With the majority of business these days running an online store there are a number of things to consider when getting started. Everyone wants to reach the largest customer base possible by selling on the national or global market, but what factors should be considered when getting things started.
I’d like to talk about my own experiences of selling furniture online and the restrictions or hurdles I’ve faced along the way. My shop has been trading now for over a year, selling products on platforms such as Etsy, Folksy and my own personal website and there have been some key points to take away for anyone wishing to attempt a similar journey.
I’m going to briefly talk about my workshop size restrictions, noise levels, supplier challenges, storage shortages and of course postage, packaging and delivery solutions.
Workshop size restrictions
My first hurdle was my workshop. I started off with a 12′ x 10′ workshop at the bottom of the garden which was great to make a couple of mid sized items. But I quickly realised that after I’d made a couple of items I didn’t have any space left to create new ones until those items had sold. I also didn’t has room for all the materials I was gathering. I like to work with reclaimed materials so I was grabbing what wood I could, when I could. Before I knew it, things were grinding to a halt.
The solution of course was to build another workshop or shed right next to the existing one. Which I did. But soon enough, this became full also. Yes I had a little more space so could now make up to 4 medium size pieces at a time but again, if these didn’t sell, production would grind to a halt.
Shortly after we agreed to convert the office into a storage space. Whilst this now gave me a space to work and create, a space to store materials and a third space for completed items I always find myself short on space. This is where I am now. Thinking about the next phase in the plan. I’ve come to the realisation that to make this work I’m going to need to expand the workshop / storage space a little further, have a clear out of old materials and design a product range that used a specific materials that can be neatly stored in purpose build racks. A product range that can easily be repeated over and over, making an efficient production line that fits with my space restrictions. Then, once things are running smoothly and orders increase, I can think about a dedicated workshop away from home.
One final thing I’ve learnt here would be to start off with some smaller pieces and work your way up to the larger items. This way, if things don’t quite go to plan the losses are normally smaller and less impactful on your profit margins. Once you’ve worked out what works and what doesn’t you can start taking larger risks.
As I work from home, at the bottom of my garden, I need to be conscious of the noise pollution I’m creating for my neighbours. Whilst I don’t work full time on the furniture it could easily go that way so I need to start thinking about sound proofing the workshop or eventually moving to a dedicated premises away from home.
Power tools can be noisy, especially the bigger ones so I try and keep their use to a minimum when at all possible. This however isn’t an efficient way of working and I need the freedom to make noise where and when required.
Postage, packaging and delivery
This final consideration has been one of the most difficult for me. To some respect it’s forced me to try and promote my business more locally and found myself tending to avoid distance selling so much. This however isn’t a wise course of action when trying to expand your business. Limiting the number of potential customers isn’t going to help sales increase. Therefore, to make this work I needed to find delivery options that I could manage, a decent courier to partner up with and packaging options that could protect my items against careless couriers.
I’d already been stung twice by TNT and UPS who both managed to, what seemed like, drop kick my parcels down the road. I had two separate complaints against damaged items which costs me dearly on my profit margins. Which isn’t good for any small business.
If I was going to use these careless couriers who were offering the best rates I needed suitable packaging materials for my items. What I found worked best was a suitable layer of cardboard packaging on top of a couple layers of bubble wrap. All corners were covered with either a cardboard or foam edging and flat surfaces were lined with thin protective plywood. This worked really well for large tables and desks. These costs of course eat into my profit margins but this simply had to be added to the overall cost of postage. For items that were really delicate I even made solid plywood boxes.
For any orders received within a 50 mile radius I would try and delivery myself. This gave me the opportunity to carefully transport the goods myself, save a little money on postage and let me meet my customers in person. For anything outside this area I could select the cheapest courier and securely package my items before shipping.
Networking and experimenting with different suppliers is crucial in this business. I’ve had a few bad experiences along the way so far and a few great ones also. I’ve been very prudent on how I work with suppliers and have quickly worked out those who I like to work with and those I tend to avoid. Building good relationships with local timber merchants and saw mills has been vital to my success so far and I alway like to return my business to those who I can trust and get on with. Therefore my advice would be to try a few different local suppliers to see what works for you and what doesn’t.
When in any business it’s important to be carefully with your money and make it go further with each purchase. If you are buying lots of materials from places like B&Q then it’s worth signing up for their loyalty schemes or even consider signing up with Trade Point for a trade discount.
Online shopping can also generate reasonable return on your purchases. Me and my wife signed up for a TopCashback account a few years ago and within that time we’ve generated over £1300 in cashback. You can add a browser extension to make it easier or simply check their site before shopping online. Super simple and a very reasonable return which gets invested back into tools for the business.
Find your niche
Finding the right products that work for you is the key to success. Having made a number of different styles I’ve started to see what people want and those items that are less popular. I’m now starting to focus my efforts into making items that I know sell well.
But it’s not all just about products that sell well. You need to be competitive in the market and bring something a little different to your target audience. Most consumers are looking for something unique for their home decors, something that makes their home a little different from friends and families. They like to stand out and maybe have a statement piece for each room.
You also need to find the right price point. What are people willing to pay for your products and what can you sell them for to make money? Again, this can take a little time to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Finally, one of the most important aspects of any business – marketing. Without a sufficient marketing plan, no one will know your business exists and it will be incredibly hard to find.
Whilst online selling platforms, like Etsy and Folksy which I mentioned at the beginning, do offer the advantage of having an existing customer base, your products will still be sat amongst thousands of other sellers listings and so marketing your own products elsewhere is vital.
Marketing comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s a good idea to utilise both traditional and modern methods. This includes both online and offline marketing solutions.
Although it is competitive, online marketing in some aspects is easier than ever nowadays. Social media offers a free platform to get products in front of a global audience in an instant, no matter where you are. Once you have more funds for marketing you can invest in paid advertising on these platforms too.
Offline marketing for furniture and woodwork businesses is still valuable. Word-of-mouth, business cards and brochures showcasing your products are all effective ways to market your business away from the internet.
One thing is certain when it comes to marketing. Photos are the key to showcasing your products in their best light. Good images sell products and it’s vital you get this right. It’s affordable nowadays for anyone to get a good quality camera or smartphone with a high definition camera, but to add professionalism to your furniture images it’s often worth taking things a step further.
Hiring a professional to do a photoshoot is one option, but for one of a kind product images then nothing beats 3D product rendering to grab your customer’s attention. From a single photo and dimensions, a 3D model can be created of your product to be showcased in numerous ways for marketing.
From 360 degree product spins for your ecommerce website and product placement in all kinds of interior design, to variations in colours and finishes for print advertising, the possibilities with 3D modelling are endless.
If you have the marketing budget available then high quality product imagery is worth the investment. If you’re just starting out then take the time to get good quality photography as these images will sell your products, especially digitally when customers cannot see your products in person.
I finally feel that my business is moving in the right direction. I’ve taken some key learnings in the last couple of years and hopefully things will continue to improve from here. I know that all new businesses start off slow and learn a great deal in the first few years of trading. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to keep things moving so I hope this post adds some value to those of you who are also thinking about starting up your own online business.
Take a look at some of my other posts:
- Essential woodworking tools for beginners
- Practical furniture for holiday homes
- How to brand your wooden furniture creations with your logo
- How to start your upcycling business