selling pipes online

What Selling Bongs & Being Stubborn Can Teach You About Page Speed & Average Order Value

It’s as if someone tied one of Sean Geng’s arms behind his back and forced him to compete in the cutthroat world of ecommerce at a massive disadvantage…

His company isn’t allowed to advertise on Facebook. AdWords is a no-no as well.

“Basically, it’s just a nightmare pretty much all of the time,” he says.

You see, Geng sells bongs and other glassware items at Smoke Cartel, the online headshop he co-founded almost three years ago. Platforms like Facebook and AdWords will not allow advertisements that promote the use of recreational drugs, tobacco, or related paraphernalia.

The situation goes from bad to worse when you combine the stiff headwind of not being able to digitally advertise with:

  • The inability to find a payment processor on which Geng could rely
  • The inability to ship glassware cross country without it breaking

“Yea, there were several times I thought about throwing in the towel and really questioned the viability of the business,” Geng admits. “I’m pretty stubborn though and just thought let’s solve these problems. We wouldn’t be where we are without stubbornness.”

Making Google Smile

So what do you do when you’re essentially barred from advertising the glassware you sell?

Well, after you identify and integrate a third party payment processor that truly understands your business and figure out how to package fragile glassware that can withstand the rigors of cross country travel, Geng figured he’d focus on one of the only ways he could generate traffic; organic search.

This meant, in part, making Google happy.

“One of the things Google looks at when ranking pages is page speed,” Geng says. “If we were going to succeed as a business we had to do well in search so we decided to focus on improving our page speed.”

But Smoke Cartel’s site has thousands of SKUs to load.

Substantively improving load times by using a traditional enterprise ecommerce solution would likely be cost prohibitive.

So Geng zigged where many would have zagged.

An Out of the Box Upgrade

The decision to upgrade to Shopify Plus, an enterprise level ecommerce platform for high volume merchants, was made in July 2015. Not only would the platform position Geng to improve page speed, but Geng was also able to offer customers peace of mind with SSL encryption that promises to keep customer data secure.

“We’re targeting young professionals like doctors and lawyers who value their reputations,” Geng says. “Having encryption helps them trust the site and makes them feel a heckuva lot safer placing an order with us.”

Besides assuaging customer concerns regarding data privacy, Geng upgraded to Plus to improve his standing with Google and better position his site to capitalize on one of the few sources of traffic he had; organic search. “Shopify is built for speed,” Geng boasts. “Shopify sites rank well on Google right out of the box.”

To further improve SEO, Geng began storing all of Smoke Cartel’s data on Shopify servers rather than a variety of third party servers. “Shopify has a network of servers across the world and we keep all our data in one place,” Geng says. “It means if you’re in California our site loads from the server nearest you which reduces the time it takes to load.”

Upgrading and consolidating data have resulted in:

  • Faster site load times
  • Improved user experiences
  • Increased conversions and sales

For instance, prior to the changes Smoke Cartel had a 0.8% CTR. But afterward, the company saw CTR increase to 1.2%. “It’s just a fraction of a difference but it means thousands of additional dollars,” Geng says.

Additionally, Geng says Smoke Cartel generally ranks first, second, or third for the majority of the most popular glassware items consumers search for. “If it wasn’t for Shopify we wouldn’t have the competitive advantage we now have,” Geng says. “We’re talking about a tremendous amount of money. I’ve used other platforms and at the end of the day, Shopify is better than any of them.”

Even with the improvements, Geng was still leaving a lot money on the table…

Making Amazon-like Recommendations

It sure sounds good telling the world you make data driven decisions…

The hard part is actually finding patterns in the data and acting on them to improve the customer experience and ultimately sales. “We started pulling all of the data and began looking at what people were buying,” Geng explains. “If we notice two products are often bought together we can assume those products are likely related in some way.”

In other words, Geng is positioning the site to recommend bongs and related items on par with the way Amazon recommends products based on items that are often purchased together. For instance, here’s how recommendations are used on Smoke Cartel’s website to upsell consumers who have clicked on a particular item:

“After we implemented the recommendations we saw an increase in the average order value per customer,” Geng said. “We intend to make even better suggestions in the future so we’re offering the right product, at the the right time, to the right customer.”

Amazon-like recommendations have been good for the bottom line, but they’re far from this entrepreneur’s crowning achievement.

Other Ways to Win

Geng admittedly gets bored easily…

However, there’s nothing boring about watching customers ignore your recommendations and leave your site with no way of retargeting them on Facebook or via AdWords. It’s why Geng wanted to devise a strategy designed to squeeze some value out of visitors with no intention of purchasing immediately.

“We still wanted to find a way to win even if the consumer decided not to make a purchase,” Geng says. “One way to do that is to create an incentive for that person to share our products with the people they influence.”

A developer by trade, Geng uses Shopify’s discount and gift card API to do two things; first, consumers who do not immediately make a purchase can earn a discount on a future purchase by sharing items of interest with those in their social networks:

The results are encouraging as items are being shared with hundreds of users who otherwise might never visit Smoke Cartel’s site. The discount offered might even be a cheaper alternative to PPC ads as drivers of traffic.

Second, Geng wanted to upend the traditional way ecommerce merchants regularly offer gift cards or promotions which often winds up eroding margins more than intended. “Rather than offer one coupon code that’s going to be re-posted and shared all over the web for anyone to use, we wanted to do something smarter,” Geng says.

Geng is using the gift card API to generate unique coupons to reward customers for taking certain actions on the Smoke Cartel website. It’s an exclusive one time code only a specific visitor may use at checkout.

“We’ve definitely seen a lift in conversions,” Geng says. “We think as long as we continue to offer customers better experiences our conversion rates will continue to increase, even if it’s just fractionally, which translates into a substantial increase in sales over time.”

Smokin’ Data

If the Smoke Cartel has a bright future, it’ll be because it’s co-founders revere data for its ability to take the company to new highs. “It’s not just data for data’s sake,” Geng reminds. “If you’re not data oriented and constantly striving to create better customer experiences you’re not going to last long, especially in an industry like ours.”

The glassware industry has attracted its share of high profile attention from law enforcement in recent years. While Geng has been able to successfully navigate how he markets and sells his glassware, he actually hopes the way he does business in five years looks nothing like it does today.

“I’m all for change and hope we’ll be doing everything differently so long as we’re improving,” he says. “If you don’t adapt, you’re going to die.”

At least one thing will remain constant though; Smoke Cartel’s reliance on Shopify Plus as its main revenue driver. “Our business is built on Shopify,” Geng says. “With all of the restrictions and things we’re not allowed to do like advertise on major platforms, we rely on Shopify as our core sales channel.”

Turns out you can win with one arm tied behind your back…

So long as you have the right partner.

About The Author

Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.

We've all felt the sting of injustice … But imagine trying to run a business that is maligned by a portion of the world and without being allowed to advertise in key locations. That's entrepreneurial injustice, right? Unfortunately, it's reality for Sean Geng and the products he sells online. But Geng is the stubborn type and has identified several ways to reach consumers even with one hand tied behind his back. Not only can Geng teach you how to create a better customer experience and boost conversions, but he also provides a blueprint for optimizing your site in ways that allow you to make money even from consumers who don't wind up purchasing from you …

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