Direct-to-Consumer Spotlight: How One Personalized Gift Brand is Using Subscription Ecommerce to Fill a Brick-and-Mortar Gap

Framed! By Sarah

Like most entrepreneurs, Sarah Williams started her business to solve a need: she was teaching painting classes, but there were no good framing options for the students’ artwork. 

“Every night, I would take a big bag of frames and, after class, and I would sell them as a side hustle. I was selling frames to match the artwork because I saw the need in the class that these canvases weren’t a standard size, so you couldn’t just go to Hobby Lobby and buy a frame for them,” said Sarah.

The business eventually grew into Framed! By Sarah, a brick-and-mortar store where Sarah would sell various handcrafted creations to Texas locals. 

The business has been around for seven years, but it looks a lot different today than the humble custom framing shop it started as. Framed! By Sarah has undergone an extensive ecommerce evolution, transforming into a subscription business that ships a variety of Sarah’s gift items, from funky earrings to monogrammed t-shirts and tote bags, nationwide.

How customer loyalty influenced Sarah’s business from the start

Framed! By Sarah is powered by loyal customers. 

After sales of Sarah’s frames first took off, her customers wanted to buy more personalized gifts, so she started making pieces like door hangers and wooden monograms. Eventually, Sarah was creating all kinds of crafts as well apparel and accessories, bags, and drinkware, which she sold out of her brick-and-mortar store.

As the saying goes, build it and they will come. As Sarah continued designing new products, customers continued coming to the store and the business continued to grow at a rapid pace.

Because she was seeing repeat customers so often, she decided the best way to meet this demand was through a subscription box service where she could offer a monogram box that features unique, personalized gifts every month as well as a t-shirt club box that focuses on apparel and accessories. But there was only one way she could pull this off: by creating an online store to set up recurring payments.

“Once the subscription got going, we weren’t just selling to local customers anymore. We were selling to customers from all over the country,” said Sarah. 

“Eventually, the subscription business evolved into the ecommerce presence that I have today, which outweighs my in-store presence because I have so much more of a reach selling online than I would with only a standalone storefront. Now we ship our subscription boxes to 47 states every month and then we’re constantly selling our individual products on the website. Now, I’m selling probably 10:1 online versus in-store,” she said.

"The subscription business evolved into the ecommerce presence that I have today, which outweighs my in-store presence because I have so much more of a reach selling online than I would with only a standalone storefront."

Sarah Williams, founder, Framed! By Sarah

The challenge of moving from a local brick-and-mortar store to ecommerce

While the decision to move Framed! By Sarah online was largely inspired by her customers, Sarah faced one major challenge: it was really difficult to form the same kinds of relationships online rather than in-store where people could come in and have face-to-face conversations.

“I had to show up online in a way that I never had to before. The difference was that people locally knew me and wanted to buy from me. Online, I had to figure out a way to let more people get to know me so they would buy from a person and not a brand,” said Sarah.

"I had to show up online in a way that I never had to before. The difference was that people locally knew me and wanted to buy from me. Online, I had to figure out a way to let more people get to know me so they would buy from a person and not a brand."

Sarah Williams, founder, Framed! By Sarah

Once she realized she needed a face to represent her business and her products, Sarah started a search. But when she was looking for influencers, she realized none of them really represented her customers.

“I really figured out that my customers are me. They’re moms. They’re busy. They’re wives. They have careers. They don’t do a lot for themselves. They’re not perfect,” said Sarah.

From there, Sarah started filming herself with her products and posting the videos on Facebook Live every Friday to show off the newest designs she was working on. 

After 18 months of doing Facebook Live videos, she’s not only seen her following triple but also watched her business grow almost five times over by showing people what kinds of items she includes in the subscription boxes and using the videos to attract new customers. 

How to survive a pandemic as a new online business

As a result of the coronavirus, Sarah’s brick-and-mortar business has taken a hit, but she’s also seen record sales for her online store—in April, Framed! By Sarah doubled its sales and saw its first six-figure month in the business’s history, even beating November and December 2019 sales. 

Sarah chalks up much of her ecommerce success over the last few months to an increase in online activity. She noted, “During the pandemic, people have been online so much more. They’re actually reading the emails. They’re watching the Facebook Live videos. They’re checking out our posts more than they ever did before because they have time on their hands.” 

But how was a business that sold hand-crafted t-shirts, mugs, and jewelry doing so well during a time when many consumers are struggling financially and prioritizing essentials like hand sanitizer, gloves, and toilet paper? 

According to Sarah, it’s because people are looking for small ways to introduce joy into their lives amid all the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought.

