Sunday, January 15, 2012

:: on limits and e-commerce ::

i've spent a good portion of all available free time over the last three weeks -- which admittedly, with the holidays and moving into the new studio and all, hasn't been much free time -- working on the e-commerce site for the new print shop.

any of you who has spent any time setting up, comparing, designing, or implementing an e-commerce site feels my pain, i'm sure.

and all that pain has been tripled as i've simultaneously developed three different carts at the same time, pitting each against the others in a battle of design accessibility, pure e-commerce power, technical support, customer service, and ease of use.

i've run the up up creative e-comm site on, i realized recently, four different e-commerce platforms over the span of not-quite-two-years and i've extensively tested an additional three platforms.

each has its strengths and weaknesses. each drew me in for one reason and drove me away for another.

just a few days ago i got a very kind email from someone who had been visiting my up up creative e-comm website for inspiration as she looks to build her own stationery biz site in the coming months. she cited mine as being very user friendly, i think. i get weekly emails asking who designed it. so i like to think that it's a decent site.

but i'm here to tell you: i often consider nixing the e-commerce functionality on that site.

i'm sitting here on a sunday night wondering why i'm spending so much time developing an e-commerce presence for aper and pink (the new print shop, for any uninitiated folks out there in readerland).

there are a few reasons why, but chief among them are these:

1 - the custom design and print-shop work i do is complicated. people have questions. they have special requests, want special sizes, want to combine and uncombine and recombine things. they think their project is different, somehow, than what they're seeing on the page in front of them, and often they're right: it is different. having a functional e-commerce site tends, in my experience, to make people see limitations as brick walls. if only five sizes are listed for sale on an e-commerce website, it's easy to assume that those are the only five sizes available.

2 - i do not see myself in the goods business as much as i see myself in the service business. sure, my customers and clients walk away with tangible (and sometimes intangible) goods, but the value that they get from coming to me rather than going to someone else is that i provide a service. i make their lives easier, or i accomplish something they didn't think could be accomplished. i think e-commerce sites work very well for goods-based businesses but do not apply quite so neatly to businesses like mine when part of the lure is that you can get something made just for you.

3 - i am equally ignited in my work by two things: the things i create and the people i create them for. i like working with and speaking to those people at least somewhat directly (if digitally over email, much of the time). e-commerce sites, when they work properly, they make it so that the buyer and the seller needn't interact. this is the thing that's perhaps got me the most hung up. i don't like not interacting.

4 - i do pretty alright, sales-wise. my business continues to grow. but here's a little secret: the percentage of my income that comes from sales through is, well, insignificant would be too harsh a word, but it's close. most of my sales come from emails, phone calls, or convos on etsy. they come from someone asking me a question and me answering it. and i kind of think that's the way it should be.

of course i insist on doing much of my shopping online. i don't like pushy sales people. i don't even like pushy sales emails. i am turned off by sales, discounts, and promotions. i know what i like, what i want, and what i need and i don't need anybody trying to convince me of anything. but if i'm looking to buy something complicated, or special, or whatever, i prefer for there to be a person on the other end of things.

and on the other hand…

nothing makes me crazier than a lame website. i like knowing enough to be able to create kick-ass websites for my businesses that do what they need to do and do it well. i've (gasp!) enjoyed working through the development of these three side-by-side comparison demos of the new shop because it's rewarding making the technology bend to my will and do it prettily.

i just wonder if it's worth my time when it may actually work at cross purposes to my businesses' objectives. sure, e-commerce sites may save me time processing orders and sending and chasing after invoices, but they do not help me build, for example, a safe haven for graphic designers who want high-quality, kick-ass print services they can't get elsewhere. they don't help me convince my wedding and print customers that the sky's the limit. instead, they suggest quite the opposite: that there's a very specific set of parameters defining what's possible.

i realize it's crazy, but i'm considering heading off in a new direction with my websites. i'm considering turning away from e-commerce and towards gallery- and info-based sites. it's very 2004, i know. give potential customers as much as i can in terms of inspiration and information (pricing, ideas, etc.) but then let them come to me when it comes time to order, which is what many of them do now anyway.

what do you think?