digital disruptors | Feb 2, 2023 |
Want your own e-commerce store? This designer tried it

Virginia-based designer DuVäl Reynolds wanted an easy way to virtually manage his go-to products. In the process, House of DuVäl, a drop-ship retail operation, was born.

I got into e-commerce backwards. In the beginning, the impetus was wanting one backend site to collect all the pieces I like. Designers will relate to this: You have 1,500 vendors you’re working with, and it’s hard to keep track of everything, even your staples. I thought it would make sense to build my firm its own private shopping site, so that if an employee wanted to find something they knew I’d approve of, they could just go there. As we were putting it together, I realized that the site could be customer-facing. I’ve always wanted to sell product, so we decided to go for it.

Want your own e-commerce store? This designer tried it
DuVäl ReynoldsCourtesy of Markus Wilborn

A lot of people use Shopify to build e-commerce sites. I used Wix, mainly because I’d used it to build all of my other sites, and it’s incredibly user-friendly—everything you see, we put together ourselves. Creating a website from scratch takes a lot of effort, but it’s not necessarily what you’d think. Building the look and the shell of the site happens quickly. The real work is filling it with content: getting all the product uploaded, making sure links are right, writing your policies. It’s a ton of work. I worked on it nights and weekends, my wife worked on it when she could, and eventually we hired someone to manage the content. All in, it took no less than a year and a half to get the site the way we wanted. 

Early on, I decided I wasn’t going to hold any inventory and would drop-ship instead, which has so many advantages. One is that you don’t have to warehouse anything. The other is that we can handle orders the same as we do for the design firm. We’ll take payment from the customer, order from the vendor and have the piece shipped to the buyer. We didn’t have to invent any new systems.

Of course, you need to work with vendors who do drop-shipping in the first place. One thing I noticed early on is that vendors would complain about how tons of designers want to do drop-shipping yet sell only one item per year. I realized that vendors would take me more seriously if I created an e-commerce site that was independent from my design business, so that’s what I did—House of DuVäl.

Choosing the right vendors, and having them choose you, is a big part of this. We only reached out to companies we were already working with in the design business—brands whose products and customer service we knew we liked. I’d start by contacting my rep, though sometimes I’d get passed over to a separate e-commerce division. Each vendor has its own reasons for saying yes or no to working with you. Some simply don’t do drop-shipping; some are already doing it at capacity. Many will require you to sign a basic contract around their policies. Some want to see what your site looks like and make sure it adheres to their standards. Others will ask you to commit to a minimum annual order volume. We work with about 25 vendors right now, covering more than 5,500 SKUs. 

Once you and a vendor agree to work together, it can still be complicated. With some vendors, as long as you respect their IMAP [Internet Minimum Advertised Price], you have a lot of freedom. Sometimes you have to make difficult choices, though—one vendor requires us to list its entire selection online, not just the pieces we’ve selected. My margin with that brand is good, but I’m considering moving on because the aesthetics don’t always match what we’re trying to curate.

Left: Reynolds channeled his design aesthethic into an e-commerce offering Courtesy of Stacy Zarin Goldberg | Right: Customers can shop his style from more than 5,000 items in the digital storefront Courtesy of Markus Wilborn

You also need to get images of the product up on your site. Some vendors will say, “Our stuff is online, go ahead and grab what you need.” Others will send you organized files that make it easier—but either way, there’s a lot of work involved in stocking your virtual “shelves.” You also have to stay on top of discontinued products, but brands are typi-cally good about letting designers know what’s not in stock. 

There are many pain points in running an e-commerce site. One is that, at the moment, it’s impossible to keep track of lead times for every company and list an expected delivery time. With 5,000-plus items, it’s constantly changing and we can’t keep track of all of that. As a result, when customers check out, it’s more of a conversation than just a quick “thanks for your order!” Another big issue is around pricing and shipping. If the vendor is in North Carolina and the customer is too, the shipping will be cheap. But if they are in California, it can become really expensive. Incorporating the price of shipping into the price of the item is a bit of a gamble, and you’re hoping it’ll even itself out. You’re also competing with other online stores selling the same goods, often at the lowest possible price, so you have to stay competitive but still keep a margin—it’s tricky!

Probably the biggest challenge is finding time to manage it all, especially to promote the platform. I’m still working on building up a customer base through my email list and my own Instagram. I’ve had some success where existing clients will go to the site and shop—I recently did a new build, and the client used the site to outfit his living room. I’m also looking into doing e-design and linking clients to the site so they can shop on their own time.

For designers interested in launching something similar, be ready to treat your e-commerce platform as a separate business. Unless you have a massive social following and can sell stuff very casually, it really is a full-time job. On top of your other full-time job. The bright side is that the startup costs are nominal since you’re not buying product or paying to store it. For me, it’s a long-term plan—I didn’t go in thinking I’d make quick money. And whatever your sales are, having an e-commerce site is good optics. It provides a sense of credibility to both designers and brands. 

Homepage image: Reynolds created an e-commerce site that was independent from his  design business | Courtesy of Stylish Productions

This article originally appeared in Winter 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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