“For people to spend money with me during this time, it’s made me really recognize how much people need something for themselves—they need something to gift to themselves and something to feel good about themselves. They want something to come in the mail to them, so I just kept giving them more of that,” said Sarah.

Despite having less operational support than normal and working around the clock to fulfill online orders, Sarah quickly realized that there were endless opportunities in the online subscription space right now—and fortunately, she had already established an online presence that she could lean into.

“I think it makes all the difference if you have the ability to adjust what’s happening in the world. Things have changed rapidly from week-to-week, so if you can change your business with what’s happening in the world, you’ll have more of a leg up than other companies do,” said Sarah.

"I think it makes all the difference if you have the ability to adjust what's happening in the world. Things have changed rapidly from week-to-week, so if you can change your business with what’s happening in the world, you’ll have more of a leg up than other companies do."

Sarah Williams, founder, Framed! By Sarah

How Sarah developed an owned marketing strategy to outlast the coronavirus

While the increasing number of customers and orders are top of mind right now, Sarah has had a solid owned marketing strategy since before toilet paper started selling out.

But Sarah doesn’t attribute customer acquisition to deals or discounts. Instead, she focuses on creating value for her customers and spends her time and energy on pop-up forms that offer downloadable content, such as wallpapers that can be used as a background for your smartphone.

Based on the content people download, she then sets up email automations to send related products to them—for example, if you were to download a patriotic wallpaper, you might get an email later showcasing patriotic apparel that t-shirt club subscribers receive. Once she gets people looking at her products, she uses a browse abandonment automation to seal the deal.

She also acknowledges the importance of focusing on your most engaged customers and repurposing content across multiple channels. 

“It’s the people who are opening the emails that I get the most bang for my buck from. I know that the segment of people who are opening my emails regularly are also buying regularly. I build my email list from those Facebook Live videos, but it’s different segments that I’m following up with based on behaviors of email openers, non-openers, purchasers, or non-purchasers,” Sarah said.

"It's the people who are opening the emails that I get the most bang for my buck from. I know that the segment of people who are opening my emails regularly are also buying regularly."

Sarah Williams, founder, Framed! By Sarah

“I’m building off of the content that I’m already creating on another platform and putting that into an email and then putting it into the blog, then it’s going over to Pinterest—it’s this circle of marketing, but it’s really one piece of content,” she said.

When it comes to customer retention, Sarah emphasizes that it’s important to make the experience feel personal and interactive, even if every customer is getting the same products in each box. 

She often follows up with customers over email to get feedback on the products they’ve received as well as what products they’d like to see—just this month she had her subscribers vote on what t-shirt she would include in the boxes.

“I think that you need to make your customer feel included, whether that’s in your social media posts, your emails, or something else. I’m just making them feel like they matter and that they’re a part of this, even though there are 2,100 other people who are a part of it, too,” Sarah said.

“How do you make your customers feel like they walked into the store and you were there to help them pick something out even though they’re ten states away? That’s what I want them to feel when they buy something from my store,” she added.

"How do you make your customers feel like they walked into the store and you were there to help them pick something out even though they're ten states away? That's what I want them to feel when they buy something from my store."

Sarah Williams, founder, Framed! By Sarah

Sarah’s advice for other ecommerce entrepreneurs

When I asked Sarah about her advice for other ecommerce entrepreneurs, she identified three key findings that she believes have been essential to her success:

 

1 | Build an email list

“You have to build an email list as a local business owner. I didn’t even have one when I built my subscriptions because I didn’t understand the importance of it, but it’s a numbers game. No matter where you’re at in your business, whether you have zero or 100,000 customers, if you don’t have an email list, you should start building it today because it’s really powerful.”

2 | Use and repurpose video content

“Going live or doing video content is super important. You can re-use that content and put it into other areas of your marketing so that you have a complete strategy with just one video.”

3 | Put a face to your brand

“You need to be the face of your business, or someone needs to be the face of your business who would relate to your customer. People want to buy from people they know, like, and trust. If they don’t know anything about your logo, you’re not going to build the loyalty that you would if there was someone out in front of your store talking to your customers.”

 

In terms of the future for Framed! By Sarah, 2020 has shown Sarah that it’s impossible to predict what’s ahead. But she plans to keep creating her designs, building an ecommerce presence to build lifelong subscribers, and adapting her strategy as needed.

When I asked where she sees the business heading, she was very clear that she’s taking it day by day. 

“If you would have asked me a year ago if I would be right here right now, I would have said no. I couldn’t have predicted this, so it’s really hard to predict the future. I don’t have a vision of where this business will be in five years or even one year. Wherever it’s taking me, I adapt, I change, and I just go with it,” Sarah said.

Looking for more insights, inspiration, and resources to help you grow your business? Check out the Entrepreneur Growth Guide.

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