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This is why your Shopify storefront has no sales

Sun 8 Oct 2017 by mskala Tags used: , ,

Since launching my own Web shop on Shopify in August, I've spent a fair bit of time on the Shopify forum, reading comments from other shopkeepers. There's a specific genre of discussion thread that comes up there about once per day: the "Why don't I have any sales?" thread. Someone will post that question, with a link to their own shop, and ask for advice from the other shopkeepers. I don't have all the answers, but I have noticed some pretty consistent habits of shopkeepers who have no sales and are asking the forum for help.

Your business model consists of doing no work and getting paid for it. I'm not going to wade into the question (currently in the news) of whether Shopify, Inc., as a corporate entity is or is not at fault for leading you to believe this should be a reasonable business model, but regardless of why you believe it, it is not a reasonable belief to hold. Running a small business has never been a money-for-nothing proposition and there is nothing magic about the Internet to make it so. Dropshipping stuff from AliExpress in particular seems to be an especially common version of the "something for nothing" business model. Many new shopkeepers think it works this way:

  • You find some interesting products on AliExpress (possibly with the help of an "app" that automates this process).
  • You import the descriptions into your shop (again, possibly with "app" assistence).
  • Customers buy the items in your shop, paying you more than the prices on AliExpress.
  • The orders are automatically forwarded (by an "app"!) to the sellers on AliExpress, who ship the products directly to your customers.
  • You pay the AliExpress prices and keep the difference.

But here's how dropshipping really works:

  • Most of the products are garbage.
  • Customers in general do not want these products, but to the extent they do want the products, they will buy the products directly from the Chinese sellers on AliExpress, not from you.
  • You still have to pay for Shopify and all the paid "apps" you used, whether you make sales or not.
  • If anybody ever does buy from you, you never get to see the product that actually goes to the customer because that's out of your hands - so you can't know whether it is any good. But the complaints when it isn't, will be your problems to deal with.

Your would-be customers can use AliExpress just like you can. Why would they pay extra money to you when you are doing no work and you are providing no value compared to going somewhere cheaper? You have to have a business model that includes a real reason for people to give you money, and that will nearly always include your doing some real work.

You are either selling "fashion jewelry," or women's clothing. It's really remarkable how many new Shopify shopkeepers choose to specialize in one of these two areas. There is a whole world of amazing products, even just on AliExpress, and yet something like two thirds of new stores (at least, of those asking "why am I making no sales?"...) are either selling "fashion jewelry" or women's clothing. I've written before about our culture's bizarre overemphasis on clothing retail, but even if you don't believe me about that, a little thought about these two specific markets should reveal that they are poor choices for an online mail order shop.

"Fashion jewelry" is cheap, and customers expect it to be so. That causes problems for you as a Web shopkeeper two ways. One, customers for fashion jewelry are price-conscious. They're going to go somewhere else (i.e. AliExpress) if they think they can get 20% off your prices, which doesn't leave you much margin for paying all those app subscription fees. Even if you are not in fact getting your stuff from AliExpress, your customers can still get something similar from there and you have to compete with it.

"Fashion jewelry" is also easy to find from local offline retailers, where customers don't have to pay, nor wait, for shipping, and you have to compete against that too - which brings up issue number two, that shipping costs on low-priced items are not really less than shipping costs on high-priced items. That's already a big issue for me with items like my PCB-only sets which retail for $20 or $30 and cost more than that to ship some places; but it's much worse for fashion jewelry items that might be priced at only $2 or $5.

If you are selling items whose prices per item are very low, as is the case with "fashion jewelry," then there's a serious risk your customers will put an item in the cart, go through the checkout just far enough to find out the shipping charge, discover it's significant in relation to the price of the item, and abandon the cart. You can try to get around this effect with free shipping offers, "free item, pay ONLY shipping" offers, cutting corners on proper package shipping and sending everything by lettermail (which is probably illegal for international shipments, but maybe you think you'll get away with it), unloading the problem onto your "dropshipping" provider, and so on. But the shipping will eventually have to be paid for by your customers one way or another, directly or indirectly, and it's going to be a problem when the price per item is very low.

