How a passion for collectable cookbooks led to a successful 5-figure side-gig

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you sell at Cookbook Village and how you got started?

Cookbook Village specializes in quality used, collectible and vintage cookbooks. Our customers are cookbook collectors, chefs and foodies. In 2008, Ruben (my husband and the founder of Cookbook Village) visited family in The Netherlands. At the time, I was a corporate online marketer, but had a fascination with ecommerce. I started selling our book collection on eBay. By the time my husband returned home, I had sold $2,600 in books–mainly from my personal cookbook collection. I was hooked.

My husband and I saw a niche market opportunity in used cookbooks. I was already a long-time collector, so we knew a lot about cookbooks. We started buying collections and inventory from bookstores going out of business. In 2011, we launched Cookbook Village, and built our own ecommerce store on Shopify.

What did it take to get your first products in stock? Has that changed since you started?

We are one of the few sites built on Shopify that breaks out of their model of sites that use dropshipping, new goods, and similar. Each product we sell is unique. We have a smaller inventory than many book sites, but have a high-quality selection of many scarce and highly sought-after cookbooks.

In the past, each cookbook was a new addition to our site, and we had to do a lot of work to catalog it. We have been in business for years now and have grown the database to catalog thousands of cookbooks. Now, many of our newer acquisitions are already in this catalog, which makes it easier to list the additional copies that come in stock.

How did you get your first sale?

We launched in 2011. The first days after opening, we made several sales. Given that we already had some brand recognition from eBay, some customers found us through online searches for the company name.

We also had a major stroke of luck...LA Times Food Editor Russ Parsons wrote this amazing article covering our new site. He is a cookbook collector and must have found us through search or one of our blog posts. We were so surprised to see the article. It really helped build traffic during our early weeks.

What obstacles and challenges have you overcome along the way?

Cookbook Village has remained a single-employee business since it opened. I am a full-time corporate marketing and ecommerce director. My husband, a former long-time Royal Dutch Shell employee, gave up his specialized career as an oil draftsman to move to the United States with me.

When I started to sell online and we launched the store, there was only a financial possibility for one of us to run the cookbook site. He took it on full time and has continued to grow the business over the years. I help market it in my spare time. We made the decision not to add employees or grow it, as we didn’t want to go that direction and deal with managing a staff, getting an office, etc. This can be a challenge as there is a lot of work that has to happen - listing, shipping, acquiring merchandise, etc.

The other challenge we face is the competition from businesses like Amazon, eBay, and others who dominate the book business online. We fortunately have a niche, and customers like to be able to call to ask us questions, and know we only list high-quality cookbooks. We don’t buy and list in bulk. We hand-select each book we carry. We don’t use stock photos. We also provide custom detail on each book and post the content of the back cover or interior dust jacket flap so people get a lot of detail on the books.

What influenced your decision to use Shopify?

Shopify was the only choice for us. We tried several rival platforms back in 2010, but they were either too small with limited functionality, too functional and difficult to use, or had unattractive theme designs. We loved the way Shopify stores looked. As we got more familiar with it, we really became fans of the code set.

We are now on our second design, having redesigned the entire store about a year ago. The old theme and design were nice, but became dated over time. Our new site is responsive and has a clean design that is easy to maintain.

I did the design and customization on both sites and was happy with the result. The store looks very professional and like that of a larger, bigger-budget business. I love the app store, as well. We use several of the apps from there.

What was the process like to get started? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you know now?

There is nothing we’d change in regards to getting started. Shopify is easy and was a good foundation for the site, with great support. We did have to hire a back-end coder to do some of the more complex customization we had wanted, but it was mainly because we wanted to go with some design and functionality that wasn’t out-of-the-box.

What Shopify apps do you currently use? Which apps are most important to your business and why?

Our top app is from Bold Commerce. It is called Product Discount. We love it...we use it to put our listings or site on sale. Sales are scheduled and the app is very easy to use.

We also use MailChimp for Shopify. Email is our top marketing channel. We love the ease-of-use of MailChimp and they have a nice integration with Shopify.

Another app we use is Order Printer, which allows you to print some nice packing slips and invoices.

What theme did you choose for your site and why?

The theme we use is called Symmetry. I tested dozens of themes from Shopify’s theme store.

