Shirley Tan from American Bridal – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan: Hi, this is the Ecommerce Podcast and I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems. Today, I’m talking to Shirley Tan, CEO of American Bridal. Welcome, Shirley.

Shirley Tan: [0:09] Hi, Shaun. Thanks for having me.

Shaun: [0:12] Now, I have a traditional first question I ask in this podcast. What was the first thing you ever bought online?

Shirley: [0:19] Books from Amazon. Isn’t that for everybody?

Shaun: [0:22] Books from Amazon.

Shirley: [0:23] Didn’t everybody buy books from Amazon as their first purchase?

Shaun: [0:25] Well, that is a common question and the people that answer with that, I then ask another question. What was your most recent purchase?

Shirley: [0:33] Probably books from Amazon. I read a lot of books. I read a lot.

Shaun: [0:40] OK. We’ll move on. Shirley, can you give me some background on yourself and how did you get to be where you are today?

Shirley: [0:46] Sure. I used to own and manage a wholesale/retail showroom in San Francisco and in there we sold gifts to smaller retailers. I started that company while I was in college and I ran the business in the day and I went to school in the evening.

[1:03] So, I did that for awhile. And in 2004, I left and my partner took over that side of the business, which allowed me to fully concentrate all my time around American Bridal.

Shaun: [1:15] Cool. And what did you study at college?

Shirley: [1:17] I majored Bachelor of Science in International Business.

Shaun: [1:22] Very good. And where are you based today?

Shirley: [1:27] Today, our current facility, we’re in Burlingame, California where we have about 26 employees and a 20,000 square foot warehouse/office.

Shaun: [1:36] Wow. And how long has the company been going? When did you start?

Shirley: [1:43] American Bridal – we officially started American Bridal in 1994. We started out as a small, really, really tiny mail order catalog. But, we didn’t… And then, we moved that over to, in 1997, into our current platform which is a Yahoo store.

Shaun: [2:04] Cool. So, ’94; then you’ve been going for awhile then. And do you still do the catalogs out of the business?

Shirley: [2:08] No, we don’t. You know, one of the challenges that we had when we printed catalogs was keeping the products current and keeping the information current.

[2:18] So, that’s why we like being online because if the vendor changes something, if they tweak a little function or a feature on a product, we could easily just take a new photo and put it up so that the customer can see the corrected version. They don’t say, "I think this is a slightly different little…," you know, handle looks a little different from what they thought prior.

[2:43] So, that was one of the challenges that we had as a mail order catalog when our vendors, you know, when they bring in their second round or third round of products from when they import or manufacture, they might change the design a little bit. And to keep up with that kind of changes in being online, you know, was actually the best model.

Shaun: [3:03] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, can you tell me a little bit about American Bridal? What do you do and what do you sell?

Shirley: [3:08] OK. Let’s see. Well, what we have is we are a specialty niche, wedding favor and bridal party retailer. We have most accessories that couples purchase to use on their wedding day. So, sometimes people get confused and they go, "Or, are these, you know, gifts that people register for?"

[3:34] So, it’s actually the gifts that people use for the wedding or people that they gift for the bridal party. And, you know, anybody that helps them with their planning of their wedding, it’s just a little appreciation gift for the people involved.

[3:49] So, what we do is… We also have pre-wedding gifts like bridal shower favors that, you know, when their friends throw the bride a party. And also, or if they have an engagement party, we also have gifts that can be used for that kind of gift-giving purposes.

Shaun: [4:11] Cool. And I imagine that’s a huge business…

[4:16] [crosstalk]

Shirley: [4:16] Yeah, so, the wedding industry is, you know, by and large it’s like a – I kind of forget the numbers, but it’s pretty big. It’s more the – it’s like a one or two billion dollar industry. It’s quite huge. And we have a very tiny part of it. So, there’s a lot of room for growth.

Shaun: [4:36] Yeah, that’s exciting. And now, you’re online only. You don’t have any physical stores now?

Shirley: [4:43] No, we don’t have a physical store and we don’t intend to have a physical store. I think, we like the flexibility of being online and not have to… You know, like, for example, we moved four times in the last four years because we’ve grown so much. So, if we had a physical store that would have been pretty tough to be able to try to do both.

Shaun: [5:10] Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s quite a different business, isn’t it, running a physical store?

[5:14] [crosstalk]

Shirley: [5:15] Yes, and I did do that, too, for awhile. In fact, I did that for like 20 years, nearly 20 years. And, you know, when you have a physical store, it’s a different kind of involvement in terms of the day-to-day operation, where the customer comes in, you’re really spending a lot of time, quality time, in building that rapport with a customer; whereas online, you still achieve that, but on a different level.

