Mark Rofe is a digital marketer, with about 10 years working across Ecommerce, Fintech, and Digital PR. This year Mark decided to quit his job at a digital PR agency (rise at seven) to spend a couple of months building up an ecommerce site selling Christmas Trees online.
Mark had purchased a good domain name – ChristmasTrees.co.uk – in December 2019. In mid-2020 he decided to build the site up to launch it in October 2020.
In this interview, Dan Barker talks to Mark about the process, and his results so far. We chose the date for the interview as it is the exact midpoint between the date his site launched, and Christmas itself. It aims to give the reader an idea of what his goals were, how he approached the project, the tech and marketing he’s using, and how he plans to progress it further.
Dan: It’s roughly 6 weeks since you launched the site, and roughly 6 weeks left till Christmas. Are you happy with how things are going so far?
Mark: Yeah definitely. So far I’m up to about £30,000 in revenue, which is great, and half of that was just in the last week. I think if I keep up the pace and manage not to run out of stock it could reach about £100,000 this year.
Only a small amount of that is profit of course, but it’s gone much better than I’d expected so far, and it’s still going up every week.
Dan: That’s great. So for people reading, why did you choose Christmas Trees, and what do you think are some of the factors that have helped make it a success so far?
Mark: I’ve kind of done this a little bit before. I’ve done a couple of seasonal things before. One of those is a Santa letter website (https://www.realsantaletters.co.uk), where kids get a personalised letter from Santa. With that, someone literally got in touch with me and said I’ve had a good idea, do you want to work on it together?
I was like – yeah sure, why not. It seemed like an easy thing to do – selling a piece of paper for £6 pretty much, and not just the money side of things, but it’s a nice thing to do. You can imagine kids at Christmas – it’s one of those gifts that don’t really cost too much, but have a high impact. So that’s where that idea came from, and I think doing that over the last couple of years has helped a bit with knowing how this might go and thinking about the market a little bit.
Dan: So that’s a slightly different but similar project, where you learned some things that’ve helped with this. When did you start that?
Mark: 2017 it would be. So that helped. I also used to work for Arena Flowers. I think that experience has helped too, and gave me a bit of an idea about the product. Although trees and flowers are not quite the same, there are similarities. I think those two things definitely helped with giving me some pieces of knowledge. Picking up bits of information, and learning as you go along definitely helps.
That’s kind of my background: I’ve started off with lots of little websites in the past and learned bits from them, so it’s not such a big leap. Which is good for people to remember I think – even if it’s your first website or your first project, and you make mistakes, it helps you for the future.
Dan: This particular site, it’s an ‘exact match’ domain name for a particular product. How did you get the domain name?
Mark: I saw it up for auction on domainlore.co.uk about a year ago. I thought if it doesn’t sell for too much, I’d definitely try to go for it. I used some of the profits from the Santa Letters website to buy it, just thinking “I’d like to do something with this one day”. Then when the pandemic hit this year, I thought “this might be a good opportunity”, and thought I’d regret it if I didn’t give it a go, so I decided to build a site up for launch.
Dan: I think you’ve mentioned how much the domain cost before – how much was it?
Mark: The domain name was £1,600. It’s the kind of thing where sometimes I tell people and they say “ooh that’s a lot of money”. But I know it had sold for £5,000 in the past, when I bought it I was immediately offered more for it, and it’s probably the best domain you can have if you’re selling Christmas Trees in the UK.
It has all sorts of other benefits too: My AdWords quality scores are all 10, it feels authoritative for people coming to the site. I’m sometimes surprised – I think some people are a bit stingy when it comes to domain names and try and look for something that isn’t registered, but a good domain name brings you so many benefits. I always think it’s strange that you can find businesses spending thousands per day on ads, but who wouldn’t spend more than £10 on a domain name.
So that’s where the idea came from – a domain name, and having a little bit of knowledge of seasonal businesses. It’s a nice product, one that’s fun for me, and it can maybe make a bit of money as well in the long term. If I wanted to make a lot of money in the short term, particularly early on, I wouldn’t do this. If I wanted to make a lot of money in the short term I’d probably be better off just freelancing every day.
Dan: In terms of finding a supplier – how did you approach that?
