When it comes to finding a niche and building a business around it, I thought I held the title for “most unique.” After all, how many people out there are selling hats and sweaters for weasels? Well, there are a few now, but when I was a purveyor of all things ferret my store was the only one.
To be a successful online retailer, capturing a specific niche and catering to that audience is key. If you’re planning to open an eCommerce store selling pens and pencils, good luck competing in a over-saturated market. However, if you plan on selling high end writing implements such as Graf von Faber-Castell or Mont-Blanc your chances for success are much higher.
I recently sat down with Karl Schilling, he and is wife Jean, own a remarkable niche eCommerce store KaleidoscopesToYou.com for this week’s “10 Questions.” Karl and Jean have taken niche marketing to an extreme level by focusing on a very unique toy / collector’s piece that has been around for centuries and is working its way into the hearts and homes of a new, modern audience many who are experiencing the work of art for the first time. Their business got its start as a bricks-and-mortar in 1982 and made its eCommerce debut in 1998.
Obviously, my first question is, “Why kaleidoscopes?”
I loved kaleidoscopes when I was a kid. I was one of those curious kids that had to figure out how things worked and I remember sawing into my first kaleidoscope and then being disappointed as there was just a tin mirror and plastic beads. The kaleidoscope was magical to me and I thought there had to be more to this than just the tin mirror and plastic beads. As a young man, I knew my career would be in the arts. I started learning stained glass in junior high in the early 1980s and you bet!, one of the first items I made was a kaleidoscope. My family then started a seasonal shop at Wisconsin’s #1 tourist location, the House on the Rock in the Wisconsin Dells. We had daily visitors from around the world. Almost every day, I would sell out of my stained glass kaleidoscopes. I quickly learned that I could make more money selling other artists’ kaleidoscopes as well. We still work with some of the same artists today! 30 years later I am even more entrenched in the small, tiny niche world of kaleidoscopes.
Tell us a little about the history of the kaleidoscope and how today’s models differ from models centuries old.
When would you guess kaleidoscopes were invented? Most people think they are older than they are. 1816 is the original patent by Sir David Brewster, a Scottish physicist who developed the compound lens used in lighthouses. Kaleidoscopes became very popular in America in the Victorian era 1870s. Kaleidoscopes started another renaissance in the 1980s. The main difference between older kaleidoscopes before 1980s was the mirror used inside. Older kaleidoscopes use mirror silvered on the back or metal mirrors. Now, a very specialized mirror called front surface mirror is used in kaleidoscopes. This mirror was developed in the 80’s where the mirror surface is applied to the front of the glass. This development came about for scanners and copiers. So the mirror used now by artists in kaleidoscopes has made drastic improvements in better optics and improved symmetry.
Who is your typical customer?
Kaleidoscopes are definitely a great gift for someone who already has everything so the gift giver is our biggest category. There are some collectors out there who seek unique and over-the-top kaleidoscopes so we offer many in this category as well. Also, the promotional products industry is occasionally interested in what we offer. Mainly, our customer is a visual person – one who often loves music and the arts.
You mentioned the promotional products industry. Do you offer custom kaleidoscopes and what are some ways businesses can use them as a promotional item?
Absolutely! We do offer a nice array of kaleidoscopes for the promotional products industry. We can laser engrave logos on many of the wooden barrels and or brass plates. There are even models where we can insert a logo or icon or words inside the object chamber. We offer custom kaleidoscopes to gift shops such as Space Needle in Seattle and also for corporate branding for unique ways to get their team to take another look… any metaphor with seeing or viewing things differently plays into the kaleidoscope. The scope can be a physical gift that reminds them of your message in a playful and memorable way. We’ve also created party favors and “save the date” invitations for very swanky and famous people.
What are some ways you’re promoting your business and which one are finding brings you the most return on investment?
eCommerce in an interesting and different marketing model as compared to our older brick and mortar stores. But I actually love it. I have found the more traffic we overall have the higher our overall sales. I am amazed at the 2% or so conversion rate it takes to make a sale. So we implement both PPC, SEO and social media and mommy bloggers to help us promote and create interest in our business, Email marketing is actually our best return on investment. I am always investing more and more into SEO as this is a long term goal to reduce PPC. We do some social media marketing on Facebook and Twitter but we can do better here. I really like email marketing and SEO long term marketing. Our biggest problem is that “kaleidoscope” is a great name or adjective for a lot of other products and companies. Danielle Steele even wrote a romance novel with kaleidoscope in the title which played with search results for us.
As a store owner, you wear a lot of different hats. Tell me what a typical day involves for you and what different roles you take on during the day.
I am one of those real hands on owner/managers. Jean and I think all day on how to improve things. I find with the smart phones I am answering customers emails much of my waking hours. I am usually the first one at work. I start the day by feeding our onside staff cat Potter (now 14 years old), I usually look over emails and orders and then delegate out the priorities as our small staff comes in to work. I typically spend the bulk of my day helping pull and pack orders managing and reordering inventory and keeping the website inventory and front side current with what is in- and out-of-stock. I delegate the things I am not as good at – customer service to Jean and Carrie and bookkeeping to Darlene.
What is your favorite part about being an eCommerce store owner and conversely, what is your least favorite?
I like I can service and fill many more orders a day in eCommerce than when entertaining walk-in brick and mortar type customers. I dislike Yahoo! Store (our eCommerce platform) down times, hackers, and thieves. Sometimes the long hours of owning your own business can be a dislike.
What is the most important piece of advice you could give to someone who is considering opening up an eCommerce store of their own?
That old saying, “ love what you do and the money will follow” is so true. I love being self employed and I am lucky to have a business that can support our staff and family.
You recently opened up a second store, selling similar items, what prompted you to do that?
With all honesty, after many down times with Yahoo! Store’s servers at key times like Christmas, we felt we had “too many eggs in one basket” so we looked for an alternative platform. I also bought the domain name www.kaleido.com from another gallery (who was willing to sell) to maintain our dominance with early websites that feature kaleidoscopes. www.kaleido.com has long time indexed pages from the mid 90’s so it was great “real estate.” By hosting this sister site on another platform, we have two revenue streams on two separate platforms.
Your store has items that are perfect for gift giving. With the holiday’s right around the corner, how are you getting ready for the busiest shopping season of the year?
With many handmade items by many artists, we forecast early and have placed orders for the upcoming season. We adapt and are in constant contact with our artists so they are willing to respond to any changes or additional inventory we need. We’re already working on the new items, getting those pages, pictures and videos all created. We also think about each process as we set it up. Will it be as seamless when we have 10 times the volume in the same day? We remodeled last year and the efficiencies from workflow were wonderful!
Name: Karl Schilling
Company: Kaleidoscopes To You
Year Started: 1982 online in 1998
URL: https://www.kaleidoscopestoyou.com & https://www.kaleido.com
Company Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/KaleidoscopesToYou
Company Twitter: @kaleidokarl
Company Blog URL: https://blog.kaleidoscopestoyou.com/