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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Halloween 2011: Never Again and What's Changed

It's all in the title. Halloween 2011 was sheer madness and not something I will ever repeat! What was in the beginning of the season casually being referred to as Halloween Madness ended up as a disaster toward the end and the stress I experienced was absolutely awful. If you are thinking of starting an online shop, take the lessons below to heart because they can not only make or break a small company but they can also easily bring you to the edge where sanity no longer sees straight!

Halloween has always been a tough holiday to become involved in from a costume-making perspective because despite how much money people spend for the holiday, it is time sensitive, and unlike other holidays such as Christmas, customers tend to think about Halloween 2 weeks or so prior to the holiday and getting custom orders finished and shipped out in that period of time can wreak havoc if you take on too much. It's tempting if you sew just about everything like I do, but it's also rather tricky as well.

I tried to keep it simple this year and decided ahead of time that I would offer a total of 5 costumes that could be ordered as custom orders. My intent was also to add costumes toward the end that were ready-made, and also different than the 5 different custom costumes I was offering, but unfortunately that never happened. I offered the Male and Female Garden Gnome costumes (young/ adult sizes available), Bam Bam and Pebbles, (Bam Bam coming with a hair piece that matched the shorts and a felted club, and the Pebbles costume which included a matching bone hairclip), and the Mummy Wrap Dress.

Somehow, despite only offering 5 costumes for the Halloween Season, chaos quickly swooped in and what was steady costume making for over 120+ custom Halloween costumes turned into a disaster! It took a lot longer to put together the costume sets than I expected, and I ended up sewing so much that not only were my hands just worn like you would not believe, but I ended up in front of the sewing machines day and night for weeks and those last 4 days before everything had to ship (time was running out!) I went without sleep for 2 days except for 4 hrs, and then the final 2 days with no sleep at all. So by the time I shipped the rest of the packages express I was literally running on empty-with only 4 hrs of sleep in 4 days. There was no way I could keep up at that point.

Every time I stopped in to check on the shop I would have 25+ messages from customers, and within each message, a stream of messages from that one person. I tried to message everyone back but messages were bouncing back, people were angry saying I wasn't getting back to them, and then cancelling orders as I desperately tried to email everyone their tracking info. And the shipping log..not updated! How could it possibly have been...since I fell asleep on it in front of the computer monitor at 3am after having desperately tried to organize and update it.

In the end some orders were cancelled, and despite having tried to get in touch with everyone, it was just too much for one person. Next year I plan to have someone help me, and until then, I took a few weeks off after the Halloween awfulness to catch up and make sure everyone had their refunds and such. The saddest thing for me was that despite my best efforts, it was still a mess and the hate emails were just awful! That almost perfect customer happiness rating dropped down to an awful 91% and despite the messages and tracking info and details and returns and exchanges and the best of my efforts, it just still ended up awful.

So, as I begin to work on other blog posts and move into the winter holidays I just wanted to offer a personal apology to my 2011 Halloween customers. I have never experienced such order chaos or lateness or disaster on so many fronts. Organization in the last few weeks however has greatly improved my Craftzies functionality across the board, and areas I know I desperately needed to work on prior to the Halloween disaster are just humming along from order placement to shipping these days. I really needed to take the time to re-develope how I was doing business and so, as unhappy and depressed as I was over the Halloween 2011 incident, it was a good lesson because I really needed to improve the steps I took from when I received an order to when it shipped.

So my lesson for anyone who is thinking about running a shop or is currently running one and is having a hard time on the organization front, it is fair to say that I have been there, and here are a few areas that will greatly improve your chances of ease when it comes to running a shop because no matter how it looks or seems, there is a lot of work involved and their are ways in which you can seriously make your life easier. These help!