Mark: I always thought the best way to do this would be to drop ship the trees. But when I tried to find a supplier, I contacted wholesale companies and two of them just said ‘no that’s something we won’t do’. They said I could buy a load of trees, but I’d have to buy them all up front, pick them, store them, and everything. Some even said they’d tried dropshipping before and it hadn’t worked, the trees had been damaged.
It was really important for me to find a great supplier, who had good quality trees, and knew what they were doing. So I dropped a note into a Facebook group I’m a part of, and someone mentioned this company that they’d worked with. I got in touch, and it turned out they handle the trees for a very well known, quality high street brand, so I talked through the details and realised they’d be the one.
(In some markets, there are supplier lists. In Mark’s case he went via word-of mouth, as he had a requirement many didn’t seem to be able to handle)
Dan: So you decided on a single supplier? Because I know some may want to have two or three in a market where stock could run low.
Mark: Well initially I tried to talk to a couple of others – one was the company behind Patch Plants, but they went quiet on me and then said they couldn’t do it. A little afterward I saw that they still seemed to be trying to do that with other people, but I actually think it worked out well for me, because I ended up finding this supplier, and they’re perfect for what I’m trying to do in terms of quality and service.
Dan: What was the reasoning behind the ecommerce platform you chose?
Mark: I wanted to use wordpress and woocommerce because it was something I was familiar with. I didn’t want to switch across to something like Shopify, even though I’ve heard lots of good things about it, because I didn’t know it. I then picked a theme from themeforest, and then found a designer and paid them a little bit of money to set up the theme and spruce it all up, and make it look great.
Dan: So was that literally the whole setup process?
Mark: On top of that it’s just lots of plugins. Plugins for the delivery date, a plugin for upsells, one for abandoned basket emails, another one that pops up the upsell in the cart so that if someone adds a tree it asks if they’d like a stand. There’s a live chat plugin, and I bought a Google Analytics one because I couldn’t work out how to code it properly. I’ve got one to export orders into CSV, Stripe, Yoast for SEO, one that tracks my customer emails that go out. Probably too many plugins thinking about it.
Dan: Which of those would you actually recommend to others?
Mark: Just the ones related to woocommerce and exporting the orders really, plus Stripe. They’re all kind of essential. The one for exporting orders is to pass the orders to the supplier. It does that through CSV files.
Dan: So when a customer places an order what happens?
Mark: So when they order from the website, I send them an email to confirm the order, the order gets passed to the supplier via CSV. The supplier then emails the customer directly the day before the tree is going to arrive. They’ve given me a login to the tracking system, so if I get any queries the customer can give me an order ID and I can look it up for them.
I think I’ll be pretty busy at the point the trees start arriving, especially with queries from customers if their trees don’t arrive in the morning.
Dan: Do you contact the customers at all after the order has taken place & you’ve confirmed?
Mark: I’m planning to export all the orders, because I have all the order dates, and then email them the day after the tree’s arrived asking them how the delivery was, and encouraging them to share on social media. Another thing I’m trying to do is find a company to partner with for recycling, so I can email customers offering a collection service if possible. It’s important to me that they get recycled properly afterward, even if that’s just me providing details of where they can do that.
Dan: Apart from trees are you selling any other products?
Mark: Aside from trees and stands I have a couple of others, from another supplier, mini trees and wreaths. I think I’ll add more next year: Lights, decorations, and others.
Dan: Did you choose specifically not to sell other products this year, or was it just a time thing?
Mark: I really wanted to make sure I nailed trees properly this year, as that’s the core product. I’d like to get that really fully sorted this year, and then add others next year. Plus I was a bit worried – if lights and decorations are from a different supplier, and they arrived after the tree, that wouldn’t be good. So this year I’m focused mainly on trees.
Dan: And how are things going so far?
Mark: Right now we’re on the 19th of November. In the last week I’ve had 50% of all my sales, and that’s from launching on the 7th of October. So if I carry on at this rate it’s just going to explode. Here’s some data for the last couple of weekends:
- 2 weeks ago on Saturday it was £2,500, the most recent Saturday was £2,900.
- 2 weeks ago on Sunday it was £2,400, the most recent Sunday it was £3,100.
