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Bob Shirilla and his wife JoAnn who own and operate the online gift store Keepsakes Etc and the tote bag store Simply Bags. Keepsakes Etc was originally established in 1982 as a traditional brick-and-mortar gift store in Canfield, Ohio. The Shirillas created the ecommerce component in 2000 and then closed their two mall locations due to “17 years of constantly increasing rent and chain store competition.”
Keepsakes Etc. is an online store retailing theme throws and wall decor.
Simply Bags is a specialty monogram and embroidery shop offering personalized tote bags.
MO: Can you tell our readers how Keepsakes Etc. initially started out as a brick-and- mortar store in the basement of a restored historical building and is now a thriving online business? How difficult was the transition and how significantly did you have to change your business model?
Bob: JoAnn and I had conventional 9 to 5 jobs and when we had our first daughter, JoAnn decided that her major focus would be our family. She left her job and became a stay a home Mom (SAHM). When both children started school, JoAnn wanted to work, but still wanted her primary focus to be our two daughters. She started Keepsakes Etc, a 250 square feet brick & mortar store in the basement of a restored historical building. This allowed us to learn retail and business, in addition JoAnn had the flexibility to work and still have her number one priority our daughters.
–Retail Buying – where, what, when, & how much
-Inventory Control – right product at the the right time, theft
-Advertising – local paper, word of mouth
-Product Merchandising – Jo Ann’s strongest point
-Common Sense – Transitioned to the store (take the farthest parking spot)
-Accounting (General Journal, Balance Sheet, P&L, & Taxes)
-Payroll (FICA, FUTA, SUTA)
-Strategic Planing – (Vision, measurable goals, gap closure plans, oversight)
-Human Resource Management (HRM) – We have always been blessed with wonderful employees.
JoAnn’s Primary Focus
-Our daughters always came first.
-JoAnn would close the business if needed
-Hired additional staff
-JoAnn was always home when the school bus dropped the kids off
-We always had a family dinner
MO: You also have an online company that specializes in monogramming and embroidering bags. What was the timeline and process of opening Simply Bags?
Bob: Why – Keepskes Etc’s product line was cotton throw blankets and wall tapestries. These products are woven in North Carolina. On buying trips, we noticed that the manufactures of American woven products was decreasing each year. The US Textile industry is almost gone. As an insurance policy, we open Simply Bags.
Timing – Opening the second eCommerce property was very easy. We already had our warehouse and all the order to cash processes were in place. It took about 2 months – Start to finish
Process Open Simply Bags –
1. General Internet research on “Tote Bags”
2. Traveled to several apparel shows
3. Purchased products
4. Took photo’s
5. Wrote product descriptions
6. Created an eCommerce site on the Yahoo Merchant Solutions platform
7. Began taking orders and started the continuous improvement process
MO: Can you tell our readers how your first big hit was a Pokemon throw-blanket and how that helped the growth and development of the business?
Bob: We had closed our brick & mortar stores and JoAnn was running our Internet site from our home. We ordered about a dozen Pokemon Throws and placed them on our site. We sold them immediately and begun using some Internet tools to determine the demand. As we expected, it was high and we started to increase our inventory and do additional marketing – PPC, Pricegrabber, Nextag,..
The Pokemon windfall allowed us to move to a warehouse and the motivation to pursue eCommerce. Shortly after that, I left my job and have been in eCommerce ever since.
–Expanded our throw blanket line to over 2,500
-Added Wall Tapestries to our product line
-Created a Local Area networked
-Added automated UPS shipping (UPS Worldship)
-Installed an Order Management system
-Started our Faux Fur Blanket
MO: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the constantly evolving world of e-Commerce?
Bob: First – eCommerce changes everyday and what works today will not work tomorrow. When we selling Pokemon blankets, Google was not part of the equation.
Today a large percentage of revenue comes from Google organic traffic or their Pay Per Click program. In 2000 the revenue sources seemed endless. Some of the search engines were (Inktomi, Netscape, Lycos, GoTo, Excite, AskJeeves, Magellan, FAST, AOL, DMOZ, Yahoo, MSN).
Today its down to Google, Yahoo, & MSN and most search results on Yahoo properties uses MSN search engine. A big component in today’s eCommerce is social media. Direct traffic from twitter, Facebook and now Google+.
Next big challenge – Recent changes in search engine algorithms have favored major brands over the small businesses in search results. This change has drastically increased competition.
Keepsakes Etc is the largest provider of throw blankets on the Internet – We consistently ranked 1st or 2nd in search results. Take a look at today’s search results for “throw blanket”.
6. Bed Bath & Beyond
7. Pottery Barn
8. Keepsakes Etc
Lets face it, we’re playing with the Big Boys and so are many other small eCommerce businesses.
Second Lesson Learned – eCommerce is a real business – you still have all the order-to-cash, accounting, HRM, tax, merchandising, outsourcing, customer relations, etc.. It’s not about being a good HTML coder – its about being a sound business person.
MO: What has it been like to run your businesses with your wife? Have you managed to find a good balance between work and home or is there always going to be a big cross-over?
Bob: Very good question, I recently read an article about the problems many couples have while owning a business together. Working with my wife has been a pleasure. Not much effort or thought was given to who does what. It was just a natural transition – JoAnn does the PURCHASING and runs the day-to-day operations at our warehouse in Canfield, Ohio and I work from our office focusing on business processes, technical issues, and Internet marketing.
MO: Learning from mistakes is critical for entrepreneurs. Can you share some lessons learned from your past or how you would have approached things differently?
Bob: I would have taken the entrepreneurial leap much earlier in life – left my job and focused on my own business.
Delegate / Outsource – For many years I had to know everything and do everything. I have discovered that other people and organizations can do things better and at a lower cost then doing it myself. Letting go has enabled my business to grow and prosper and made my life much easier.
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