The only thing worse than an ecommerce site that doesn’t convert…
Is a bottom line that proves it.
“It was an absolute disaster,” says Dan Black, co-founder of black + blum, a London-based ecommerce company that designs and sells homeware products. “Our sales dropped off a cliff immediately after we launched the new site.”
That cliff was a steep one; sales in both the U.S. and Europe plummeted 50% as a variety of problems plagued the site’s functionality:
- The site wouldn’t load in certain browsers
- The site wouldn’t load on certain smartphones
- Images would not load or be misaligned with text
The new site, which launched more than five months late, was plagued by technical issues for two-and-a-half months including a week’s worth of missing analytics. Text on the European site had not been properly translated into German. To make a change, update, or adjust something on the site, Black says, required an additional hefty fee.
“It was a real shocker,” he says.
Image via: black + blum
In black + blum, you had an ecommerce company that simply couldn’t sell online in several key markets. Not only did the site not function properly, but the sloppy design and lack of aesthetic appeal reflected poorly on Black and the award winning designers at his firm.
“They just didn’t get it,” Black says of the ecommerce vendor. “It was a first for us because we’re not graphic designers so it was really frustrating having to lay it out ourselves, take screenshots, and tell them the site has got to look like this.”
The company was reinventing itself and needed an ecommerce platform to sell directly to consumers. It was an ugly chapter for a group of designers who pride themselves on designing beautiful yet functional products for the kitchen and beyond.
The Evolution of a Company
The black + blum of today is much different from the one born 16 years ago.
In 1998, shortly after Dan Black and Martin Blum graduated from Northumbria University in the U.K. where they met studying industrial design, the two started a consulting business that designed products for for other companies . It was a consulting business that just never satisfied the duo’s true passion; to develop and sell their own designs.
Image via: black + blum
Two years later, black + blum was doing what it loved. The company launched its first collection of lighting products and followed up with a line of popular homeware goods. As Black and his team added products to the homeware line, the design awards and customers began adding up. The company had officially evolved, at least in part, into a B2C company.
Over the span of eight years, black + blum built its web site piece by piece. “It was nothing more than a trade brochure,” Black jokes. “It did what we needed it to do but we knew we needed a more robust and attractive site that reflected the beauty in our designs.”
The site wasn’t responsive nor could any of the six or so software systems stacked on top of one another communicate as precisely as required. If black + blum was going to continue to grow it needed an ecommerce solution that was not only functional but beautiful. Unbeknownst to Black, the vendor responsible for the new site that would wind up cutting sales in half promised much more than it could deliver.
“They told us the backend was really simple and that anyone would be able to update the site,” Black recalls of the sales pitch. “It was really difficult to gauge what they were saying but they assured us the site would do everything we needed.”
The promises made were broken…
So was black + blum’s new site…
And the mess was about to become even costlier.
The Ecommerce Crossroads
Nearly eight months into black + blum’s ecommerce nightmare, Black and his team knew drastic action had to be taken. It was the summer of 2015 and as sales plunged, Black decided it was necessary to cut short the relationship black + blum had with its new ecommerce provider. That meant threatening to bring in lawyers into the mix and brand new distractions.
“It was just a horrible process,” Black recalls. “It wasn’t just the loss of all those sales but all of the time and effort we were putting into severing the agreement that could have been better utilized elsewhere.”
Black, who has worked at renowned design concerns like IDEO and Frog Design, had taken the reins at black + blum just a year earlier. His goal was to steer the company into designing multiple homeware lines; category creators with distinct and recognizable aesthetics. Instead, he was spending much of his time trying to fix technology that had become a barrier rather than a conduit.
“They wanted us to stick with them,” Black says of the ecommerce provider. “They told us they’d get it right but they had already blown our trust.”
Prior to choosing this ecommerce provider, Black says he considered Shopify Plus, an enterprise ecommerce platform for high volume merchants, but was hesitant since the platform does not allow users an option to have one back end for multiple international sites.
Turns out, separating international sites actually has some advantages…
The Not So Risky Transition
“I tried it out first and built a trial site,” Black says of his Shopify Plus experiment. “I was really impressed and it gave me the confidence to tell the team let’s build this!”
It didn’t take long.
In less than three weeks, a fraction of the time it took the expensive third party vendor that tanked black + blum’s sales, Black had built the brand new site and taken it live.
“Regardless of the reservations we had about not being able to control international shops from one place we knew we had to be ready for Christmas sales,” Black says. “We’re really confident in our images and text and Shopify allowed us to focus on them and not the technology which was a barrier before.”
Besides a functioning ecommerce site that reflects the beauty of black + blum’s designs, Black was once again selling to customers internationally.
Image via: black + blum
Rather than one site Black could customize on the backend for international sales in multiple target regions, Shopify Plus requires a separate site for each. Setting up multiple stores, as Black did in three regions, allows users to select the currency and language most suitable for that region and manage data for each separately. Once you’ve set up several shops you can use an application like BrightPearl to sync inventory.
“It just wasn’t as scary as we thought initially,” Black says. “You can easily clone your sites so it basically comes down to pricing your products in the appropriate currency.”
While a bit of custom coding may be required, one benefit from having separate international shops is the protection that comes from being walled off from one another. For instance, when Black deployed a new application on one site that resulted in a coding error, the issue was contained to just that one site instead of impacting all three sites.
“Technology should not be a barrier,” Black says. “We’re now free to channel our energy and manpower into our business since we’re no longer worried about site stuff.”
Designing Future Growth
“We’re not a big company but we think we can be,” Black says optimistically.
In the past three years, the B2C component of black + blum’s business has increased from approximately 2% to 35%. Combine that with the fact that just 20% of the company’s business is in the United States, and it’s easy to see that Black and his team have their eyes on growth.
“Having done one site, or technically three with Shopify Plus, it gives us the confidence and freedom to do another or maybe even two more,” Black says with confidence.
One of those stores, Box Appetit, aims to replace the boring containers adults use to carry their lunches with beautifully designed boxes, bowls, and bags that promise to spur a lunch box revolution.
Image via: black + blum
The Box Appetit store, scheduled to launch in early 2016, is expected to help black + blum grow incrementally in the U.S. Prior to Shopify Plus when Black was consumed with trying to fix broken technology, the company lacked the time necessary to market its products here. Now though the company is planning SEO, PPC, and referral campaigns to complement its improved site content.
“We’re in a position to grow now because we’re confident we have a robust site we can trust,” Black says. “Now we can afford to invest in content rather than the web site itself.”
Planning to launch new stores after being on Shopify Plus for only a short period of time indicates Black’s confidence is strong. One reason for Black’s surety is the ease with which Black says he can navigate the back end of his site. Remember, Black is a designer and believes the back end, which is where he’ll spend much of his time, ought to be prettier and easier to use than the site itself.
“This demystifies what a back end should be,” Black says. “Suddenly, we have a site we understand and can edit and control with relative ease.”
Simply put, Black is now free to do what he loves; creating beautifully designed products that function just as well as the web site that sells them.
“I’m a Shopify advocate,” Black boasts. “When you find something you like it’s easy to give praise where it’s due.”
About The Author
Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.