So that’s roughly 25% up on the previous week, and we’re still in mid November.
Dan: Is the marketing spend similar across those weekends?
Mark: It was a lot higher last weekend. There’s much more demand, because more people are searching. That’s one thing I have to get better at. Early on I was definitely overspending for ads. I was bidding to be at the very top. I realised I could lower them a bit, and still appear above organic results, and then make some more efficiencies by cutting out words that weren’t particularly converting.
Dan: That makes sense – so rather than go for huge volumes, start out a little bit broader, and then quickly find efficiencies.
Mark: Exactly that. It’s easy to get sales, it’s harder to get sales efficiently. If money was no issue I could get loads of sales, but I need it to be profitable straight off. So I’ve tried to get things more efficient and then maybe build up a bit more slowly.
Dan: Are you aiming for a high profit this year, or balancing that with keeping sales as high as possible?
Mark: It’s profitable but I’m sort of trying to balance that with keeping sales up. It would be nice to be higher, and that’s part of why I’m making sure I keep things efficient, but my focus this year is mainly around proving that I can make it work and sell trees and provide a good service.
Dan: Do you have any other marketing channels aside from AdWords?
Mark: It’s mostly Google Ads at the moment. I’ve started to see some sales trickle in from organic search. I’ve spent a lot of time on linkbuilding, but that’s obviously something that takes time. So that might not really have an impact this Christmas, but will for next Christmas. But for linkbuilding now is the time to be doing that even for next Christmas, as now’s the time websites are willing to cover Christmas.
Dan: That’s a good point. And in terms of linkbuilding & online PR – how are you doing that?
Mark: I had a bit of a think about it, and I’m doing 3 types of campaigns really:
- A campaign around cat friendly trees. Those are just trees with the lower branches removed, so that trees can’t get tangled up, or reach the needles.
- The second is a product campaign, just trying to get coverage of the products in articles, and I’ve had a couple of good results there – a mention in The Sun.
- The third is the one that’s working the best so far. I ran a freedom of information request across a load of councils, to find out how much they each spend on Christmas lights. I’ve then gathered together that data into a blog post, and talked about what the spend per person is across a load of cities across the UK. That’s had really good results because lots of local sites want to cover it from the local angle.
Dan: The third campaign there sounds like it may be interesting for people to know about. How did you put that campaign together?
Mark: I found a website that listed all of the councils’ email addresses. I just contacted them from that point to ask for the stats I wanted. This was quite a while ago, back in August, and some of them still haven’t even replied, which I think they’re supposed to legally, but I got enough to have a good set of information.
So I gathered that all together, pulled out all the data, pulled out the most interesting findings, wrote up a press release, found the email addresses of journalists I thought would be most interested in covering and emailed them.
I’m still trying to push that out now. PR stuffs quite hard though because it takes a lot of time. I could still do a lot more on it. It’s just the time consuming bit is finding who to contact. There are so many regional angles, but I almost have to do a separate press release for each region to have a chance of success, rather than send a blanket one.
The data Mark created for his linkbuilding campaign:
It’s been good overall though – from the 3 different campaigns I’ve had more than 100 links, which is pretty good. I’ve been keeping an eye on rankings. I don’t think it will have an impact this year, but I have noticed the site’s been appearing occasionally in position 7 on the first page of Google. Some of that’s dependent on location though, because obviously in a normal year some people would be looking to buy locally.
The rough process Mark went through to plan & execute his data-centred campaign:
- Brainstorm ideas for potential campaigns.
- Figure out roughly which would have potential:
- To be able to gather the info for the story required.
- To be achievable with the budget. (in this case £0)
- To be the type of thing that news sites would cover as a matter of course.
- To be applicable to the market.
- To be ‘new’ – ie, something that would be a common pattern, but where there isn’t a well known similar thing in this market.
- Choose the best bets from that list.
- In this case: Find the contacts to gather the data.
- Gather the data itself, and put that together.
- Write a simple, highly relevant press release.
- Research which journalists may be most interested, from:
- Personal knowledge.
- Looking for similarish articles, and putting together a journo list from those.