[5:36] You know, the relationship might be developed through the phone calls or it might be developed through email, right? But, it’s different when the customer is, you know, in front of you.

Shaun: [5:47] Yes. Yeah, yeah, I imagine. Now, can you tell me what’s special about American Bridal? Why should people shop at American Bridal compared to some of your competitors?

Shirley: [5:55] You know, there’s definitely a lot of people in our industry that’s quite competitive. And our strength is in our unique product collection; that’s what I believe. We have a lot of gifts that the bride can add to her wedding day that can make it very memorable.

[6:09] The gifts that she gives her bridal party from our Bridal Party Collection, you know, to her friends, she has a lot of options to personalize their names and initials. And that translates to me when I’m the recipient like, "Wow, you know, she really took out the time to really make it special for anyone."

[6:30] She’s not just, you know, go to a retailer store and buy 10 things of the same things and put it in a box and tie it – you know, wrap it up in a ribbon. I mean, that’s good, too, but I think what we bring to the bride, you know, is to really add that personal touch. And that’s what makes things special and memorable, right?

[6:52] It’s like people think about back after a few years and they think back on the wedding. And they, you know, they reminisce about the cake and the dance and the songs and the garter tossing and you know, all the gifts that they gave away – the favors they gave away to the guests and their bridal party got a personalized, jewelry box with a little necklace inside.

[7:15] You know, something like that. You know, I think, that’s what makes it special for not just the bride and groom, but for the people who were involved, who participate in their wedding.

Shaun: [7:24] Yeah, that makes sense. And how do you go about finding all the merchandise that you have?

Shirley: [7:32] That’s, I tell you, I think, one of our strengths, right? In particular, that’s what I love to do. And I’ve been doing it for a long time.

[7:41] And, you know, we have 10 shows, we have really great vendor relationships. Some of our vendors that we still currently buy from, we’ve had a relationship with them for the last 20 years. So, we get first bids on products or we get special buys. We just have a very good relationship.

[7:59] And on top of that, for me, it’s like shopping, so it’s almost like second nature. I love to shop. I call it research and my husband says shopping. I still call it research. It’s research. I’m very good at product merchandising, I guess I would call it. That’s one of my passions, as well as marketing. That’s stuff that makes owning a company fun, as far as I’m concerned.

Shaun: [8:34] Yeah, and obviously core to your success. How much do you sell online per month?

Shirley: [8:41] We ship about 6500 orders, and I have to actually check out that number just to make sure I wasn’t incorrect about that. That’s not including what our drop-ship vendor ships on our behalf. I don’t how much that part of it is, how many our drop-shift vendor ships on our behalf, but we sold 6.1 million for the year 2007.

Shaun: [9:04] Wow, that’s good. How did that compare to the previous year? How much had you grown?

Shirley: [9:10] After my partner and I split up the company, and I took over the online aspect of the business, at that time, we were barely doing hardly anything. In April 2004, in fact, I remember very clearly, I took that over and I didn’t have all the responsibilities of having run the retail operation anymore. So, since 2004, we have grown over 650%.

Shaun: [9:39] Wow, that’s an amazing achievement.

Shirley: [9:41] Actually, it has not been without some growing pains. For the growth this year, we’re a little bit conservative. We think that we’ll just be slightly over what our numbers were last year. We’ve happily invested in a new backend and we’re hoping to launch a couple more new websites towards the end of the year. I think, with that we’ll be well-positioned when the economy turns the corner.

[10:14] Shaun, one of the big questions I ask myself is, do we continue to self-fund and go at a more moderate rate, or bring in a third-party investor partner that can really help us consolidate our growth even more so than we’ve done in the past, and really dominate our category. I think with the right partner we could actually achieve that goal.

Shaun: [10:37] Yeah, that’s a question that most businesses face at some stage.

Shirley: [10:42] Yes, when you’re a small-level entrepreneur you grow to a certain size. I would love to see my baby, if you want to call it that, really grow to the next level. I recognize that sometimes you need outside expertise. And funding, that doesn’t hurt either.

Shaun: [11:07] But, it can be risky, and you may lose control of your baby in doing it.

Shirley: [11:13] I think, that’s why we have to be very… It’s just like getting married. We’re like in the marriage business. It’s finding the right partner and making it work.

[11:26] [crosstalk]

Shirley: [11:28] It’s just pun intended.

Shaun: [11:32] I’m sure a lot of your analogies do end up being marriage.

Shirley: [11:37] It’s something we can all identify with, a lot of people can identify with.

Shaun: [11:43] You mentioned a couple of things. You mentioned you’ve had a few growing pains. What have those growing pains been, and how have you addressed them?

