Sharee Kowalski was a mom selling wholesale jewelry out of the trunk of her car 20 years ago. And 19 years later, her passion for wholesaling still strong, she moved up from a car to a wholesale showroom, also working in a restaurant to help make ends meet. A year ago she launched the Pampered Princess wholesale website. Now the business has quadrupled in size, and Kowalski has quit the restaurant.
"I started wholesaling part time because I had kids at home," Kowalski says. "I just had a passion for wholesale." Before she launched the website, her wholesale business was not huge. "It was still this small side thing. I think I was afraid, and I didn't really have the technical knowledge for the web. Because of my age, we weren't brought up computer savvy. In my store I still do handwritten receipts. I am light years behind people. I'm going to be 50 this year," she says, "and I was never Miss Computer. My kids teach me everything on the computer, so I pushed it off and waited."
"Finally I took the plunge," Kowalski says. "It took me a year to get my website going. It was the most frustrating experience ever. Once I got it up, it was a huge relief." And the impact was amazing. "Since I've had the site, it has really fueled my growth, quadrupled. It's been a big success." She's moved to a bigger showroom, and enlisted her husband and children to handle the increasing demand. Kowalski's daughter is the site's webmaster, and she takes all her own photos of the merchandise, at shoppamperedprincess.com.
Even from back when she was a kid, Kowalski's family has been selling merchandise. "I came from a family of business entrepreneurs, so I have that spirit in me," she says. "I was brought up in that. But computers came along, and I was resistant. Then we started the site last August, and little by little it just keeps taking off." And with the website, even the business she does with companies around Rochester, NY, where the company is based, has increased significantly. "My business has even gotten bigger locally because of the website, because people can go on and see what I have," Kowalski explains.
One of the keys to Pampered Princess's online success, Kowalski says, is that her 20 years of offering personalized customer service surprises customers used to the anonymity of the Internet. For example, she sends out personalized email messages with every order, addressing customers by name and asking them how they like the product. As a result, the company gets a lot of positive feedback. "I get a lot of encouragement from customers," Kowalski notes. "People send email, and they say, 'Oh my god! We love your stuff! We love your pictures!'" That personal touch goes both ways. Kowalski is grateful to her customers, some of whom she has done business with for most of two decades. "We appreciate every order that comes in. People don't understand how happy we get around here," she says, laughing.
But the Internet has not been entirely kind to the new kid on the Web. Kowalski struggled to make the site what she wanted it to be. "The website has been up a year, but at first it wasn't the website I wanted originally," Kowalski says. "They didn't give me anything I wanted. Not knowing anything, I was just like 'Okay, I'll try this.'" But eventually she got it to look and function according to her specs, not those of her Web designer. It was not an easy lesson. "I know better now, and I'm learning tons," Kowalski reports. "Unfortunately sometimes you have to learn the hard way." One thing she learned is not to overdo special promotions, like a new launch. A friend's site crashed on the day of its grand opening, unable to handle the traffic. Kowalski had a slow, soft launch for a revamped shoppamperedprincess.com to avoid server-killing hordes of visitors.
Kowalski has also had issues with her login and shopping cart. She had so many complaints about the login, that she eliminated it for a while and just posted the wholesale prices online, visible to anyone. However, she learned that some customers are more comfortable shopping on a site that requires a login to see pricing. "Some people don't want to order from a company website that doesn't have a login." But she's fixed that by switching to a more robust financial back end. "Now we do have a login," says Kowalski. "Shoppers need to have a sales tax ID to use the checkout. Much of our competition uses a login system. And we switched to a better shopping cart a month ago, at the beginning of August. We're always trying to stay one step ahead."
Kowalski finds email to be an invaluable tool. "I communicate with my customers constantly. Orders come in from my shopping cart through email, and we send out mass emails. When people came on to register, from then on they get email." She sends out new product announcements and special offers with the email broadcast system. She intends to keep following the trends. "We haven't done much with Facebook, but I want to," Kowalski says. "We're catching up, and we'll probably be on within the next month."
Pampered Princess sells mid-point price range jewelry to boutiques, gift shops, and other retailers. Kowalski points out that gift shops in long term care facilities represent a great business opportunity. "I have one customer who sells to residents, guests, and even employees," she explains. Kowalski's wholesale prices vary, of course, but typically fall in the $5 to $10 range per piece. She says that retailers can turn these products for three or even four times the wholesale pricing. Pampered Princess has no minimum, although a tax ID number is required. Kowalski prides herself on fast order turnaround, as well as on her customer centered attitude toward returns. "It's not the customer's fault if product arrives damaged," she says.
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