January 28, 2013, 1:56 PM

There’s opportunity in e-retail, but it does take work

ChildrensBookstore.com takes off after six years as a lingering hobby.

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Jake Ball bought the domain name for ChildrensBookstore.com in 2005, thinking if he only built the site he’d get rich, he says. Six years later, after doing not much with the online store other than selling a handful of kids’ books locally per month, Ball decided he must either get the businesses going or sell the domain and wash his hands of it. He chose to commit. “I was going to get serious about it, put some real capital into this thing and make it into a business,” he says.

Now ChildrensBookstore.com receives 10-12 orders a day and is on track to reach 70 orders a day by the end of the year, which would make the retailer a $1.5 million-per-year business, Ball says. He’s hired three employees to help create content for the site and work on search engine optimization, and enlisted vendors that handle link-building and web development, he says. By the end of the year, he expects he’ll be able to quit his day job and focus solely on e-commerce.

“You can’t nibble at the edges of a competitive market like books,” Ball says. “You won’t get anywhere. You have to jump in with both feet.”

To get started, he says he found a web development company in his hometown of Boise, ID, Tribute Media, to make his site more professional and share some industry expertise. The company suggested he attend the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition to learn more, he says, so in June 2012 he flew to Chicago for the event.

When he got there, he says he felt like the country mouse in the children’s fable suddenly introduced to the big city—he’d had no idea about the scope of retailers, vendors, tools and strategies involved in e-commerce. He was exposed to new software available for ChildrensBookstore.com, discovered the meaning of “SEO” and learned how to engage customers and build his business, he says.

Ball hired another Boise-based company that he met at the show, Page One Power, which builds custom links to ChildrensBookstore.com from other web sites relevant to the store and its keywords, such as parenting sites, in order to drive traffic to the retailer and raise its ranking on search engine results pages, he says. Since making those changes, Ball has seen a dramatic uptick in both traffic and sales, he says. “The month-over-month increases are now geometric rather than tiny,” he says. “We’re still at the beginning of this thing, but, if I stay on the path I’m on now, we’ll be a serious business here in not too long—not just some goofy hobby.”

Besides realizing he’d need to make staff and technology investments to build the store, Ball says he learned at IRCE that the key to success in online retail is to provide consumers with something valuable that’s unavailable anywhere else. “You can’t just sell cheaper than others,” he says. To that end, ChildrensBookstore.com now posts daily book reviews written by Ball and his staff, along with articles for parents and teachers about literacy and getting children to read, he says. He also added to the site an Authors section that features favorite authors selected by ChildrensBookstore.com, each with their own page including a biography, interviews and a list of all their books available on the site, Ball says.

“The real goal is to create an experience for parents and teachers with good information about books they want to buy for their kids,” he says. “I kind of knew it, but I didn’t know how to actually do it, like what steps I could take to actually build value for my users.”

Now Ball continually thinks about what features will help his customers and then works with his web developers to add them to the site, he says. “Your project is never done, you just get little milestones and have to move on to the next thing,” he says. “The minute a site is ‘done,’ it starts stalling. If you don’t innovate, you’re toast.”

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