Shirley: [11:54] Currently – I never like to think about the past – our biggest challenge is in terms of operations. We’ve moved four times in the past four years, and we moved in December of 2007 to our current facility. We also took on a big new backend, integrated accounting, order-processing, inventory software. The learning curve has been a little steep, so we’re working through the issues right now. This backend that we’re using, this new vendor, they’ve been great. And our IT manager is pretty awesome. So, we’re making significant progress, and I believe we’ll continue to do so.

[12:45] Right now, our biggest challenge is probably our operations. Most companies that experience when you change software, it can be pretty painful.

Shaun: [13:00] Yeah, I understand. Now, I’m sure our listeners will want to know, what is the new backend you’ve used?

Shirley: [13:07] We use a company called Distribution One. They have significantly altered it to make it work for us. We have to bring our orders in from the Yahoo! Store and then funnel it through the order processing and how to charge the orders, all the little details that make all of this fun.

Shaun: [13:37] Everything that needs to be done. So, do you recommend them to other online retailers that are looking for a new backend?

Shirley: [13:46] Depending on your business needs, I think they definitely can help. We’re committed to this decision that we’ve done, and they’ve been wonderful people to our worklist. I think, for the right operation… I mean, ours is a little bit complex, because we have a hybrid model. We have a significant amount of drop-shipment as well as in-stock, and then we have a lot of personalization that we do.

[14:18] We don’t just take it off the shelf and put it into a box. There’s a lot of what we call "high touch" in our category, because we actually touch it and do something to most of our products. That very aspect of it makes the process a little bit complex.

Shaun: [14:41] Yeah, and a little bit unique compared to another retailer.

Shirley: [14:45] And that’s making us unique as well. The complexity is also our strength and our asset.

Shaun: [14:54] Right. Now, you mentioned that one of your passions was marketing. How do you attract new customers to your site?

Shirley: [15:02] Well, we do a little bit of everything. Currently, we have a pretty diverse marketing strategy. We work deep-down organically through the search engines, so the major search engines. We also have two very strong affiliate programs. We’re going to continue, as we learn about this category, to expand on it. These two are working really well, and we’re going to continue to seek out more affiliate partnerships with these third-party affiliate-managed programs that can help us reach these other people that can sell and promote our products on our behalf.

[15:48] We also advertise offline in print media magazines like Instyle Wedding. That’s definitely our demographic. We want to be noticed and have our brand be recognized by the bride when she’s searching online.

[16:02] So, another thing that we are moving forward, we have kind of like really dabbled on it a little bit this year and we are going to start being a little more ‘serious,’ I guess, is the right word, with email campaigns and really trying to take full advantage of our valuable customer list we have.

[16:23] In over the last almost 11 years, I mean we have over 150,000 brides that have brought from us. The value is in our list. How do we continue to bring products to them that are something that they want. And with that mission, we are trying to build more website, so that we could say: hey you know, you bought from us before, we have a new website, come check it out.

Shaun: [16:53] And I suppose that is kind of interesting because people normally intend to only get married once, so you wouldn’t expect to get the same sort of return visitors that another e-commerce store might get, so how are you looking to use that list?

Shirley: [17:08] So the key is you know like we do offer… the people who remain active on our list, when we have sale, lot of our products that can be given for numerous life occasions as birthday, graduation, father’s day and mother’s day, valentine. So, we have a lot of products that are geared towards that, so it is just a matter of reminding the customers that the gifts that we have that they liked before, can also be given to a girlfriend or a colleague as a appreciation gift or a birthday gift or just because you want to tell someone they are special, give them a little something; they do something nice for you and you want to thank them, right.

Shaun: [17:57] Right, I can see the opportunity there.

Shirley: [17:58] So, we do stuff like that. We do marketing; we have marketing campaigns, especially for the holidays. We have this one email that says "We are not just weddings, we are great for…" and then we show all these gifts that can be given to their friends that are not necessarily wedding related.

Shaun: [18:23] I understand and from that I can sort of see what some of your new websites coming up maybe.

Shirley: [18:30] Well, we have several websites actually all together right now, and three of them are wedding related and one of them is a baby and one of them is a business gift site . And a lot of the gifts that we sell now can be – I don’t want to use the word repurpose – but it sort of like can be also given to a business colleague.

[18:54] We have beautiful desk accessories and business card case and great pen that is very business; they are acceptable appropriate business gifts.

Shaun: [19:09] Right, got you. Now, what do you say are your biggest opportunities?

Shirley: [19:15] I am sorry.

Shaun: [19:16] What do you say is your biggest opportunity online?

