August 12, 2014, 12:43 PM

A retailer’s wholesale e-commerce business begins to blossom

Soul Flower, which takes most of its orders online, expects within a few years to be mainly an online wholesaler of goods made from organically grown materials.

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Soul Flower is a family-owned web and catalog retailer of apparel and accessories made of organically grown materials that since day one has done things its own way. That continues today, as the company begins a transition that executives expect will lead to it being mainly an online wholesaler.

Launching with a single bricks-and-mortar retail store in 1999, it started selling online in 2001, closed its one store in 2003, then launched a twice-yearly catalog to complement its e-commerce site in 2004. Along the way, Soul Flower transitioned its product line to focus completely on “eco-friendly” products like shirts, pants and handbags that meet its requirements of being made with materials like organically grown cotton and recycled materials. 

Sales grew steadily for several years, but now its sharpest growth is in its burgeoning business of selling wholesale to other retailers. “We realized the best way for us to expand is to use other peoples’ stores through wholesale,” says CEO Mike Shoafstall, who founded Soul Flower with his wife, Peggy.

Although Soul Flower’s sales are still predominantly retail, the ratio of retail to wholesale is quickly changing, he says. “We’re now about 70-30 retail to wholesale, but that all begins to change later this week,” he said last week. After attending as an exhibitor for his first time at the annual StyleMax trade show for apparel, jewelry and accessories in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart last weekend, Shoafstall says he’s planning to display his products at additional shows this year, including Magic in Las Vegas, the apparel industry’s largest show.

With its wholesale business already growing at a rapid pace, Soul Flower is gearing up its e-commerce operation to handle an expected influx of orders throughout this year, Shoafstall says.

Last week it relaunched with in-house staff a redesign of its Miva Merchant e-commerce platform, at Soul-Flower.com, to offer on a single web site an improved B2B e-commerce section along with the traditional retail site. Until now, one of Soul Flower’s biggest struggles, Shoafstall says, has been in operating a site that caters to the needs of both retail and wholesale buyers. “People buying wholesale have needs that are different from people buying retail,” he says.

On the old site, it took business customers buying in bulk several steps to select product attributes like size and color, adding the product to the shopping cart each time they chose a particular attribute. “It wasn’t user-friendly,” Shoafstall says.

On the new site, business buyers can now select all the necessary attributes and enter the desired product only once to the cart. The new design also makes it easier for business shoppers to instantly see how many items of a particular product are available.

Soul Flower now also features in both its retail and wholesale sections such features as site search from Nextopia and product zoom. The latter is important to wholesale as well as retail buyers who want to view the intricate details of its extensive line of screen-printed garments.

The company mails out about 100,000 copies of separate retail and wholesale print catalogs twice a year to a select group of recent customers and people who request a catalog, though Soul Flower figures about 90% of purchases that originate with a catalog are placed on its e-commerce site, Shoafstall says. Although many customers still like browsing a paper catalog, so few call to place an order that Soul Flower discontinued using a separate contact center and now designates two office workers to take calls to the 800 number printed in the catalog.

The company, which sells to wholesale and retail customers in Canada and Australia as well as in the United States, is expecting to reverse its ratio of retail to wholesale sales. “Within two years we expect it to be more like 70 – 30 wholesale to retail,” Shoafstall says.

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