1) Business Cards
2) Customer Order Forms
3) Customer Order Log
4) Shipping Labels
5) Packaging Materials (incl. product tags)
6) Work station/ Wrapping Station
7) Phone/ email
8) Web-based programs to improve time management/organization
9) Advertising

So, these 9 are pretty self explanatory however we will just go through them briefly. I went for years without business cards but the truth is, they do matter. I leave them pinned up on cork boards at sewing and craft stores as often as I can remember. They are great to have when someone asks what you do or shows an interest. It is professional to hand someone a business card than just telling them and hoping they will remember, because they probably won't. Standing in line at the post office people were asking for my business card -always keep some in your wallet and you're good.

Customer Order Forms and an Order Log-SUPER IMPORTANT! and what a pain for me. You know, we're all made up on different stuff and sometimes things that are easier for one person can be the bain of another's existence. Such was the case when it came to keeping track of orders. It seems like it should be a simple process but here is how it was going down. I would receive an order on etsy for an item. I would take that info, in many cases for a custom order, and I would hand write the info including color details and measurements down on a scrap piece of paper and then take it upstairs, make the item, tag, photo, wrap, and then take the wrapped package down to the computer and pull up the order on etsy again, take that name and date and confirm address via paypal, and then take the package to the post office.

This was not working for me at all! As I broke down each step I took to making and sending orders I saw how this process needed a change, primarily because after a custom piece is made, I am a bit burned out. So to have to wrap it, take it to the computer and pull up the address again on etsy and paypal..well.. what a pain! I don't know why it was a bump in the road to easily getting things shipped and out the door, but it was. So it was in looking more carefully that I saw some major flaws, and this was one of them. So I created a custom form on ms publisher and it was pretty simple but it does the trick. I can pull up the order on etsy and paypal once and copy and paste the details into the order form, print, and that official copy can go upstairs to the workshop. This copy essentially has a top area with the etsy/ ebay info and the lower half has the paypal info, and then there is a small part on the side that I cut or tear off that has the same name and order number I have assigned the item which I keep for my records.

Now, if you are running a shop where you are making items and then listing them, the order form idea may not be entirely needed, but for someone who makes a lot of custom orders, this is essential and cannot really be done any other way efficiently or effectively. If I copy and paste the etsy and paypal info onto the order form as my very first step, not only do I not have to go back after the order is finished and confirm again the shipping address from both sites, but I can just take it from the shop to the post office hassle free. The second portion of the form will always have the paypal address and any details or comments from that site as all of my payments are usually received from there. My shop has a wrapping station of sorts as well so once an order form makes it up to the shop, it's all done right there and then shipped out right away.

Similar to the order form is the Customer Order Log and this is essentially an excel document with all of my orders however below I discuss replacing this with a web-based program such as Toggl). It gets a little intense around here because I receive so many different requests. In some cases customers contact me and want a custom order that is rather basic. Others want variations if you will, where they might want a tablecloth added afterwards or they want this in a month from now but we want to design the fabric now, or it;s a split payment, or we're designing something entirely new, and each project, from wedding dresses to messenger bags, needs to be on an order form to keep my head straight. I use excel because I can have different pages and essentially keep all of those details and variations organized. If a customer puts in a custom order, I will drop their name and a few details pertaining to their order in the excel document and then as things change or details begin to develope, I know where I am with that particular customer/ order. This helps me a great deal, and for more than one shop such as selling in etsy and ebay, I can customize my order form in excel as needed. If you dont have or don't like excel, a simple word or notepad document with a running total of orders and where you are in relation to their status is primo! Just keep yourself updated and you'll be fine.

