Money & Sense: How I made $11,000 selling online from Ghana in 12 months
A year ago today I launched an online store. ShopWestAfrica.com (formerly ShopGoWomanAfrica) so that I could bring all the unique fashion and accessories I find in West Africa to the world. In the 12 months since we launched, I’ve had a turnover of $11,000.
I started with an initial investment of $500. Each time we made sales I used some to cover living expenses, but I also reinvested profits back into sourcing new items. I’ve learned some lessons a k a made mistakes, and I’ve also found ways to be more creative, and innovative about content marketing.
As I mark this first year, with many more to go, I would like to share some lessons and tips about online retail and content marketing for those living in West Africa.
1. Don’t forget your side hustle is your financial safety net - I started my business to supplement my income after becoming a single mom. I needed more money because having a baby is expensive. However, whenever my work load from my other projects got heavy I dropped the ball on my tasks for ShopWestAfrica.com. In this case specifically content marketing. Anyone in the online sales business will tell you that if you’re not churning out content day in and out, you’re not going to make sales. The thing is you have to remind yourself why you got into this business in the first place, and stay true to that. If you’re not doing what you need to do to keep your online business ONLINE everyday, when push comes to shove it is not going to be the financial safety net that you need.
2. Content Every Day. All the time. I just talked about this up top but it needs its own space. If you can not commit to promotions, marketing, campaigns, blogging, photography, video production, to develop content to promote your online business, don’t even start. Some of us start off and get tired quickly. Or you start and you wonder why no one buying from you. If you’re not making sales, 9/10 it is that you’re failing with content marketing. Those who do it better than me are producing content everyday across all social media platforms. This includes Instagram, Whatsapp, Blogs, Pinterest, and Facebook. If you can not commit to content marketing, online retail is not for you.
3. Your Online Sales Platform Matters. There are a lot of platforms for you to sell your products. They vary with regards to their cost, and reach. Platforms either charge commission on sales or a listing fee or both. When I first launched ShopWestAfrica.com last year it was hosted on StoreFoundry, a platform designed for businesses just like mine. StoreFoundry allowed me to list and manage my online store but best of all they also handled shipping via EMS initially, and later DHL. The downside to listing on StoreFoundry was this; the website didn’t generate organic traffic. All the traffic to my store was all from me. With Etsy on the other hand, where I’m currently hosting my store, about 30% of all hits to my site is directly from Etsy. Some people go on to build their own websites and host their own store but to me this only makes sense if you’re already really established. That is a brand that has its own following and can drive traffic to its website. If not what will happen is that you build your site and then cant get any traffic. If you cant get traffic to your online store, you wont make any sales.
4. Plan Ahead. I know this sounds intuitive but it is something I really felt I didn’t implement properly this past year. The sales cycle is 12 months. Each month you have to think of what sales, promotions, and campaigns you need to do to drive traffic to your online store. Take for example the Christmas holiday shopping period. If you really want to benefit from Christmas sales, you have to start planning for it as early as October. Most people in the US start their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving (the last Thursday in November).
For ShopWestAfrica.com planning ahead means doing photoshoots with a Christmas theme, sourcing items that are gift friendly, and packaging that will also match the season. If you want to maximize the returns to your online business you have to develop a marketing calendar for all peak sales period and work in advance. Anything you have to rush and do last minute with regards to marketing will not be as good as that which you planned. And by good I mean the returns in sales output.
5. Shipping & Delivery. For those of us doing online retail on the continent with the diaspora as our target market Shipping is the biggest issue. There are still customers who are willing to pay $20-$30 to ship from West Africa to US/Canada/Europe but that is still a lot considering the majority of people who shop online get shipping for free.
