Lessons Learned: By Police Officer to Wedding-products Retailer

If Erica Tevis had passed her guns test for a rookie New York police officer 12 decades back, it is highly unlikely the New Jersey woman would have turned into a wedding products online merchant.

Tevis, with a bachelor’s and master’s in criminal justice from St. John’s University and Iona College respectively, passed all of her physical and mental examinations for a homicide or special investigations detective in 2001. But she failed the last test to pull the trigger 16 times within a minute.

Instead, she turned into a sales officer for the IRS. It was while she was working there that Tevis fought to find all of the”little things” for her destination wedding ranging from wedding favors to bridal accessories — that was expensive with shipping fees from several websites.

The personalized coffee packs she gave as guest favors proved such a hit that when she had her son a year later, Tevis decided to market those online.

She researched wholesale wedding goods, and sold about 2,000 items under her eBay store,”littlethings*favors,” in 2003. Within months, she realized she could not compete against competitors undercutting her prices, while the eBay selling fees swallowed her gains.

Erica Tevis

“I read everything I could find about building a website to learning SEO and developed my first site, Two Hearts Favors, in 2006. During the next year, I understood that the platform where I built the site, while it had been standing fairly well, the backend management system left much to be desired,” Tevis said.

In August 2007, she relaunched Two Hearts Favors as wedding-products merchant LittleThingsFavors.com, which was complemented with her baby shower favors and gifts site, LittleThingsBaby.com, in 2009. Tevis says she’s been on the front page of Google for lots of her principal keyword phrases since 2007.

From her first sales on eBay in 2003 of $12,000, annual sales grew to $1.3 million in 2010, $1.9 million in 2011 and a small increase to almost $2 million in 2012.

Shopping Carts, Order Management, Hosting

Tevis can’t recall how she discovered the entry-level ecommerce company CityMax –“it was a simple drag and drop template website service online” — when she was running Two Hearts Favors. But she transferred into the Yahoo! Small Business platform in 2007 after doing some competitor analysis.

“At that moment, 8 out of 10 top-ranking sites for my primary keyword phrases were running on the Yahoo! Small Business platform. I thought that there must be something in how Yahoo! shops are indexed, or possibly the ease of use, that so a lot of my opponents were using them.”

Fees begin at $33.95 per month with a 1.5 percent transaction fee on the simple plan. Tevis pays Yahoo! $254.90 per month using a 0.75 percent transaction fee on her yearly contract.

“I use them as they have fabulous uptime, features and support. I have a dedicated account specialist and any website issues are handled instantly. They have everything I want to support a enormous catalog. The service is outstanding. The simplicity of backend management is terrific. It features analytics and a slew of resources. We have never had any problems with issues or downtime with hosting.”

Small Things Favors had a significant redesign in August 2012. In November it introduced product reviews, which Tevis believes will help SEO by earning original, unique content.

Tevis advises new merchants to compose unique product content as the search engines punish vendors with precisely the exact descriptions of products.

“If you and 100 other ecommerce sites carry the identical solution, your product won’t rank in the search result pages if your description matches everybody else’s. Rewrite your articles, and shoot your own photos and videos also. This will help distinguish you from your competitors — both with the search engines and with clients.”

Website Design

Tevis was surfing online when she found a site she enjoyed, a Yahoo! store design by Solid Cactus, in 2007. She’s used Solid Cactus since then to implement the plan, and subsequent redesigns, of Small Things Favors’ websites.

“Their service is phenomenal and I would highly recommend them for any company looking for a web design company for an ecommerce shop or blog.”

Credit Card Payments

Tevis has been using PayPal for merchant processing since 2003 and has a dedicated supervisor there.

“We have not had a problem with them. PayPal is easy to use and set up and their prices are competitive. Our prices vary from the normal rates because of the volume of sales we process . We cover 1.9 percent and a $0.29 cent transaction fee.”

Inventory Management, Shipping

Little Things Favors doesn’t stock much stock. It drop-ships its product with a few select products completed in-house. Those few products which are shipped directly to clients are sent via UPS, which Tevis has discovered to be the most reliable.

“We do not carry stock as our showroom offices and location are rather small. Carrying products would drive up costs, which in turn, would lead to increases in our retail prices. We have been drop shipping for nearly 10 years and have had very few problems with it. The important thing is to work with reputable suppliers. By fall shipping, we can maintain our retail prices .”

Employees

Tevis and her four fulltime workers work from the business’s office showroom place in Sayreville, New Jersey.

Tevis began hiring in January 2008 — four months after Small Things Favors premiered. She ensures all employees are trained in each role so the company is not affected if a person is absent.

“We’ve tried summer employees, higher school co-op programs, and hired through the regional schools for temp help during our peak months. However, I would rather hire permanent employees as they have a vested interest in the firm.”

1 full-timer handles customer support; Tevis’s office manager can conduct the daily operations if needed. The fulltime graphic designer assists with client service and social networking campaigns. And the social networking manager also manages advertising and marketing.

Tevis’s young assistant manager knows the firm inside-out also, joining her in 2008.

“I’ve trained her in SEO and she works with me to the website’s continual updates. She blogs, writes copy, answers our phones — she can do everything.”

Search Engine Optimization

Tevis learned SEO hands-on since 2003 from books, blogs, and by trial and error. She’s clearly very good at it, getting Small Things Favors on the first page of Google for lots of its keywords.