Shirley: [19:19] Our biggest opportunity? You know, like I was saying earlier, the wedding industry as a whole, I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but it is pretty large, I mean in the billions. I think, with Internet being in its infancy, as more people get online, have access online, I think we will see and appreciate the growth and sophistication of this pool of consumer that will continue to purchase online more than before.

[20:00] And with gas prices being what it is, I think they are going to turn to the Internet to save time, to save on fuel cost. And I think, this as an overall will help retailers as a whole, myself included, but I think the category that we are in, in particular wedding and now that we are moving to baby, is a very strong category and will continue to be so, because people are going to continue to get married and have families despite the economy, although is not recession proof, this category is not recession proof, it is I believe an evergreen industry. So, I think for us there is a lot of room to grow and the Internet is a big space, there is many ways to reach people.

Shaun: [20:46] I agree. And actually just on that topic of growth, you are obviously called American Bridal, but do you sell much overseas to foreign countries?

Shirley: [20:57] Actually that is interesting you bring that out because we are now actually in discussions with a third party company that is going to help us do that, help us facilitate the logistics of getting the goods to some of our inquiries from Europe like England and Australia.

[21:20] We have a lot of people who email us, "Do you have a retailer out here that sells on your behalf?" "Will you ship to us in Australia?" And, we have been actually just turning those business down and not going after it, but there is a couple of interesting "perfect storm" if you will and the dollar not being very strong and therefore making all the goods coming from America very very attractive.

[21:51] So, I think, that is the direction that we want to go and we are very hopeful. We haven’t done anything about it yet, but we are in the process of talking to this new group that is going to hopefully help us move towards that direction. So, basically, we are going to try to ship overseas because I think this is an interesting time to give it a try with the foreign currencies being so strong and making the goods in American very attractive – from America.

Shaun: [22:25] Now, is there another e-commerce site that you particularly admire?

Shirley: [22:28] I am sorry.

Shaun: [22:31] Do you have an e-commerce site that you particularly admire that you look at what they are doing and try and do some of the same things?

Shirley: [22:40] If I have to pick a retailer that I like, that is very close to our category, I’d probably say Red Envelope. They recently went through some financial difficulties, but I’ve always liked their website. Their website is done really well and I like their collection of products.

[23:06] I think, their buyers have done a phenomenal job and you know, we always look at their website to get ideas. They are a little bit different in terms of pricing structure. Some people say that they are a little expensive, but I think they put a lot of thought to their merchandising.

[23:27] And so, if I were to pick one, I’d buy things from Red Envelope because they have nice stuff and we share some vendors. I mean, I know who they buy from, of course those things I can wholesale, so I won’t do that, but there are some other things that they have. They have very nice jewelry. So, they have some very unique products and I like their products. They have nice photos, very nice pictures.

Shaun: [24:01] You really do sound like you are passionate about shopping to me.

Shirley: [24:07] Yes.

Shaun: [24:09] …which is good.

Shirley: [24:11] It is a skill, it is reflex.

[24:13] [laughter]

Shirley: [24:15] When I spend endless hours on a red envelope, my husband goes, aren’t you coming to, aren’t you going to sleep yet? No, I’m still researching. I’m researching your next gift to me.

[24:26] [laughter]

Shaun: [24:27] Ah, that sounds familiar. Now, on a completely different subject, how many staff do you have and do you find it – retaining staff and attracting them?

Shirley: [24:37] I’m sorry?

Shaun: [24:39] How many staff do you have and do you find it’s challenging to retain them and attract them?

Shirley: [24:45] We have about 26 people right now, I think. Being in the Bay Area, definitely there are challenges to attracting and keeping bright employees. It’s pretty expensive to live in the Bay Area, but I think the people who are here and that have stayed… We have some people they have moved with me since I’ve been doing this for a while. Some employees have been with me for over ten years. There’s definitely some turnover, just like with any business would experience that.

[25:22] I think, the people who are here, they really love what they do. Just as an example, as I have said before, my IT manager, he’s phenomenal. He loves his job and he likes being here. He’s appreciative of how he can make such an impact and such a big difference in our small business and help us become more technology savvy.

[25:52] And no, Shaun, you can’t have him.

[25:54] [laughter]

Shirley: [25:55] When you come calling, we’re going to hide him. We’re going to give him a day off.

[26:00] [laughter]

Shaun: [26:01] I understand. Now, so talking about [inaudible] . You mentioned you use Yahoo stores to run your online store. And you’ve also mentioned your back end. Are there are other technologies you use and how have you found using the Yahoo Stores platform?

