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Niche Retailing Online in a World of Wal-Marts: VPGames.com Case Study (pt.2)

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Here is the second half of our two-part interview with Stefan Von Imhof, a business graduate of the University of Massachusetts (and proud Minuteman) who turned his love of gaming into a thriving online retailing operation. He discusses his most important vendors, why Black Hat SEO isn’t worth it, and the real value of Twitter (hint: it’s not notifying the world that you had toast for breakfast).

Let’s talk about technology and the nut and bolts of operating a site? Who are you hosting with and what are some of the vendors you use?

We host with a company called Channel Advisor. We started working with Channel Advisor in the early days back when we used to sell a lot more on eBay and Amazon. If you are a multichannel retailer (selling on eBay and Amazon as well as online from your own site) you need something to tie everything together. The Channel Advisor platform allows us to sell through multiple channels under one “dashboard.”

The second big vendor we use is Shipworks, which provides our shipping software and is closely integrated with Channel Advisor. When you really look at our business, we’re not a video game company, we’re a shipping company. Shipping packages is what we do. It’s certainly the most important thing we do. We ship hundreds of packages every day and getting stuff out the door correctly is everything. Shipworks is both inexpensive and very customizable. It handles emailing customers, email notification (such as “Your Order as Shipped” emails), out of stock notifications, and a bunch of other stuff.

A third company we rely on is Nextopia. With 9,000 SKUs, it can be very difficult to organize all of the info. One of the things that bugs people with Google searches is that you can type in “Wii controller” and not easily find any Wii controllers. Instead, you might find Wii controller jackets, skins, holders, and everything else related to Wii controllers. That’s kind of what I wanted to avoid on our site. On a regular day, we’ll have 3500-8000 search queries on our site. Nextopia has been a great tool to deliver relevant answers to about 99.5% of our searchers. The other half percent who can’t find what they want – we find out why and tweak the engine. It’s a constant improvement process and Nextopia has been really important to what we do. They have been a great partner in our growth. They make a great product, provide great support. and they’re super friendly. What more can you ask for?

 

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Have you been tempted by any SEO black hat opportunities?

Absolutely. SEO is such a tricky game. There is no question that blackhat SEO works; if it didn’t, nobody would do it. But the last thing you want to do is break the rules because 1. you can get caught, and 2. the benefit will only last a short time before Google finds out what you are doing, tweaks the algorithm, and it’s all over. My advice to retailers considering blackhat techniques is not to do it: you run the risk of getting blacklisted from search results, and that is death for a website.

With gaming inherently linked with people on the leading edge of Web technology and behavior, how are you finding the ROI of involving yourself in social media?

As far as Twitter, we used to use it far more when it first became popular, primarily with sales offers and coupons. My personal opinion (as someone who has done social media consulting for other companies) is that I honestly don’t think people are terribly involved with Twitter. Twitter boasts a really huge user base, but I’m just not sure how many of them are actively listening to each other, and how much is just “noise”. The one area where we’ve found that having a Twitter presence excels is in customer service. It is really the best way to reach a retailer like us because it cuts through the email and email filter walls. I tell people all the time – if you are having trouble reaching a company, try Twittering them or write on their Facebook wall – it’s probably the quickest way to get a response.

Do you see social media as an opportunity to blow out old stock or juice monthly sales?

Yeah, absolutely. While I think Twitter is maybe overrated, all social media is still important. I personally think a lot of small businesses sell Facebook short. Facebook is probably the most important social media presence a company can have, because it offers much more personal communication. With Twitter, anybody and their brother can show up in your Twitter stream. But when a company shows up in your Facebook news feed, it is a much more personal experience. We are active on Facebook because we want to show people that we’re both open and responsive to customer complaints. That’s really the key – connecting with customers on a personal level.

Final question, if you weren’t running an ecommerce store, what would you be doing?

I don’t know – to tell you the truth I haven’t really thought about that. Probably working in the renewable energy industry, maybe solar, which is of course going to be huge someday. There are a lot of companies doing a lot of amazing things with solar energy around here. My college background is business so I’d probably looking for opportunities in green tech/renewable energy. Either that or city planning. Santa Barbara is an amazing place, and it takes a lot of urban planning to keep it that way.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Stefan. Good luck finding the time to actually eat some breakfast; filling orders for Modern Warfare 2 and I’m sure DJ Hero is probably keeping you very busy.

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