Part three in an ongoing series about a small business start-up trying to succeed on the web without relying on traffic from the major search engines.

In the last article before we move into site development and marketing mode, I'm going to give you the final bit of background on how we decided to set up the business. After all, the basis of your business is often the basis of your marketing's not the type of thing that can serve as an after thought.

Once Abigail and I had decided to pair up to launch a bento blog and bento box business, we still needed to figure out what made us unique...what made our offering different (and better) than everyone else's. We needed a unique selling proposition that went beyond "hey, we have this great stuff to sell."

The first thing we did was take a look at our competition. As best we could see there were only a few sources for buying bento boxes and supplies online. The first option was to go through commercial restaurant supply companies. These sites tended to deal in more traditional lacquered boxes, great for dinner parties, but not so great for packing your kid's lunch for school. The other option was eBay. In fact, nearly everyone seemed to be buying their bento supplies on eBay.

When we looked deeper, we could see that there were three primary ways people were selling through eBay.

1.) Individuals were selling the bento supplies that they had tired of, or that they had excess of.

2.) A few people had set up eBay stores that were continually stocked with bento boxes and bento accessories.

3.) One person was selling a very limited number of full bento starter kits.

Most of the conversation in the bento community about where and what to buy seemed to focus on the last two options. That left us giving serious though to utilizing eBay for sales.

The problem with that idea was that there was already quite a bit of competition on eBay. There was also the obvious problem of eBay fees. While the margins on bento products aren't bad, the high cost of shipping from Japan meant that we could only pad the actual product price so much before losing customers. With eBay fees eating into profits, our margins stood to be cut by more than a third.

As we pondered how to address this situation I began following a few auctions myself, hoping to buy a new bento starter kit for my sister-in-law for her birthday. I missed four sets either because I was busy and missed a last minute bid, or because the price simply went too high. On top of that, I found myself getting annoyed as I waited and waited and waited for a set to show up that I liked. While eBay offered lots of options, they were expensive and frustrating to purchase.

That's when I realized that we didn't really need eBay. The bento community was small enough that we could sell directly through our web site and rely on traditional marketing and word of mouth to drive traffic and sales. At the time, we figured we could leverage eBay to our advantage by posting a single set at a time and using the listing to drive traffic to our additional offerings at the site.

By selling direct we could make more money off of fewer sets with less hassle. That meant that we could drop our prices low enough to entice shoppers away from the eBay listings. After all, they could buy the same type sets from us at similar prices, but without having to worry about winning an auction.

Once we'd decided to sell direct on our site, we needed to decide what to sell.

The biggest complaint I was hearing from bento communities was the cost of shipping and how difficult it made bento shopping. Finding a seller that had all of the items you wanted so that you could combine the shipping proved difficult and many users were paying as much (or more) in shipping as they were for a single item. We also noticed that people were enamoured with matching sets, since presentation is such an integral part of bento style lunches.

Since we also planned to market our products outside the existing bento community, it seemed like a no-brainer to offer complete bento starter kits. The kits would feature two sizes of bento boxes with matching utensils, accessories and carrying bags. We aimed to keep the price under $30 (including shipping) to make them affordable enough to be an impulse buy and we decided that we'd rotate out the stock of sets so that new options were always popping up at the site. This would encourage repeat visitors since many in the bento community build large bento collections.

Thus, the idea of complete bento starter sets ready to be purchased and shipped with the click of a button became Bento Yum's unique selling proposition. We had a plan and it was time to start putting things together.

In the next article in the series, I'll explain how we setup the site and the store and will give some input on why we chose the blog software and payment system that we did.

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June 19, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Hide and Speak: Have a Unique Selling Proposition