Shirley: [26:20] So, let’s see. Well, we use SLI as our search function tool for our website and that’s been working out really well for us. Other than that, we don’t have any… within our site we don’t have anything embedded in our site, other than your tool, SLI. We use Google Analytics. We use Click shocks to monitor our analytics. Does that answer your question?

Shaun: [27:00] Yeah. Yeah. It does. And how about Yahoo Stores? You’ve obviously been happy with the platform if you have stayed with them for, what, four years now?

Shirley: [27:09] Yes, actually. We’re very pleased with Yahoo Store. We have explored other e-commerce platforms in the past and just decided to stay put for a number of reasons, like costs, learning curve. We’re very familiar with Yahoo and have developed a great relationship with all these third party vendors that are developers for Yahoo Stores for other functions like shipping manager and just like yourself, SLI.

[27:42] You guys have done such a great job at these things so in a way, you just almost want to say that we’re a little bit lazy and don’t want to change. It’s working, ‘why change if it’s not broken?’ So, that’s my philosophy right now. My full concentration right now is to really grow the business and not keep changing, because we moved so many times and I’m kind of tired of that part of it. I want to keep steady.

Shaun: [28:13] Yep, yep. That makes sense to me. Now, I’ve got a question here about what is your current biggest headache. We may have already touched on that with – learning your new back end, right?

Shirley: [28:26] Yeah. It’s really the operation issue. Yes. And our goal is to remain as competitive as possible. As we handle more and more volume of personalization, the good and the bad, right. The good is that, oh my gosh, we got all these order. And the bad is, oh, my gosh, we got to ship all these orders. And we got to personalize all these orders. There’s eight hours in a day and there’s only so much time we can… It takes a lot of time to embroider or engrave a gift. That’s all manual labor, right?

[29:05] There’s just no way around that process. Our biggest challenge is to make that as efficient as possible. So, we’re finding ways to do that and there’s definitely…. We’re trying different things to see how we can make it more efficient and every day it is something that we learn and tweak, learn and tweak to try and make it better.

Shaun: [29:28] Yeah. I mean, that’s a great problem to have, isn’t it?

Shirley: [29:31] That’s what they tell me. [laughs] That’s what they tell me. It’s great. It’s, as with any business… There’s no business, I think, without any challenge, but the good news is that we do have the sales. I’m very grateful for that.

Shaun: [29:55] Excellent. Well, Shirley, I think you’ve given us some really good information here and I really appreciate the time you have spent talking to me today. Just want to say: thank you.

Shirley: [30:08] On, one last thing I wanted to share with you Shaun. Earlier this year, John Marshal with Market Motiv… I’m not sure, but I think you know who they are. . He looked into the [inaudible] for the SLI tool, and in particular, John was doing this analysis for me to see if we were going to renew our contract.

[30:28] And so, without getting into all the technical aspects of this, which I can’t because I’m not technical, but suffice it to say that in the first three months, we generated $10,000 just for site champion alone.

[30:42] So, we love that feature from SLI a lot, because there’s some hard numbers that we could attach it to, right? And so, I just wanted to tell you that. I thought I would share that with you. I haven’t had the chance to tell you that, because we just haven’t had a chance to actually talk about it.
Shaun: [31:05] Oh, that’s great to hear. That’s always so much easier to justify these types of things when you can see those hard numbers saying: this is what it’s worth to me.

Shirley: [31:13] Right. Exactly. So, we really encourage people to render our analysis on the search site search tools. And being better conversion.

Shaun: [31:24] Excellent. That’s great. I wasn’t going to go fishing for compliments for SLI, but that’s…

Shirley: [31:29] You didn’t know that part, so I’ll tell you that part. You weren’t fishing for it, so I’ll tell you.

[31:33] [laughter]

Shaun: [31:36] Very good. That’s great. I think you have given us some really useful stuff here and I’m sure that listeners will appreciate it. Thanks very much, Shirley. I’m sure I’ll see you around at one of the next conferences.

Shirley: [31:49] Hey, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be…

Shaun: [31:51] Oh, just quickly: are you enjoying the Mac Book?

Shirley: [31:53] I’m sorry?

Shaun: [31:55] Are you enjoying the…

Shirley: [31:56] To be honest with you, it’s still in a box. [laughs] I’ve been focused since I’ve been back, so I have to set up my doc Mac account. But, once I get that set up, I will be ready to go.

Shaun: [32:09] yeah, excellent. Cool. Well, thanks very much, Shirley. We’ll see you around.

Shirley: [32:14] Thank you, Shaun. Have a good day.

Shaun: [32:16] Thank you. [music]

[32:18] Thanks very much, Shirley. That wraps up another e-commerce podcast. I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems. I’ll see you next time.