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Most college kids spend their days working on papers or studying for exams, but Brian McAlister used his university time differently: He made beanies by hand for his friends. The former Abercrombie & Fitch model had always loved wearing beanies as a kid.
"There's an attitude behind them and they're comfortable," he says. But it wasn't until his dorm-room buddies started asking for beanies of their own that he decided to turn his passion for hats into a business.
In 2009, the Columbus-based entrepreneur launched King & Fifth, an online store that originally sold only beanies, but now sells baseball hats and T-shirts and sunglasses as well. It's not a massive operation, with just three employees including McAlister and 2018 revenue expected to reach approximately $500,000.
McAlister has big plans for the business. Three years after giving up his modeling job to focus on his business full-time, he's ready to grow that revenue in a big way.
Expanding his company, though, can't be done just digitally. While he sells his wares only on his website, he knows that if he wants to grow his business, he'll have to implement some old-school "analog" selling strategies. "When you open an online store, people think traffic will just come," he says. "But it doesn't work that way. You have to drive everyone to your store."
That's a lesson many e-commerce entrepreneurs learn the hard way, says Ryan Williams, founder of SalesCollider, a San Francisco-based company that helps tech firms with their sales needs.
Many business owners think they can set up a store, run some ads on Google and Facebook, and then start collecting profits. If only it were that easy. "You still need to talk to someone and make sure they've seen the spec sheets or have the right quote or that what they're buying is going to work within their organization," he says.
Those who want to increase sales will need to engage in some non-digital sales tactics. Here are three ideas that can drive traffic to your site and help boost revenue.
1. Hire Sales Reps
Companies may not need vast sales forces as they once did, but having a real person who can talk up your product, whether it's to retail customers, other company executives, or brick-and-mortar stores, is still important, says Williams. While many companies are turning to artificial intelligence-enabled bots to interact with customers online, he still thinks having someone to talk to is a must. "Business owners will be tempted to lean on an A.I. tool, but you need to think about the customer experience and how they want to buy your product," he says. "Being able to ask the customer questions and to see what they need is still important to the sale."
2. Market Your Wares Offline
Like most e-commerce companies, McAlister has spent money on Google AdWords and social media, but, he says, "anyone can pay for clicks and create buzz on social." He's now taking his marketing efforts offline with a grassroots campaign aimed at Ohio State University students. He's made 1,000 beanies and 1,000 baseball hats with the Ohio State Buckeyes logo on them, and he plans to go to the OSU campus in September and hand them all out in exchange for e-mail addresses and social posts. "If we can get that e-mail, then we can get them from analog to digital," he says.
3. Network and Negotiate
Whoever made the first sale in history likely did it through networking and negotiating. E-commerce companies shouldn't forget these two crucial sales skills, says Williams. While haggling on price may not be as easy to do digitally as it is in person, you may still need to negotiate with suppliers or the manufacturers of your goods. On the phone or in-person negotiations may also be needed for B2B businesses.
Another business might find your website and look at your products online, but when it comes to signing a contract, you'll still need to hammer out the details, he says. As for networking, the more people you meet face-to-face, whether it's potential customers, factory owners, or other suppliers, the better, says McAlister. "If you can build a relationship with the right partner, they'll do more for you," he says.
As McAlister has learned over the years, digital can go only so far. Building his business means getting out of the office and away from the computer -- and employing the selling skills that have worked for generations. "You can spend $10,000 on Facebook ads, or spend $10,000 on a product and put it into people's hands directly," he says. "Then they can see who's behind the screen, and that's worth a lot."
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