with your customers?
• Keep your sanity and start slowly. There’s a lot to learn, making it easy to become overwhelmed. And don’t spend more than you earn.
• Use sustainable shipping materials. Don’t add to the massive waste already being generated. Opt for less packaging, and use environmentally-friendly shipping materials, including those made of post-consumer recycled content, and that are biodegradable.
• Consider selling your wares via other venues. Selling online is one option, but there are others. For instance, this Penny Hoarder article offers tips on how to sell your handmade wares to local stores. As with many other things, diversifying is a wise move.
Running an online store or even selling a few hand-crafted items on a venue such as Etsy can be satisfying, but there are also potential drawbacks that you should be aware of before forging ahead. My best advice is this – learn all you can about this business; sell items that are unique and hard-to-find; operate your business ethically; and stand apart from the vast number of other sellers. If you can make a difference while making a profit, even better.