On-Island, online, in business

Skye Botanicals owner Monica Miller does two-thirds of her business online. — Photo courtesy of www.skybotanicals.com

The online world is growing exponentially, and more and more Martha’s Vineyard businesses are turning to the web to sell their products, according to several on-Island business owners who sell a range of products online.

Retail businesses face many challenges in a seasonal economy in a small town. While the challenges may also be difficult online, all the computers across the world become your store window, they say.

“It’s a way for us to expand our borders: we can reach out further,” Mike McCourt, general manager of Murdick’s Fudge, said.

“I’m a huge cheerleader for online business,” said Jenni Bick, owner of Jenni Bick Bookbinding.

Turning a page

Ms. Bick operates a successful online business. She makes personalized notebooks, photo albums, journals, and other kinds of books. Her website, jennibick.com, accounts for nearly all of her business. It’s a thriving enterprise that employs nine people at her State Road location in Vineyard Haven. She had a retail location on Main Street in Vineyard Haven until a few years ago. When her online business grew to the point where she couldn’t keep up with both, dropping the retail part of her business was an easy decision.

She struggled to think of any negative aspect of doing business online, but she could think of plenty of positive things. “I don’t have to deal with crabby customers in the store. I don’t have to be physically in the same place standing behind a counter. The biggest plus, kind of a no-brainer, is that you have an infinite marketplace. We ship all over the world. The Main Street store we had here wasn’t able to fly, primarily because we have a very small community.”

Selling products online is not as simple as throwing up a website and waiting for orders to roll in. Ms. Bick needs three people just to handle phone calls and orders generated by her website. “A lot of work needs to be done to market the site, make it visible on Google so that people searching for what you sell can find it. They find the site, they’re interested in something, they call us.”

Building a business

Over the 20 years she has been in business, Monica Miller has watched her company, Skye Botanicals, which sells handmade herbal skin care products and natural perfumes, grow to the point where she now makes about two-thirds of her sales online. She ships about 60 orders per month, some with only a few items, some to distributors with more than 100 items.

She began with absolutely no knowledge of computers and gradually built her website skyebotanicals.com into an online business that generates a modest income and allows her to live a lifestyle she loves.

“It’s a full-time income,” Ms. Miller said. “I’ve learned to live on less. I don’t do anything else.” She said when her business began, she worked part-time at other jobs, including a stint in a health food store, but she has never had a retail location. She learned part of her business strategy from her friend, the late Maynard Silva.

“Maynard said ‘keep it small, keep it all.’ What happens is you make it bigger and you have to rent space, and you’re working just to pay the rent. I’ve heard from people who got bigger and made less money. For me, it never made sense to try to do that. I like to spend time outside. Once you have a store, you’re really locked into a lifestyle that you may or may not like.”

A successful online business does not happen by accident, any more than a successful brick and mortar business does. In the beginning she distributed the products herself, but she soon realized that people who saw and liked a product bought in a store found their way to her website to find out what else was available.

A big part of her business is generated by her blog perfumepharmer.com, which is now one of the most widely read perfume blogs in the world. “I took a blogging class at ACE MV (Adult and Community Education),” Ms. Miller said. “I started a blog a couple of years ago. Making friends online was really a lot of fun, and a lot of customers came out of that. It might work or it might not. You can post about your product every week, but if you’re not funny or engaging, it’s not going to be a hook for people to get to you.”

She promotes other entrepreneurs as well as her own business on the blog, benefitting from alignment with high-quality, well-known products.

“The downside of working alone is you feel kind of lonely,” Ms. Miller said. “I really loved working in a store. I loved meeting people and helping them out.”

But mostly, she says, people envy her lifestyle. “I have too much fun and people get really mad, they say ‘let’s find a way to stop her,'” she said with a laugh.

Art onlineArtist Kara Taylor once did about one-third of her business online, but she sells a little less from her website karataylorart.com now. She attributes that to a more challenging economy. She says people buying art as an investment seem to prefer an online marketplace, and fewer people are investing in art these days.

Her online sales still account for a significant part of her fine art business. But she agrees it’s not as simple as throwing up a website. “I always update my site regularly,” Ms. Taylor said. “Every couple of years I spend some money and change things. It can be an added cost to your overhead, if you maintain it like I do.”

Some prefer to buy fine art only after they have seen the piece in a retail gallery, but Ms. Taylor said her online customers are almost always happy with their choices.

“I’ve very rarely had someone buy something and not been satisfied and return it,” Ms. Taylor said. “The painting always looks even better than the picture on the website.”

Getting customers to a website is often just as difficult as getting customers into a retail store. The marketing mechanics, however, are different. Over the years, Ms. Taylor has collected thousands of email addresses from people who visit her store, or sign up online.

“I do a lot of email blasts,” Ms. Taylor said. “That’s a great way to sell; that’s the best for advertising. It doesn’t cost me anything and it reaches thousands of people.”

Cyber fudge?

Mr. McCourt also uses email to sell Murdick’s Fudge online at murdicks.com, especially this time of year. “We’re always working on our email list,” Mr. McCourt said. “I send out approximately 10 to 15 email blasts a year. Those work really well, because it’s our own list, we don’t go out and buy a list. We try to grow that all the time.”

He says that online sales make up about seven percent of his business, and it grows every year. Increasingly, he is turning to the social media site Facebook to keep his business name in front of potential customers.

“We’re getting better at understanding Facebook and what that can do for you,” Mr. McCourt said. “We put specials up there, events we’re having, and it does get the word out. As that grows and as our followers grow, that’s going to be more and more vital.”

The online business is not strong enough now, however, to sustain Murdick’s through the off-season. The website is only available when the stores are open and producing fudge.

“I think there’s a possibility of that,” Mr. McCourt said. “The walk-in business, the online business, the two work well together. To do just the online business in the off-season, right now would be difficult.”