Small Business Perspective Across 20 Years of Selling Online

Small Business Perspective Across 20 Years of Selling Online

Our Experience in E-Commerce

Because we like to share how things work here I thought I'd provide a small peak at what it's been like the past 20 years running a business online as a small mom & pop retailer.

My junior year of high school in 1999 I took a class on writing HMTL and websites. Not because I wanted to help my dad's business but there was a pretty girl in there I wanted to talk to. I never did talk to the girl, but I did build out a product catalog site for my day that summer working for him. It didn’t have a shopping cart at the time, but we were all surprised how many people found us online and my dad was shocked at how many people used this "inter-web-thing" to find boots and PPE for work.

While in school at Texas A&M in 2000 I'd get the occasional call from my dad about some broken links or out of date pictures for products. In true worthless college kid fashion I was always too busy to fix the site. Looking back he should have withheld my tuition if I didn't hop on it. I would have hated it, but really wouldn't have been any skin off my nose at the time. The site would basically be idle and adrift at sea in the world wide web until I left the Army and came back to take over the company in 2009.

When I came back I tore down the horrible table based pages without even a sidebar or bread crumbs for navigation. I replaced it with a simple 3 page site that included the main landing page, an about us page that was basically a line card of vendors we carried, and a contact us page with Google Map plug-in. The plug in was a highlight for me. I mean you could do something on the page and the site responded. Also note that at this time we were still using dual column ledgers to track Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable, along with hand crank machines for hand writing ALL receipts, and typewriters for invoices and checks.

The future had come to Sam's Safety Equipment.

Next I bought a huge Dreamweaver and CSS book the size of a text book to help me with coding the design of a new site. After a week I bought a Websites for Dummies book. Then things started moving along. I'd eventually refer to the textbook on CSS, but never was a pro at it. Dynamic drop down menus and an integrated Google Checkout cart were my crowning achievement. 

Our first two sales were a pair of boots to Maine and some PPE to Oregon. Basically derailing whatever math I had done on flat shipping rates. I had thought every order would be done in Texas. Another early lesson came when someone in the Philippines placed a rather large order (~$500) compared to our average order of $125. I was through the roof. We had become an international e-commerce business. Dreams of being the next Mark Cuban evaporated when Visa called to ask why we had charged a nice couple in Nebraska ~$500. Turns out after talking to Visa that 98% of international orders from the US were fraudulent. Back to the drawing board.

By 2011 we had decided to focus on a classic brick and mortar expansion strategy tied to Red Wing Shoes since that brand accounted for over half of our total annual sales, which was about $1M. We chased that strategy really hard until the oil and gas downturn in 2015. This strategy proved to be a dead end as we eventually dumped the Red Wing brand. We sold our store, truck and inventory since we didn't feel that Red Wing had been a good strategic partner for us, for a number of years and definitely would be even worse aligned in the future of our company. We still had two showrooms in 2016, but that wouldn't last long as we had to consolidate stores at the beginning of 2017 due to rising rent rates and stagnant sales in the oil & gas market which accounts for 90% of our sales.

The past year has been focused on switching to an integrated inventory, e-commerce, and invoicing system. We tried Square Point of Sale which is great in store but couldn't get the payment processing and invoicing to work out online. One of the issues is trying to find an off the shelf solution for our business model. Back in 2014 we'd invested in building our own Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution since we were anticipating continued 30% year over year growth like we had since 2009 which started winning us awards like the Aggie 100. However that nasty oil & gas downturn didn't play out in our favor or the frivolous lawsuit we'd spent two years fighting, all starting in 2015.

Now we’ve launched a managed and integrated site through Lightspeed Point of Sale (POS) which allows us to do all our inventory transactions in one place. The thing I like about Lightspeed is that it's designed for mom & pop shops (retail or restaurant) that need to have great in store experiences as well as online. All of the other platforms we've looked at didn't offer the same focus on the in store experience and taking that into the internet. My staff found Lightspeed when I had basically given up on a simple integrated solution, but I've been continuously pleasantly surprised.

My focus right now is new content for the site and products through generating new sales copy, photos and video for the site. I'm looking at this site with fresh eyes and trying to treat it as a standalone business venture in how I approach it. Love to get any feedback on the site or direction for the company.

Leave a comment