How We Started A $20K/Month Online Store That Sells Australian Handmade Gifts

Published: January 7th, 2020
Sarah Davidson
Australian Woodwork
from New South Wales, Australia
started January 2001
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Australian Woodwork is a family-owned and managed an online store that sells a wide range of Australian made woodcraft. We represent many different craftsmen from all over the country who use traditional woodworking techniques combined with modern technology and good contemporary design to create beautiful and useful household items.

We ensure that the wonderful native timbers used in our products are sourced from sustainable forestry practices.

Most of our sales come from customers who want a quality, interesting, Australian-made gift; to take or send overseas for occasions such as weddings and birthdays or for people such as student exchange hosts and house sitters. Closer to home the gifts can be for corporate occasions, new citizenship, housewarming, graduations, and all the standard congratulation events.

We find that the more we emphasize our certified Australian-made status, the more we sell in a marketplace that is increasingly dominated by imported goods.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

We two, that’s us, Gregory and Sarah, have always liked traveling and exploring this wide brown land of ours, stopping in little towns, sampling the local produce, looking through local galleries, visiting the big regional markets. These wanderings resulted in the pleasing discovery of a strong culture of skilled woodworking that existed in Australia which prompted us 27 years ago, to open a stall in Sydney’s Rocks Market with the idea that lots of other people would appreciate it too.

We went on to open our Darling Harbour store and then our purpose-built Hunter Valley Gallery, (both now closed) and of course, our online shop.

The genesis of our online shop originated with the next generation, our son, who we happily acknowledge dragged us, with only a little kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, but we remain a small family business with all that implies - we know our products and our woodworkers intimately and customer inquiries will always be attended to by one of us.

The move to being a solely online store came with some challenges that we had not dealt with before in our bricks and mortar stores. Online traffic generation, supply and inventory issues, product photography and protective packaging all had to be learned and it took 2 years before the online store was properly standing on its own two feet. Our son, Ben, taught us everything we know about online marketing and still handles all of it but at least now we understand what is involved.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Our products are manufactured, we prefer ‘crafted’, by many woodworkers from around the country, usually one-man operations, whose skills include, turning, carving, marquetry and joinery - we are in fact, an online gallery which makes sense because we evolved from a walk-in gallery, where you see work by many different artists.

Representing many different craftsmen came with challenges on how to individually packaged items ranging in size from a ballpoint pen to a chess set. We also found that it was necessary to put a lot of time into printed product information and care, things that we did verbally in our gallery but which is vital for online selling of our products.

Packaging, both for presentation and shipping protection plus printed product information required a substantial investment.


Describe the process of launching the business.

Our online store began as a website that showed our products and invited inquiries but was not a full eCommerce site. About a year later we launched our full eCommerce website which ran alongside our walk-in gallery and in this way we financed and supported our website in its first years. Giving walk-in customers a card about our online store gave a boost to sales, especially around Christmas time since likely the majority of our sales are gifts, someone purchasing the product for someone else.

Ben took care of the entirety of the website launch. We went with Shopify and picked a simple theme that we then added our logo and products too. Before long we realized a more custom design would be better so we commissioned a designer off UpWork (then oDesk), to create a design over the Shopify template. Shopify makes this process very simple, all the back end process of handling order from product inventory to cart to checkout to email notifications is taken care of automatically with just some small tweaking for personalization.

Our product range is unique in that we purchase it from craftsmen around Australia. Previously we stored all stock in our purpose-built Gallery, now that is closed we built our current house with the business in mind and turned the entire bottom floor into a logistics and fulfillment center, all stock and order fulfillment is done there. We had always been doing shipping around Australia and the world for customers since many people are traveling and would buy the item but do not want to take it with them. So we had that aspect figured out already.

One of the biggest lessons we learned was patience and perseverance - niche websites like ours don’t take off overnight and becoming visible takes a lot of constant effort.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Our primary source of traffic and customers is SEO, which is Ben’s specialty. Australia is much less competitive than the USA, so we found it fairly easy to rank for lucrative keywords like Wooden Jewellery Boxes, Handmade Bowls, etc. We also consistently run Google Product Listing Ads (PLA) year-round, with around a 1:10 spend to revenue return. During the holiday seasons, we also run Facebook retargeting and promoted posts. Finally, around 10% of sales come from random channels such as previous PR work like a magazine feature, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

We learned how important product photography was for an online store and took lessons plus embraced the world of social media with frequent postings of news, specials, and updates across all the major platforms.

Posting blogs and sending out newsletters, especially around major seasonal events like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, etc contributes a lot to sales, more so when combined with special offers like free gift-wrapping or discounted bundles.

There are some trial and error involved though with some blogs performing well and others not so, but in the long run it all adds up and helps our online presence. What worked was surprising, for example in all of Google (global) we are ranked typically #2 for Huon Pine under Wikipedia, which is a wood type we sell. This has brought many sales over the years, however why that article became so popular and similar articles we’ve written on other wood types remain a mystery. What is key is the 80/20 principle, 80% of our sales come from 20% of our posts, so you just have to keep pumping them out as you never know what will become popular and what won’t. Another example is an article on Walking sticks we have, which still brings in multiple sales per month.

We aim to foster returning customers by creating trust with great, personal customer service. Customers can and do, call us on the phone, in real-time, with questions about their purchases, plus we stick by our claim to ship the same day as an order is placed.


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our website has gone through a fair bit of fine-tuning over the years, for example making it user-friendly for mobile phones in response to analytics that showed 45% of the searches were made on a phone. This has helped sales and we are showing a modest increase last year even though Australia is officially in a retail recession.

Our only outlet now is our online store and our operation is more compact and efficient than in its early days - well you’d hope so!

We are constantly adding and retiring products on our site as we and our craftsmen come up with new ideas and as times and fashions change. For example, our cute little postage stamp dispenser has gone but letter openers are still big - figure that one out!

Our long term goal is to keep increasing sales by a concerted mix of the aforementioned methods, good marketing and content writing, great photography and excellent customer service. We think that in another year or two we will have reached a point where all the above strands will have formed a base for a strong and reliable sales volume.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The early mistakes were not giving enough consideration and importance to ongoing content writing and newsletters, thinking the product would sell itself.

One of the best decisions was to learn how to do good product photography. It would have been uneconomic and impossible logistically to outsource the photography and is the first interaction a potential customer has with our product it is vitally important.

Since we started our website, retail generally has been sluggish and people’s discretionary spending power has steadily decreased and we are firmly in the category of non-essentials which has made a challenging climate in which to start a website that is gift oriented.


What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify, Klaviyo (previously MailChimp), Yotpo, Zapier, Gmail, Buffer, IFTTT, Google Docs, Kit, and UpWork.

All of these allow us to streamline the online components of work, connected all our main tools together to minimize manual work utilizing and acting upon data. They are also very cost-effective when you compare to physical / non-digital equivalents. The key is automation, which these tools provide. For example, Shopify connects to Klaviyo to automate email marketing, Zapier connects our Contact us forms to Klaviyo, which further automates email marketing, BufferApp and IFTTT syndicate our Facebook posts out to Instagram, Twitter, and more.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Four Hour Work Week, Getting Things Done, Warren Buffet’s Letters to Shareholders.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

If you are opening an online retail store give it time to establish, learn product photography and make sure your site is easy to use and navigate. If you look around you will come across many websites that are clunky and difficult to use in which case I personally look somewhere else.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!