Lessons Learned: Making Online Bed Shopping a Fantasy

When Sara Shikhman was 10 years old, she left communist Ukraine with her parents on a one-way ticket across the Atlantic Ocean, and $5,000 concealed in a set of screwdrivers, to become a part of the American Dream.

Sara Shikhman

Not able to speak or read English, her encouraged parents helped her to learn the language quickly and soon she excelled at school, outpacing her peers.

Earning a B.A. in Finance from Pace University in New York in 2003, Shikhman was among the earliest Pace graduates to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2006.

“I thought I wanted to become a corporate attorney, and practiced for six decades,” Shikhman stated.

Living and working in Manhattan, she just did not have the time to look for furniture for her new flat, nor did she enjoy being hassled by pushy salespeople in-store.

Around the same time, she was beginning to get the world of corporate law overly rigid and looked for a different opportunity.

Shikhman, her fiancé, and two college friends who possessed several brick-and-mortar furniture stores across the Eastern shore, saw a chance to use the buddies’ existing infrastructure of manufacturers and vendors to sell furniture online.

“The four people started our site, BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com, in 2010 with only $25,000 between us, generating $100,000 in sales our first year,” Shikhman stated.

“At the end of 2011, our $3 million in online sales surpassed the sales of most our partners’ brick-and-mortar shops combined, more than doubling again in 2012 to $8 million.”

Ecommerce Shopping Carts

Shikhman had no experience with online shopping carts and did not even know what that phrase meant in the beginning. But she knew her firm had to be highly specific with prospective developers to get fantastic results.

The four business partners wrote a 20-page specifications document describing exactly how they wanted their website to look, function, and connect together.

In general, it needed to be as simple as possible for customers to use the site and to buy.

“We weren’t searching for a website that was going to win any design awards, nor did we have the funds to afford one. We had to prove our concept before we ran out of cash.”

The shopping cart needed to work with a single back-end and multiple online storefronts, it’d been customized, and be cheap.

“Our first internet developer suggested the open-source Magento Community Edition platform and this information turned out to be spot-on as Magento, which was acquired by eBay in 2011, is now the leader in the web shop platform stadium.”

Shikhman’s other suppliers, such as LivePerson (that offers live chat and other dynamic user experiences) and TurnTo (that offers social Q & A), incorporated seamlessly with Magento, saving her thousands in development costs.

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Website Design

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com sought bids from five site design companies, awarding the design and development to Massachusetts company Knectar Design.

“While Knectar was not the cheapest supplier and the process took longer than anticipated, we did receive an excellent product for our funding of $20,000. A lot of the logic and structure put in place by Knectar still exists now.”

Shikhman said her first website was fairly slow, taking several seconds for anything to happen. Additionally, the company did not advertise its telephone number nor did it have a live chat function.

“Customers had no way to get in touch with us immediately and by the time we replied via email, clients had already moved on.”

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com is presently undertaking a redesign to make its site visuals more user-friendly and attractive.

Credit Card Payments

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com’s average order total is approximately $2,000, which is deemed high risk by credit card processing companies who need to safeguard against fraud and chargebacks.

“Our supplier, First Data, recently told us that they should maintain $650,000 [of our sales profits ] in book at any time. The money is ours, but we can not access it and we are working with First Data now to decrease this reserve.”

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com offers a number of payment procedures, such as Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, Google Checkout, and it’s currently incorporating Amazon Payments.

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com

Order Management

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com built its patent-pending Streamline applications about 18 months ago which includes order management, leads management, and vendor relations.

“It has worked so well that additional furniture companies have started licensing it at TryStreamline.com, which is now a second revenue stream for us,” stated Shikhman.

The Streamline software integrates with Magento, LivePerson, and Telephone Tracking Metrics making BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com’s entire sales and ordering process easy, organized, and efficient, based on Shikhman.

“It monitors and follows up on telephone calls or chat messages, examines keywords through LivePerson’s keyword targeting solution to give a lead for a sales person to follow up on, and our delivery partners can log into the database to upgrade orders.”

Employees

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com started with four partners and has grown to 20 employees in its New York headquarters, and 20 contractors around the world.

Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing

Shikhman currently spends 5% of earnings on Google AdWords and 1 to 2% on several other procedures of advertisements, such as SEO and social media.

When the website was initially started, the partners spent their entire advertising budget of $1,000 on Google AdWords, using generic keywords they believed would bring clients, only to receive a grand total of zero sales in return.

“I will always remember the 1 client we had within the first four weeks — we had been emailing her all the time,” Shikhman stated.

