Mike O'Shea, founder of Wicked Uncle Toys in the UK, was a pioneer in e-commerce. Before finding success as a niche retailer of children’s gifts, he partnered with the major UK retailer M&S to develop a lingerie retailer, but it didn't work. "We were too early in e-commerce and our partner had other issues they needed to deal with as things progressed,” says O’Shea.
So, when that pursuit failed because of lack of demand, O’Shea sought out a niche area where he thought consumers needed a solution. This market space seemed obvious, as he, himself, was looking online to find the right toy for his young nephews and nieces.
When he started out, O’Shea visited European and UK toy fairs looking for suppliers of products that were a good value while still being “giftable,” says Joel Poznansky, president of Wicked Uncle US. “After that, there were reliable suppliers and unreliable suppliers, and they dropped the unreliable ones. Interestingly, they found that suppliers that promised them a sample of products they wanted to test and then needed chasing were… well, not worth chasing, as they generally had problems down the line with their reliability even once Wicked Uncle Toys was an established client.” This trial-and-error with suppliers is an experience that can be avoided by using a supplier directory like SaleHoo, where every supplier is vetted carefully to ensure they are worthwhile and easy to work with.
Excellent suppliers are integral to any e-commerce business, because “the product choice, at least in our business, is paramount,” says Poznansky, who joined O’Shea to launch the US branch of Wicked Uncle. The toy business is unique also in that many of the products are proprietary, so if Wicked Uncle is dissatisfied with a supplier, they usually have to discontinue the product entirely rather than finding a new supplier. So, it’s all the more important to get the right supplier the first time.
Simon Slade, founder and CEO of SaleHoo.com, agrees. “Suppliers can make or break the reputation of an online store,” he says. “Nearly 90 percent of shoppers will stop buying from an online store if they hear of one bad experience. Make a point to reach out to your supplier at least 2-4 times per week. Talk about which of your products are selling well, how your business is doing, and how satisfied you are working with them.”
Wicked Uncle Toys is a niche retailer of children’s gifts so naturally, the company’s key competition is Amazon. The company found its first suppliers by using the US arm of their existing suppliers in the UK. “But after that,” says Poznansky, “we found them by walking the floors at the Toy Fairs. The biggest lesson I have learned in the toy industry is that there is a wide range of competencies. Having good products is not a full predictor of being a well-run company that understands the supply chain.”
One of the most important lessons Poznansky has learned about dropshipping is that there is no clear correlation between size and quality. “Small companies have provided great service just as often as much larger, established companies,” he says. “And our most negative, repeat experiences was with one of the very largest companies. During our first year with them, we could not believe the legion of different kinds of mistakes they made—shipping the wrong product, late shipping, partial shipping. But the worst mistake was when we discovered they had accidentally charged a credit card on file with two extra decimal places, making the charge a six figure charge when it should have been a four figure charge!”
Having a UK branch of the business to compare itself to, Wicked Uncle has a unique perspective on its progress. Wicked Uncle Toys US achieved in 1 year what the UK business took 5 years to achieve. “Our timeline was to break even within two years, and we actually reached it within half that time,” says Poznansky.
Marketing efforts for the UK store and the US store differ somewhat. “In the US we principally market through effective SEO,” says Poznansky. The UK branch has a significant marketing campaign with posters on the UK subway every Christmas. When the US branch of Wicked Uncle did a test of subway marketing and bus marketing during the winter holidays in one metropolitan area, it wasn’t nearly as successful or cost effective.
Instead, the US branch has found its most successful marketing efforts to be with Google Adwords, influential mommy bloggers and effective SEO. “Our age category pages are the best answer to the question a grandparent, or uncle, or parent at their wit's end would ask: What is a great gift for a 6 year old boy?” Wicked Uncle crafted these age category pages with detailed answers to that question through the testing of all products with children of each age. “So, the most effective marketing strategy has been to make sure, as much as possible, that when someone does that search online, they find us,” says Poznansky.