Rules 4-7 are essential so as much as you might be tempted to skip them, don't because they can really help you. Having shipping labels and packaging materials (incl. product tags) on hand is so important I cannot stress this to you enough. If you are lucky enough to set up shipping at your home so they come pickup it is a fabulous service, but one I have not done yet. I'm almost there and expect I will be ordering the usps scale soon, however until then, having all of my packaging supplies on hand is seriously a God-send. I went online to usps and ordered a TON of packaging materials because I definitely needed them, and they delivered in a few days and well, it is lovely! If you can turn a small corner or closet or even a drawer into a wrapping station, you will be on top of the world. How many times have we gone hunting for those scissors to wrap a package only to find the scissors have disappeared or..geez..where on earth is that tape?! No more madness because you have yourself an organized little wrapping station to help you out! You can also put those scissors and tape on tethers if needed and they will stay close. Just don't cut the tether and you'll be good ;)

The phone/ email is a necessity, at least email, however I found signing up for a Google phone number was pretty great. It is free, I got to pick a number and area code I wanted (except it wouldn't let me pick Hawaii-yes, of course I tried!) but I got a free phone number.

That pretty much brings me to my last two rules to follow to avoid craft-shop madness. These are Web-based Programs to improve time management/organization and Advertising. Web based programs, depending on your needs and those offered by various programs and websites, can rally help you manage your time and orders more efficiently. My cutie told me about a year ago about a site called https://www.toggl.com/. Awesome! They are great and though I keep meaning to upgrade to a paid account, I haven't yet, but I definitely plan on it! This is quite a find of a site and they offer an opportunity to create projects and then easily manage that project, including keeping track on how much time is spent on a particular project, and also the specific areas of the project that take up the most time. This is priceless for someone like me! I am always in need of the time it takes depending on the project. How long does it take to make a woven rug? How long to make a custom dress? All valid questions as the time involved in a project helps determine the price of the finished product, but also because in many cases, as much as I would have thought I had an accurate time estimate, I have found myself way off in some cases. It's hard to say but now while utilizing the toggle program, I can easily keep track of all projects. In fact, one of the things I did was use Toggl as a organizational project tool for custom orders so instead of using an excel document to keep track of custom projects, Toggl has just recently replaced the excel doc and it has worked so far. So, if you are a small business owner with limited funds, and funds go so quickly when you get down to the finer details, every little bit helps including finding free or very well priced programs that can and will make a world of difference to your functionality.

I also really like Google Picassa which is a photo site and if you have a Google email account then you can use Picassa and upload and share photos with others. I have used the Picassa for years to show not only my Craftzies photo collection of mostly made and gone items, but I also use one for showing fabric samples, and another that still hosts all 730+ sewing patterns from the collection I borrowed from a friend (see earlier pattern post) so I have found Picassa to be an excellent resource for those that need a way to host images. Customers can easily look through sold items in a persons Etsy shop to see past items, however if those items were sold at a market or given to a friend or family member, those photos never make it to the sold Etsy section of my shop. With the Picassa craft photo page I can host up to 500 or so photos of items that have come and gone that never made it to the sold section of my shop. A page with current fabric samples up is a huge plus as well since you are limited on how many photos you can send someone, whether on Etsy or via email so having a photo portfolio customers can look through is a helpful reference for me. I am not sure how often the customers view those portfolios, but I have them and customers have access to those links via my Etsy shop announcements and also here on my blog so I do try to make them accessible.

Advertising is the last one and has been a tough one for me because I haven't really had the funds to advertise before. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe in advertising and many people have told me, and rightly so, that I need to utilize social networking sites such as Facebook in order to advertise and as much as I would love to and do agree, I just haven't gotten to it yet. This is a great idea though and I should have done it years ago. Many people also pay extra money in order have their items featured in certain areas on Etsy and this is a great idea, and many say it's worth it. I never bothered, instead just opting to use the photos of my items when listed as my advertising. I also don't list multiples of an item, even if I have more than one made, because I would rather list each individually so I spread out the photo exposure the listing of the item receives. That and I put my business cards up, I try to get to posts here on this blog, and I chat with people once in a while online and in person and that has helped spread the word.

So, to end this post in a positive light, when things go bad, keep it going and get through the awfulness, and then make haste in organizing the areas that just aren't working for you because if you don't do it soon, disaster will strike and you will wish you had! Have a lovely day as the winter holidays approach! I have lots of fun posts coming up including Chewbacca Slippers! You know they're out of sight! ;)