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com initially used Tangence, a marketing company, for SEO services but stopped working with them because of a lack of transparency. It currently conducts SEO in-house. Shikhman currently uses Terrakon for keyword optimization solutions.

One year ago, Shikhman noticed that the market was becoming more aggressive, and the organization’s conversion rates had plateaued.

“We’d maxed out our yearly budget of $25,000 on Google AdWords and knew we had to do something more.”

She found LivePerson’s”Keyword Lift,” which examines her company’s search marketing campaign information and delivers targeted pop-up messages for her clients, providing the best potential to boost return on investment.

“The pop-up message is unique to each client based on what they have searched for in the past, and appears in the ideal time, dramatically increasing conversions”

In the first days, Shikhman spent an hour each week looking at and learning from her competitors’ websites.

“Sometimes I see new features on their websites that look and feel just like ones we have and I am flattered by the imitation. I often check SpyFu and Compete.”

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Shipping

Despite its title, BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com does not compete on price.

“Our advantage is very good service, terrific shipping partners and quality furniture. We only sell products that we would put into our own house.”

Shikhman said her company can’t send furniture through FedEx.

“This isn’t because FedEx is poor, but because furniture is not packed to ship long distances on a truck in which you will find also refrigerators, stoves, and novels. We only ship through companies that specialize in furniture transport; these firms often end up being the most expensive.”

Common orders have many cost components: cost of goods sold; cargo through a specialty furniture store that hand-moves products rather than using forklifts to minimize damages; and a white glove delivery service which receives the purchase, inspects all things, delivers and assembles the furniture at the customer’s house.

“Our aim is to minimize any damages and maximize customer satisfaction. This is costly, but assembles long-term price. This is where we would like to differentiate ourselves.”

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com retains its bestsellers in stock, and buys the rest from various vendors once customers make their purchases.

The order fulfillment process can take 4 to 6 months from the date of this order until the furniture is from the customer’s house, as a result of the multiple actions and vendors involved.

Social Media

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com encourages its clients to share what they have purchased upon checkout.

It’s over 8,200 followers on Facebook; roughly a quarter of them interact with the business page daily and provide advice and feedback.

“We also have an active Instagram account where we post inspirational bits — stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily place on your house but that motivates you to find creative no matter what your budget or style is.”

Shikhman can’t attribute certain sales to Facebook but understands customers check the business’s ratings on the web and visits the business’s Facebook page as they start their pre-purchase”due diligence” thanks to its Assisted Conversions report from Google Analytics.

Expense Control and Accounting Software

“Every section prepares budgets for what they would like to operate on, and we review financials often to avoid spending more than is needed. We do not use any automated method to track control, but do utilize the financial ratios that QuickBooks provides.”

Customer Service

In spite of the multiple online images, product descriptions and measurements provided on BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com’s site, being unable to touch the furniture before purchase generates a challenge for many clients.

Earlier BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com introduced live chat in early 2011, clients could only contact the business via email, and also the delay in reaction resulted in reduced satisfaction prices.

BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com soon added its telephone number on the web site for sales and customer service, integrated live chat via LivePerson, included a societal questions-and-answers attribute via TurnTo, and assembled the Streamline platform for customers to track their orders, vendors to upgrade their orders, and salespeople to handle their leads.

The increase in transparency and accessibility paid off.

“After about a year, we started seeing an increasing number of repeat clients who became comfortable buying with no additional contact or support — their previous experience was so positive that they did not have any more questions or hesitation,” said Shikhman.

“We picked LivePerson chat since it provided easy integration, was easy to scale, and required no technical tools. It was so simple to install that our advertising intern installed it and he did not know anything about IT. Individuals can log in from wherever they are, which is another advantage.”

Biggest Mistakes

Shikhman said one of her greatest mistakes was thinking she could train anyone to do a excellent job.

“I learned the hard way: to get high performance, you will need to hire top performers. However, the truth is you can not always teach determination and enthusiasm.

“We hired the wrong men and women who simply were not performing as we expected. We have learned today what makes a great employee, and we are better at hiring people around the job. I take time each week to coach and mentor our employees, which has shown to boost performance and boost morale.”

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Biggest Successes

Shikhman is proud of instructing herself, — and then her in-house advertising team — the best way to get real results from Google AdWords, where BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com spends approximately half a million dollars each year.

“You can wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me a question about Google AdWords and my response will be as great as any agency out there. Optimizing our advertising is an ongoing process that I enjoy very much.

“The results prove that it is still working. At precisely the exact same time our advertising team and I’m constantly reading about new features, trying new things, and staying engaged.”