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From her home in St. Louis, Missouri , Melissa Chelist owns and runs StorkGifts, an upscale, online boutique specializing in quality custom made personalized gifts for babies and children. Melissa and her husband started the company in January of 2003 when Internet shopping was just becoming widespread. The daily operations of the company were outsourced until 2005 when the Chelist’s youngest child went to pre-school. At that time, Melissa took over managing the company and has done so ever since.
StorkGifts carries over 75 different types of personalized items, all of which are custom made with the customer’s choice of color, design, and personalization. Known for its high quality products, StorkGifts offers many made-in-the USA products and prides itself with their professional, top-notch customer service.
Gus: What inspired you to launch StorkGifts?
Melissa: When our children were born, we always loved getting personalized gifts. When a friend called to order a wooden puzzle stool for our third baby, the woodcrafter informed her that he was selling his business. After discovering that the manufacturing facility was located just outside of St. Louis, she called us to see if we were interested in buying it. We did; but we weren’t onsite running the daily operations. Realizing that we had sales opportunity on the web, we developed an ecommerce website for the company. After a year, we decided to sell the woodcrafting company, as it was difficult to run it when we weren’t there. Realizing how much our own children loved all the personalized gifts they had received throughout the years, and appreciating how special and long lasting these gifts were for families, we hated to give up on the world of personalized baby gifts. Seeing how successful our website had become, we decided to develop another website selling a variety of types of personalized baby gifts; thus, StorkGifts was born.
Gus: Can you talk about developing, launching and growing a company without having any business background? What were some of the early challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Melissa: Before StorkGifts, my business background consisted of one high school accounting class. It was true on site job training! Taking over an existing business initially helped as I could see how things were done and then tweek things as I saw fit to make improvements. I’m not going to cherry color it…it was difficult! What would take a businessman a short time took me a long time. There was definitely a longer learning curve. Not only was there no business background; there was also no technical knowledge. I was dealing with a website. When I first took over StorkGifts, I didn’t even use email personally nor had I shopped online. I barely knew how to even turn on my computer! This was 10 years ago! I had no experience with customer relations and suddenIy was THE customer service department. I was determined to figure it all out. I Googled terms and ‘how to’s’ (once I figured out how to ‘Google’). I took some continuing education classes at UMSL on sales/marketing topics. And I had great mentors. My husband showed me how to do things and was a great resource initially. My accountant taught me how to do Quick Books. Currently, I am involved in a program called Accelerators through the EO: Entrepreneur Organization. This has been invaluable to me as an owner of a small business. As a business owner, you need to outsource jobs that are beyond your capabilities or that you simply don’t have time to do because you are doing other business tasks. In retrospect, I do think some of the success of StorkGifts is BECAUSE I did not start it as a businesswoman, but as a mom. My view point was always from the consumer side, because I never had the business side before. Every decision I have made has been based on being a fair decision for the customer…..is that what I would expect from a company? Of course, this has to be tempered with making a profit.
Gus: Can you talk about your marketing strategy which has yielded impressive results of a six fold increase in revenue since your first year?
Melissa: Here is an example of my lack of business background….not sure if customer service would be included in a marketing strategy. Probably not, but; that is in my opinion the essence of our growth. Sure, we do optimize our website to come up on internet searches. We do advertising on Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Potential customers definitely can find us by using common search engines. That is one of the three ways that we get new customers. Along with this, we utilize retargeting.
Another great new customer base is the gift recipients. About 85% of our orders ship to a gift recipient rather than to the customer who placed the order. Our branding is in every package that is shipped out. A stamp or sticker, depending on the product, is on most of our items. When a new mom receives a puzzle stool or a piggy bank as a gift for her new baby, she may not think about it at the time. Four years later, when she wants to get a matching item for a new sibling, she can look on the item and find our name.
As most companies, we rely on our happy customers to refer us to their friends and family. How do we make sure this happens? We focus on relationship building and customer service.
I really work hard on building a relationship with my customers. Email marketing is something that has worked well for StorkGifts. My emails are not all about my products or specials. I talk about being a mom, being a woman, funny things about kids, etc . I never meet my customers face to face, I rarely even talk to them on the phone, yet, I know their names and they know me. I love when my customers respond to an email. Some have shared personal stories with me. I have a Facebook Fan page, I tweet on Twitter, and I Pin on Pinterest, but I have not seen marked results from those strategies.
We stand behind our products, we take care of our customers, we return phone calls, we respond to emails. It is mind boggling when I return a phone call and immediately the customer says “Thank you so much for returning my phone call. I didn’t think you would.” Any company is great when everything is going well; it is how they handle problems that separates companies’ customer service levels. A customer may order from us once, but if it is not a great experience, it’s easy to find another personalized baby gift elsewhere. We know this and appreciate every customer’s loyalty.
Gus: What are some trends in the baby and children gift industry that you’re excited about?
Melissa: There has been an increasing popularity of personalized items for all ages. This is helping make our expansion really take off. Artisans are regularly contacting us with requests to carry their hand -made personalized gifts. One of our newest products is personalized ski caps. My 13 year old saw it on my site and informed me that ski caps are all the rage in her middle school. She is so excited to get one with her name on it!
Gus: What influenced your decision to in 2005 to take over customer service, which had been previously been outsourced?
Melissa: I wanted to be involved in our family owned business. I knew that it was not growing at a substantial rate and felt that a major reason was because the employees in the call center didn’t have a vested interest in StorkGifts. Logistically, once my youngest was at pre-school a couple of mornings a week, I had the time to take over the tasks.
Gus: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you personally or professionally?
Melissa: I am excited to develop another website that will focus on personalized gifts for the tween market. I have been scouting out and adding new products. A blog is also being added to the website. Personally, I am recently divorced and am looking to a new start as a single mom with three daughters. I realize that I am an inspiration to them and how they view their future professional life. A woman CAN run a company and take care of her family. They have learned that women do not need to depend on a man for security.
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