A few lessons from 25 years experience running the Trollwise Press
The Post Office used to be a great deal. It has lost some of its edge over the others. When I first started using the Priority Mail fixed-rate mailers, the fee was about $3.00 a pop. The biggest expense and source of trouble is shipping. The trick is to streamline shipping without cutting corners. For instance, you need to use padded mailers even though they cost more. You want your product to get there in good shape. Plain envelopes give very poor protection, though they seem cheap.
The Post Office has free boxes and mailers. The trick is to know when to use Priority Mail (fixed rate mailers & boxes), First Class, Parcel Post or Media Mail. This is easier if you do business via PayPal. They make it possible to send orders from home.
Shipping has to get your goods to the customer in good shape, in a timely fashion. There are times when fixed-rate Priority Mail; is both the fastest and cheapest way to go. There are times when the most economical rate, Media mail, is as slow as molasses. Before starting a business that ships, try to get a handle on prices, time, etc.
You cannot cut many corners. Most corner-cutting adversely affects the product, the shipping or customer satisfaction. Work to economize without getting stuck in a nickel-and-dime attitude.
If you plan to add a breakable item to your inventory, test ship a few to friends in different parts of the country. You will learn if it can be shipped, and how to best ship it so it arrives intact.
Every corner you cut results in at least one unhappy customer.
A dissatisfied customer needs attention. At least hear what he has to say. You can afford to lose crackpots and customers who end up losing you money by fussing too much. There are not many of them. You cannot afford to lose customers who like the product or service, especially those who endorse it and come back for more. A dissatisfied customer can be an opportunity to make a loyal customer. It all depends on how you handle it. Make extra effort. You may even have to lose a little profit from the sale, but the effort you make can turn a complaint into an opportunity. A good response to a complaint turns an unhappy customer to a satisfied one.
Customer complaints will reveal flaws in your business. They will tell you what to fix. For example, we got several complaints about our packing when we started out. By addressing the problem, we improved our shipping and customer satisfaction.
Remember that customers like to think you are listening to them. It takes very little effort to be attentive to them.
One of the factors affecting a very small enterprise like mine is vulnerability to outside causes. I am dependent on my suppliers and shippers. I have very little control over them. As much as I like to be timely in filling orders, it may take time for an item to be shipped here. Likewise, we are subject to the issues our shippers face. For instance, a package we sent to one place may take only a few days, while another sent near the same destination may take over a week. My ability to get product to customers is affected by the performance of suppliers and shippers.
Price is important. For instance, I have been using off-brand toner cartridges for years because they are priced much lower than original manufacturer. The problem is making sure these other cartridges print at the same quality as costlier ones. A good supplier offering quality toner at good prices makes the difference here.
Our consumables are toner, ink, paper, cardstock and binding supplies. Prices have climbed considerably since we first launched The Trollwise Press. Quality is important. I have found that if you shop around, you can get good prices on better quality paper and cardstock. I have also found that going to an office supply store like Staples is usually more expensive than shopping online. I get my comb binders online at a much reduced price from what the office supply stores charge, for instance. (Ffellowes brand is compatible with GBC and is much cheaper at Shoplet.com)
A good online supplier will tend to carry quality merchandise, some at a very deep discount.
Communicate. Let customers know if an order will be late. Keep them apprised of your progress in situations where things are behind schedule.
If you lose a customer, odds are low that you can ever get him to come back.
Complimentary items work if the customers likes and uses them. You cannot throw any old thing at people and call it a gift. Make sure the gift is appropriate. For example, a booklet on a subject related to the books a customer purchases makes a good complimentary item.
I have run The Trollwise Press for 25 years. I have written almost all of the books, magazine articles and other materials. The typesetting, graphics, layout and paste-up are all my work, too. And yes, I do the printing, cutting, assembling and binding as well as packaging and shipping of all our products. It is all done with a laser printer, paper cutter, comb binder and stapler. I developed my own publishing system and it still works to this day.