“There is not any formal school degree for SEO. So every SEO’guru’ is self-taught in some manner. I’ve performed all the SEO, SEM, SMM and SMO work and that I compete with a few really’big box’ retailers in the top places.”

She stresses that retailers shouldn’t duplicate content, but write original material that individuals might want to share with their friends online.

“When you do create articles, be it articles, blogs, infographics, or videos, make sure that there are societal sharing buttons so that your information can be shared.”

She also advises retailers to not get links from companies that guarantee you a specific number of links in a few days.

“Search engines want your connection profile to feature’organic’ key words and in many different websites. They know when you’ve bought them as your connection profile will start to expand rapidly — a direct signal that you’re building unnatural links.”

Tevis said social media is becoming important in driving visitors.

“Statistics show that 10 percent of Pinterest users purchase through photos they’ve found on the website. Set your business profiles on all the significant social networks and interact with your user base. Furthermore, users on social media do not like sales pushed onto them. So find what posts will best engage your fans.

Tevis suggests you provide photographs, links, ask your fans queries, post competitions, create information, and generally give them”exclusive” content.

Pay-per-click advertising hasn’t worked for Small Things Favors. Tevis said she’s gained the best return on investment via affiliate advertising campaigns through ShareASale.

“Our affiliates encourage us via their sites and blogs and the more visitors they send our way, the more commission they earn through every sale they generate. We pay our affiliates 10 percent per sale they generate. So it’s a win-win situation. They send us the most targeted traffic, better than any PPC campaign”

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Product Sourcing

Small Things Favors sources its products through industry trade shows. Established in the industry for nearly 10 years, the company now has vendors approach them.

Tevis started LittleThingsBaby.com as a sister site because she saw that as another step in the customer acquisition line.

“We also added party favors for all of life’s occasions to LittleThingsFavors.com to catch repeat clients. My site now boasts over 7,000 products for weddings, bridal showers, and engagement parties. But we also have a growing line of birthday party, holiday celebration, and spiritual event favors.”

Tevis notes marked differences between Generation X (older) and Generation Y (younger) in what they prefer to purchase for their weddings.

“Gen X mostly purchases traditional wedding products, while Gen Y needs unique, unique, handmade and something different for their wedding. Gen Y certainly wants their wedding to stand out and be like no other wedding their family and friends have been to,” Tevis said.

Small Things Favors’ longest-running, best-selling items include personalized apothecary jars and personalized lip balms.

“We help consumers that are searching for certain items. We had several brides lately ask us to find a manufacturer for personalized ice tea mixes for their forthcoming wedding. I contacted our beverage provider and asked they look into ice tea mixes. I’m happy to say we hope personalized ice tea and sweet tea mixes to be coming out shortly.”

Social Media

Little Things Favors includes a site , 2,386 lovers on Facebook, 1,472 Twitter followers, 75 followers on Pinterest, 79 on Tumblr, and the firm also has a presence on Foursquare.

Tevis has different approaches for each station. “We use Facebook for competitions, funny photos, questions, surveys, and exclusive content for fans. We participate in chats and conversations with fellow business professionals on Twitter. We pin unique items on Pinterest.”

Customer Service

Tevis considers Little Things Favors’ best promotional tool is happy customers who give excellent word-of-mouth promotion. The business obtains feedback via direct mail surveys and invites clients to review them on Wedding Wire.

Brides-to-be can be anxious clients, hence the Small Things Favors’ showroom is open to the public so that they can see the things they would like to buy in person.

Small Things Favors offers high quality and low price guarantees, and has received much positive feedback from clients that its prices and support is significantly better than bigger companies that also sell the very same products on the net.

Clients can find the company in the Association of Wedding Professionals, and the Jersey Shore Wedding Association, and Tevis has helped bring about the novels Planet Wedding and How To Plan Your Wedding and Revel in It!

Biggest Mistakes

Tevis believes it’s a mistake to hire family and friends since they appear to believe they have an edge and don’t need to follow the same rules as other workers.

“One of my friends left her position because of personal reasons. We were really upset to see her leave and left her position available for quite a while hoping she would return. But finally it hurt my business as my other workers had to pick up her job responsibilities.”

Tevis also regrets paying $1,800 a month for outsourced SEO.

“The company was charging me $1,800 per month to tweak five key words and write three articles, something I could now do myself in a couple of hours. That only lasted two weeks.”

She explained pay-per-click advertising with Google, Yahoo!, and Bing simply did not convert clients to sales.

“It attracted traffic, but the clients just were not ready to buy. We convert much better handling our own social websites, SEO, and social websites. That’s our greatest cost savings.

“I counsel a new merchant to learn the basics of SEO, SMM [social media marketing] and SEM [search engine marketing] themselves by buying books, reading blogs and teaching themselves until they employ any outside companies. This way they know what the firm should and shouldn’t be doing.’

Biggest Successes

Tevis cites among her greatest successes as hitting number 1 for her top keyword in the summer of 2012.

Another success has been featured on The Today Show in 2010.

“They asked us to send them samples to feature on the display. We were featured for our’double duty wedding favors’ and our’cheap favors’. It gave us a massive spike in traffic for this day, even though it was hard to tell just how much more in earnings we did just from being on the show alone as we were rated number 3 organically for our main search term’wedding favors’,” Tevis said.