Symmetry is a flexible theme with a very clean, minimalist style design. It was also the closest design to our original site which used the Vanity theme. Symmetry let us do almost anything we wanted and has a lot of plug-and-play type features for design and alterations of the standard default look and feel.

It took me some time to understand the code set in the theme - each theme looks different under the covers. If you want to customize your site, it is important to understand how it all functions. Even though Shopify themes all use Liquid code, they all vary when you dig into things.

What strategies have you used to attract more leads and grow Cookbook Village?

We used to advertise heavily on search engines...especially Google. They used to show our site and listings a lot, in both organic and paid results. Now you see Amazon and similar businesses taking the top spot in searches and in ad listings. It’s sad. Sites that can’t afford to follow all the latest coding trends and standards can have a hard time keeping pace.

We rebuilt our site to accommodate the mobile market. The Google “push” to move to all things mobile essentially drove the requirement to alter our sites. Our market on mobile, however, is very small. Smaller businesses need to find other ways to market, as a result of search engine and other trends. eBay was our friend years ago and helped us get started, but they change their list requirements every time you blink. A small business like ours struggles to keep up - and we are technology savvy.

Over time, we found other marketing channels that served our business better. We love email marketing. Our customers like our newsletters. Most of our sales come in through our newsletter now.

We stopped paid advertising. We have also marketed on Facebook, but it mainly generated “Likes” vs sales. We have pretty good organic traffic and are fortunate that we get a good mix of visits from search engines beyond Google. Our store traffic is in the top 2% of stores that launched on Shopify the week we launched. With millions of stores...that is a nice accomplishment.

Our store blog has also been a great way to increase traffic to the site and to establish ourselves in the cookbook space. We have contributed to many media sites as well, providing them with information on cookbooks and collecting.

What are some of the most effective ways that you interact with your customers?

Our newsletter is our top communication. We also have a store blog that is very popular with cookbook enthusiasts and collectors. We have a call-in option and do get calls from some customers that enjoy getting a live person on the line - and an expert in cookbooks. The large Amazon-like sites can’t do that, and it is something we can use to differentiate our business from them.

Are there any metrics you can share in terms of order volume, monthly sales, increased revenue, growth %, etc.?

Our AOV is $40. Our sales volume varies dependent upon the amount of marketing we do. It is definitely a “push” vs “pull” site so we have to continually market through our email and blog. Our total sales grew about 2% this year, our conversion rate grew over 36% since we changed our marketing strategy.

To what do you attribute those positive metrics?

We are not a high volume site. The site is not our main source of income - we’d have to expand to do so. My husband sells t-shirt designs, and I still work full-time. The numbers shift, but we love the site and have a great customer base. Our testimonials are amazing, and most are sent by our customers without being prompted to do so by us. We have wonderful customers and that is very rewarding.

What are you working towards now?

We are not planning any major changes as our new site launched last year. We are considering adding some dropship kitchen items to our site. We have some concerns, however, as we have a very loyal base and want to ensure we give them a great experience. The idea, though, of expanding inventory is attractive. It is still in discussion.

We also are also considering a second Shopify site for my husband’s t-shirt designs. He sells on Zazzle now and does ok there.

Are there any blogs or other resources that have been helpful for you?

We are considered to be among the top collectible cookbook experts in the field. We don’t use industry blogs often in that regard--but do stay up-to-date with the Shopify community. I often read ecommerce and marketing blogs for my corporate role and attend industry events. I am able to use my heavy marketing experience to help my husband get the word out on Cookbook Village.

Based on your own success, what advice would you share with others who might be just starting out with Shopify (or with eCommerce in general)?

Don’t follow trends. Pick a theme that is designed to last. Market to your customers the way they want to be reached. Don’t rely on the latest marketing trends because they worked for another business. Use what works with your customer base and truly get to know the customers likes and dislikes.

I personally know multi-million dollar businesses that went under with the latest Google algorithm changes. I have consulted with businesses that threw away money on advertising without truly understanding the return they were getting from their programs.

Where can we learn more?

Our site is https://www.cookbookvillage.com. We also have a presence on the major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. And, of course, there’s our blog for those interested in cookbook collecting.

~ Ruben and Wendy Guerin, Cookbook Village

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