- Looking for those with a specific angle (in this case, local journalists in the most newsworthy towns within the data).
- Reach out to journalists, provide them with any extras they need.
- Track coverage.
- Reach out to try and ensure there are links in any articles where there was coverage, but where they did not link in the first instance.
Dan: So those are the two marketing channels – PPC for this year, SEO building up toward next Christmas.
Mark: Yeah. I wanted to spend most time around the areas where I’m most familiar. I haven’t done any social ads or anything. I’ve done a couple of other bits…
Dan: What were the other bits?
Mark: Before I launched I had a holding page gathering email addresses. That got 100 or so signups. So when I launched I emailed that list. And then I’ve also been tweeting about how the journey’s going, and some people are following along from that.
Dan: From those channels together – PPC, your personal brand, your SEO/PR stuff – how would you say things split out?
Mark: I’d say definitely most of the sales have come from Google Ads. I’d say 10% have come through people I know through Twitter, et cetera. Organic’s quite small too. So 80% Google Ads, and maybe 10% each from SEO and my own personal contacts.
Next year I’m hoping I’ll be getting a lot more sales through organic. Some of that takes time, and I’m really hoping my product pages start ranking, because those are the kinds of specific terms people search for that convert much better. If someone searches for ‘Korean Fir Christmas Tree’ for example, I’d expect that will convert much better. I’m hoping I’ll be able to rank well for all of those more commercial terms and that they’ll bring in a good amount of sales.
Dan: Great. And with PPC as the main channel – how has that gone so far?
Mark: It wasn’t great in the beginning. In fact conversion was so low I turned it off for a while. But as it gets closer to December that’s gone up. People have higher intent, and they’re more likely to buy. I’ve also made some changes to the site to try and improve conversion from PPC.
Dan: What changes have you made to the site itself?
Mark: The funnel wasn’t great. The homepage didn’t really encourage people go further, the product pages didn’t really flow people through well. So I’ve made sure the homepage pushes people toward the main listing page, and that has enough detail for people to choose which product to click through to, and then on the product listing page making sure there’s enough info and that it encourages people to add to cart.
One thing I also played around with was making sure it’s very obvious that you can buy a stand at the same time, so that pops up when you add to cart. I can make more if I sell a stand, so I’ve made sure that’s very easy to add.
That’s one interesting thing. I’ve made quite a lot of revenue so far, but for next year adding in other products would help more.
Dan: Is there anything particular on the product detail pages you think works well?
Mark: Yeah. I come from an SEO background. I’ve noticed from looking around competitors that most don’t really help people to understand what they might want to buy. Lots of them just describe the trees, without giving reason that people would buy that particular tree over the other options.
So for example I mention that a particular tree has soft needles, so it’s great for people with kids or pets. Or that another tree is the best selling in the UK. So it’s not just describing the trees, but matching why someone might want to buy them, which also gives enough info to help them to rank in Google.
Dan: You also mentioned you’ve added a cross sell stage, is there anything else you’ve played around with to try and improve results?
Mark: One thing I realised was because it’s so early on for me, I don’t really have any social proof. Nobody has the trees yet, so I don’t have any reviews. But one thing I have done related to that is – because I’ve been lucky enough to be in The Sun, Woman and Home, The Express – I’ve added logos from those to the homepage to help bring a bit of trust.
I think the domain name helps a lot with that too, because it feels very authoritative. I think all things being equal, if you came to my site vs another site that was exactly the same, all things being equal, I’d expect they’d be more comfortable buying from me, and happier to spend more, just because of the domain name. That’s not something I can prove or anything, but that’s my feeling.
So that’s one thing I’ve thought about a bit more – trying to make sure people trust the site.
Dan: And for those who don’t buy, you’d mentioned you have an abandoned basket setup, do you have anything else?
Mark: Yeah one other thing. I have an email signup box, and Dan Grech helped me to set up a welcome program for anyone who leaves an email address there. I need to take a look at the tracking to see how that’s going.
Dan: What are you doing in terms of tracking and measurement? Are you doing anything in particular?
Mark: Not much to be honest. Just using Google Analytics a bit, and the sales from the site in woocommerce. And making a note of the links I’ve got. I’ve kept that fairly simple to be honest.
