Personal Touch Reels in Loyal Customers

Working on Wall Street was a “brutal lifestyle,” recalls Christian Girts. Faced with a workday that sometimes began at 3:15 A.M., he was eager to change careers and begin working for himself.

After researching businesses ranging from laundromats to marinas, he decided to open an online business because “the margins are much higher,” he says. As a longtime fly fisherman, he opted to launch Angler’s Vice, which sells fishing rods and everything else the well-outfitted fly fisher might need. The San Francisco-based site went live in November 2004.

The months spent building a new online business taught Girts some pitfalls to avoid and some techniques for success. He also finds the lifestyle of an online merchant far superior to that of the Wall Street broker. “I’m enjoying myself,” he says.

Snail-Mail Power
For the site’s e-commerce platform, Girts uses Artic Ibex, an Oregon-based software firm. He calls it an “all around solid package, particularly if you have a lot of SKUs.” He pays a monthly licensing fee of $250, which entitles him to regular upgrades from Artic Ibex.

His biggest challenge has been finding cost-effective marketing, he says. “There are a lot people throwing stuff at you that is totally ineffective,” Girts says. In particular, print ads are over-priced in relation to their return, in his view.

But paper-based advertising has its uses. Girts finds direct mail to be more effective than e-mail advertising. “There’s so much anti-spam out there that you’re fighting a much harder battle,” he says. “We’ve done some postcards and some two-to-four page flyers with promotional codes, and we’ve seen the hit rates be higher than for e-mail.”

He doesn’t use Google anymore, “because the conversion was really low,” he says. In contrast, a Yahoo sales rep visited his site and put together a customized list of search keywords to buy, and he’s quite happy with the results.

Angler's Vice
While still relatively new, Angler’s Vice reels in more than 200 orders per month thanks to savvy marketing techniques.

Small Is Good
Promoting a new, small site is a struggle, Girts notes, but one advantage a small e-tailer has over major players is the ability to “give people more of a personal touch,” he says. “We’re lower volume, so we have the time to do things that they can’t.”

When Angler’s Vice ships out a customer order, Girts includes promotional material that’s personalized for that order. There’s no automated format for what to include, “it’s just eyeballing the order.”

A fishing enthusiast who “buys a $300 fly rod, you throw in a hat that costs you $6.” Girts sometimes sends along a personalized note, too.

He has noticed that some lucrative customers place a test order first. “They’ll place a $5 order that costs $6 to ship — they’ll feel you out first with a very low-cost item, then we’ll get a follow-on order.” Treating these seemingly low-end buyers like royalty pays off later, he notes.

Girts will even take phone orders himself and dispense advice. Also, some of the big sites he competes with don’t update their sites frequently. To get an edge on them, he constantly presents new offers.

Angler’s Vice has grown to the point where Girts gets about 225 orders a month; in other words, he’s doing okay without yet growing wildly successful. “I set some expectations — we’re close, but it takes time in a crowded environment. It’s going to take more time than I thought.”

Adapted from, part of’s Small Business Channel.

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