What can you do? One of the ways in which you can reduce the negative impact of the shipping costs is by improving the delivery experience. What does this mean? It means that you should do everything you can to make the packaged product as personalized as possible. When we ship orders from Ghana for ShopWestAfrica.com I make sure that everyone receives a personalized thank you note. This is my way to let them know that I appreciate their business. Other times we put freebies inside of the package that may cost us $3-$5 but it helps to build a good relationship with customers.
6. Watch out for Hidden Customs Duties. One of the downsides to doing commerce online and internationally is customs. And for the most part you wont know about those fees until after your customer gets a bill. Countries that we have shipped to from Ghana where we encountered this issue were Uganda, Sweden, Norway, and sometimes the UK. Even if your website says that customs and tax may apply, this isn’t something that customers actually read or pay attention to. I don’t blame them. Even items marked as gifts might still get stuck at customs, so be mindful of that, if like me you at some point try to bypass the government.
7. Stock Variety Not Volume. One of the biggest mistakes I made starting out was to stock based on guess work and not the numbers. If you see something that you like, the only way to know if others will like it, is if you list it. List it, test it, and if it sells then you know to buy two more. When you sell those 2, you can buy 4 more. Just because you think something will be a hit doesn’t mean you should stock 6 to a dozen. There is nothing worse than back stock that you cant move simply because you were in your feelings and bought too many.
What I’ve learned is that the more listings you have, the better. It is the variety on your online store that brings people back. When you’re starting out, It is better to have 1-3 of 40 items, than 6-12 of 5 items. When people come to your online store the more things they see, the more their confidence is boosted. Also with Etsy in particular, people can favorite you store, and your items, all of which helps your ranking and visibility on the site’s internal search engine and metrics.
8. Your Diaspora Should be Your First Target Audience. The upside to having a large African diaspora across the globe is that you already have something local that they want and can not get. As a Sierra Leonean, the majority of my sales have been to Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora, primarily in the US. Why? Because I was also once a Sierra Leonean in the US Diaspora. They are who I am most connected to on my social networks. When you’re thinking of items to stock, don’t be afraid to seek and stock the most local of items if they will resonate with your diaspora. If Black Americans are your target audience then focus on stocking items that are easily recognizable; that is shea butter, dashikis, and kente print type of products (for those of us in the fashion and beauty industry). These items are stereotypically what Black Americans know and recognize as African. You can use these items to attract them to your online store, and once they are there they can see your other products.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Stock That Which Is Popular Elsewhere. When you’re starting out you may not always know what to sell. If you’re a creative yourself and are making original and unique items then this doesn’t apply to you. However, if you’re like me and you’re sourcing local to trade globally then you shouldn’t be afraid to stock that which is already popular online. So yes if dashikis are popular, don’t be afraid to include them. Most people in the diaspora love dashikis. They know it. I stock fulani earrings although many other people stock them Etsy. Even though the market for them is saturated fulani earrings are top 3 selling items on my online store.
10. Online is great but you also need to get Offline. I know this might sound crazy but hear me out. Make sure you participate in pop-up shops, festivals, flea markets, and events where your target audience will be. This is important for direct sales but it is also a great way to collect emails, and give out additional information about your brand. Folks you meet might not make a purchase at that moment but if you make a good impression, when they do need your products they will find you online. One key thing you should do with anyone who you connect with at those events is to get them to follow you on social media even if they don’t purchase from you. That way they still have a way to find out about products. The other thing is the money. I hosted a pop-up shop in Freetown and I made $500 in sales in one day. I’ve yet to have a day online where I make $500 a day in sales, so that was major. If you can find opportunities to sell in person grab them with both hands.
I hope these tips will help you as you launch and manage your own online store from the continent. If you’re interested in finding out more about ShopWestAfrica then you’re in luck. Now through mid August 2018, the entire store is discounted by 20% as we mark our first year in business.
Note - I took some personal time away from marketing my store between February-May because I was really busy with work. I am certain had I given it my full attention as I’m doing now. Our sales would have reached even higher. No one to blame though, we all just gotta put in the work. Nothing works if we don’t.