Dan: Is there anything interesting you’ve noticed in the data so far?
Mark: Not so much in the data, but one funny thing that happened. Barry Schwarz wrote up an article where I was basically just joking around with John Mu of Google on Twitter, and I think John was joking back. I haven’t met him but he seems just brilliant – he’s so funny. Anyway, Barry Schwarz wrote it up on his site as a story about Google, and he mentioned the site but he didn’t even link to it. So that was one funny thing I noticed where I thought “you could have at least given me a link”.
I’ve also noticed the rankings. As I mentioned I’ve appeared a little bit for my main keyword. I’ve also noticed there are different pockets of searches, like ‘real christmas trees’. One of my competitors has the exact domain for that, so they rank really well.
I also did a bit of digging into the market in general at the beginning.
Dan: That’s a good point. When you first mentioned you were quitting your job to launch a Christmas Tree site, I think a lot of people asked why you’d do something for such a seasonal business.
Mark: Yeah. A lot of people commented, so I had a bit of a look at the market. In the UK alone there are 8 million Christmas Trees sold every year. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association has 320 members. So it’s a surprisingly big market. If you think about the average price of a tree, even if I can only reach maybe 1% of the market eventually that’s still quite a lot of money.
I think when I started it a lot of people thought maybe I’d fail, or that the market wasn’t big enough online. I kind of like that though. I think that sort of spurs me on. I’ve sold some products where I’ve thought “If I can sell 1,000 of those online, I’m sure I can sell a product that’s actually really nice.”
But yeah, a few warned me that there wasn’t enough demand. So it’s kind of funny that I’ve ended up in a position where my biggest worry is whether there’s enough supply rather than enough demand. And I don’t think things will go back to how they were before the pandemic, lots of people will keep buying online next year and the year after.
Dan: That’s a good point – so you think the market you’ve got into has shifted, and that you’ll keep benefitting from that over the next few years?
Mark: Yeah. And looking around at competitors, I think there are lots who have come from a background selling trees offline. They know that kind of world. As I mentioned there are 320 members of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. They know how to grow trees, and look after them and nurture them really well, and they know how to sell them to people who sell them offline. But lots of them don’t really know the online world, and don’t know how to market them.
That’s something I think I looked for a little bit when thinking about getting into the market: Somewhere where I know how to market it online, but lots of the potential suppliers don’t necessarily have those skills. They know how to grow trees and look after them, I know how to market them and sell them online.
Dan: I suppose it’s a nice, interesting product as well…
Mark: Yeah it’s exactly that. I said it before – Arena Flowers was a really nice company to work for, people love flowers. Christmas trees are the same. People love to receive them, so it’s a nice thing to be doing. And if 8 million trees are selling each year, and a good percentage of that is moving online, that’s a good market with a nice product.
Dan: And aside from the product, and the general idea of the site, money-wise, did you have any particular goals at the start of this?
Mark: I’d like to get it to the point where it brings in enough money to have a good income over the course of a year, but where the work for that mostly happens within a couple of months of the year. That would give me quite a lot of flexibility. I don’t think that’ll happen this year – well actually I know it won’t happen this year – but if I get things right maybe next year.
Dan: That sounds like a good goal. And so when it reaches the last few days in the run up to Christmas, when sales have dropped off, what are you planning to do next?
Mark: One thing I’m looking at is another ecommerce site. I’m not sure whether I’ll do it immediately, but perhaps another seasonal business at another point in the year. One thing I’d had a look at was bees, and perhaps selling beehives.
That’s a bit similar in a way: It’s an old school industry, where most of the market doesn’t really know how things work online, but there is demand online. I’ve looked at a few potential suppliers for that, and I’ll scope around for domain names, and try to figure that out, but I don’t really know what’s next. I’m just focussing on the now, and on making sure I get things right with ChristmasTrees.co.uk over the next month.
Dan: That’s great, Mark. Thanks so much for sharing all the information. Best of luck with ChristmasTrees.co.uk, and I look forward to meeting up again soon.
You can take a look at the site at ChristmasTrees.co.uk. And… if you’ve read this article to the end, please do take a moment to share it on Twitter, or LinkedIn.