With women's clothing, the price per item is usually higher, and these customers may be less focused on low prices if they like the specific items and you do a good job of conveying the overall quality of your line. But with women's clothing another issue becomes terribly significant: people who buy that stuff want to see it in person, handle it, and try it on, before buying it. They can't do that online. They will go to an offline shop where they can. Do you routinely buy your clothing online? If not, why would you expect that your customers should?

The same considerations seem like they would apply to men's clothing too, or clothing items not targeted at a specific gender, but women's clothing in particular seems to be the more common specialization of failing Shopify shops. I don't know why.

You could be selling anything, all the more so if you think you're going to be "dropshipping" it. So why ask for trouble by choosing products that are especially difficult to sell online? Why not choose easy ones?

You're using Beeketing SalesPop. Nearly everybody who is asking "Why don't I have any sales?" is using this particular Shopify "app." It's a thing that pops up suddenly in the lower left of the screen with messages like "Someone in Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas, just bought Genuine Rhinestone Pickle Ring!" It is incredibly annoying and I find it hard to imagine how anyone could possibly want to buy something from a store after they've been interrupted like that. If you have no sales and you are using Beeketing SalesPop, that's why. Do not use this app. (Nor any of the small number of other apps that do that same thing, but Beeketing's is the most popular one, probably because it's free. You certainly wouldn't want to pay for such a thing.)

Do you remember the Microsoft Office Assistant, also known as Clippy, the Dancing Paperclip? In this day and age there are adults young enough not to remember that, so if you don't, okay, go read the Wikipedia article. People violently hated Clippy. SalesPop is "Clippy for Shopify."

A smaller issue is that SalePop is false advertising. It pops up saying "someone just bought such and such an item." Even if, as some shopkeepers have indignantly informed me, it draws its data from your actual sales (but you were complaining about having no sales, so how can it be doing that, hmm?), in the context of an instant pop-up with the word "just" it's deliberately creating the impression that it's talking about a sale in the last few seconds. Not true - the sale it's referring to, if any, may have been days ago. It's a lie, smart customers will figure out that it must be a lie because your shop can't possibly be big enough to be making sales so fast as the pop-ups come in, and that will kill the "trust" you were trying to establish when you pasted useless "trust badges" all over your home page.

You're demanding an email address before you introduce yourself. It's another hallmark of no-sales Web shops that when I decide to try helping the person who asked for help by looking at their site to see what's wrong, I click on the link and I don't actually see the site. I see a popup asking for my email address, or rarely asking for some other form of connection such as a Facebook "like." Sometimes they just demand it outright; sometimes they offer something like a discount code in exchange; but they never tell me anything useful such as for instance what kind of products the store sells in the first place to help me make up my mind on whether I want to give them my personal information.

Here's the math argument: you lose some percentage of customers with every click between when they arrive at your site and when you get their money. At every stage of the process, instead of clicking, some visitors will lose interest and close the browser window instead. The percentage loss per click might be 80%, it might be as low as 50%, you might even convince yourself (incorrectly) that you will only lose 20%, but that doesn't even matter. What matters is that it's compound (or exponential, as the real math nerds would say). You lose a percentage on every click; the number of clicks is what matters most of all. So it's critical to reduce the number of clicks needed to buy products on your store. That is why Amazon made such a big deal over their notorious "one-click patent." The pop-up email demand is an extra click, and it's an especially intrusive one on which you're likely to lose more customers than usual. It has to go.

Here's the social studies argument: suppose I want a date, so I go to a bar, approach women one by one, and the very first words I say to each one are "Tell me your phone number!" What will happen? I will get few phone numbers; every phone number I get, will be fake; and none of the conversations are going to go very well if I try to continue past that point. That's exactly what happens when you pop up an email demand as the first thing potential customers see.

You don't say what country you are in. Beginners' how-to guides often say that you should have "contact information" on your shop to "create trust," but that's not really hitting the mark. Your customers don't care about phoning you, and you probably don't want them to phone you, much less show up at your physical address (unless you are an already-established offline retailer branching out into online, but that's not the usual case). What customers care about and you ought to tell them is what country you are in. It is an unfortunate fact that that is partly due to prejudice. If you are in a place they perceive as a poorer country, then they will expect both lower quality and lower prices. But there's also the practical matter that they need to know how to read your prices - using a "$" sign is not good enough because they won't know whether it's USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Singapore, Liberia, or one of the many other places where the currency units are called "dollars"; and they also need to be able to get a rough idea of how much shipping is likely to cost, for which the general geographic location is relevant. Most shops do not make it easy to discover this information, and it really matters.

A related issue is that if your currency is not familiar to your customers, then you must explain it. One shop I looked at had prices like "R 79.00." I had no idea what that meant - my best guess was "rupees." Of course, it was also nearly impossible to determine what country they were in, but I eventually found that in the small print of the return policy: South Africa. I think I'm doing pretty well, as someone from Canada, that I know the currency in South Africa is called "rands," so that'd be what the "R" stands for; but I had no idea how much a rand is worth in other world currencies, even to the order of magnitude - is it like about a Canadian dollar, or bigger like a euro, or smaller like a yen, or much smaller like a won? (Turns out it's about CAD 0.09.) If they wanted to sell to me, then they should have made it a lot easier for me to know what their prices meant.

Your "About Us" page is an insult to the reader's intelligence. The main reason people read that page anyway is because they want to know what country you are in (previous point) but when they get there, on a "Why am I making no sales?" store usually not only does "About Us" not say what country the store is in, but what it does say is obvious bullshit about how "passionate" you are for your life's vocation of selling crummy dropshipped Chinese fashion jewelry. It would be better not to have an "About Us" page if that's what you're going to put on it, no matter how many YouTube videos told you it was important to have an "About Us" page. And you shouldn't use the word "passionate"; customers will guess that it means "desperate."

You are expecting sales too early. My own shop didn't get any sales until after I'd had more than 1000 visitors. It may not be typical because mine is a market where people usually spend a long time looking and considering before buying products; if you think you're selling impulse items, you may be able to hope for a higher conversion rate even at the start. But I've seen people worried about no sales when they'd had less than 100 total visitors, and that's usually way too early.

Even the most successful shops get at least about 20 visitors for every one sale (5% conversion rate). You can't realistically expect yours to be in that category; 1% is a better goal to aim for. And suppose you did have a 1% conversion rate. That doesn't mean you get 99 visitors without a sale, then visitor 100 buys something, then 99 more without a sale, then visitor number 200 buys something, and so on with exact regularity. Instead, if sales are truly random, then they will tend to occur in bunches because that's what randomness looks like. The consequence is that if you get no sales in the first 100 visits, your conversion rate could still really be 1% if you only happen to be between bunches. You need a much longer sample to verify it. From statistics (specifically, a 95% confidence interval on the Poisson distribution) it turns out that if you are hoping for a 1% conversion rate, you don't have evidence that that's not happening until you go about 300 visits with no sales. It's never too early to fix known problems with your shop, but you don't really have objective evidence that your conversion rate is low, until that point.

Conversion rate also needs to be evaluated in the context of where your visitors are coming from. Visitors who come from organic referrals, who already know substantially what you're selling, are more likely to buy because they wouldn't have come to your site if they weren't interested. Visitors from advertising usually stumble in randomly and leave almost immediately, without buying. And visitors from different kinds of advertising differ in their buying behaviour - those from a carefully tuned Google search campaign are more likely to be "buyers," those from Facebook ads usually aren't, and so on. So my example of a 1% conversion rate may still be optimistic. If you are buying advertising to drive traffic to your site, you'll need to discount the value of that traffic when calculating how many sales you expect. Ad platforms that let you know the click-through rate of your ads may help you judge the quality of the traffic you're getting. If it's 0.1% or so, then whoever does come from that ad is in the "stumbling randomly" category. If it's 10%, that looks more like readers who were actually interested and might help you approach 1% sales.

But "it's too early to conclude that sales are too low" is a good problem to have, because if that's really your only issue, all you have to do is wait. The other items on my list are more serious problems because you need to do something to fix them.

To summarize, if you have no sales in your Shopify storefont and are worried about it, there's a very good chance you're doing one of the things on this list. Not everybody without sales is making all of these mistakes, but most are making more than one.

  • Expecting to be given money for nothing, especially by way of "dropshipping."
  • Selling "fashion jewelry" or women's clothing.
  • Beeketing SalesPop.
  • Demanding visitors' email addresses before they see your shop.
  • Not making clear what country you are in.
  • Posting a meaningless "About Us" page.
  • Expecting sales too early.

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