Notes from a novice webmaster by Marla Mallett
25 May 2004
Jozan Magazine has asked Marla Mallett - Atlanta
dealer in ethnographic textiles, expert on rug and textile structure and
author of Woven Structures - to tell about her experiences on world wide
web. Despite of her title to this article Marla Mallett has created a really successful web site.
When I first launched a website in early 1999, I could not have imagined the monster 400 megabyte site that it would become in just five years. It now has over 1100 rugs and textiles offered for sale, several informational sections, and about 4500 photos. In fact, I began the website after friends suggested it might be a good way to liquidate the kilim inventory in a gallery business that I was ready to wind down. Being a totally non-technical type, I only grudgingly decided to give it a try. The following notes are in response to a request that I write a few remarks about my experiences.
I had been working as a private dealer in ethnographic textiles for many years, participating in antique shows and meeting collectors, designers and art agents by appointment in a gallery at my home. The website proved to be a much better venue. Although collectors of antique kilims from Anatolia, the Caucasus and Persia are passionate about their subject, they are a distinct minority among Oriental rug aficionados. In gaining a worldwide audience, my business increased dramatically.
The website got off to a slow start. I was determined to do everything myself--to be my own webmaster with control over every aspect of the site and the ability to update it constantly. I first spent a couple of weeks reading about how Search Engines work and how to
optimize a site for their searches. It seemed senseless to construct a site if no one could find it! Good Search Engine rankings were critical, considering the thousands of rug and textile sites on the web. This intuition proved correct. I encourage anyone planning a new website to do their search engine homework first. I had already spent a year working with
Photoshop software for a desktop publishing project, and so next studied
FrontPage website construction software, plowing through portions of three manuals before figuring out basic procedures. The site was finally launched in March of 1999 with 225
kilims, bags, tapestries and other assorted textiles.
Traffic to the website was very light initially, and I spent lots of time studying detailed site statistic reports to see what was attracting viewers. During the first year, I rarely had more than 40 or 50 visitors to the site each day. Sales were
slim: only 65 pieces sold from the website during the first year.
I wondered if it might be helpful to include information on the site for new collectors, so I wrote and posted several short essays. Hoping that my educational material would convince other webmasters to provide reciprocal links, I spent hours searching the web for appropriate venues and making the necessary contacts. Links obtained in this manner did indeed bring new people to the site.
I worked next on a website section devoted to technical rug information. I had
published a book called
Woven Structures and was eager to expand and update that material. I encouraged friends to send technical questions or scans of peculiar rug details. Posting their photos along with explanations kept me entertained when sales were slow. Together with new internet friends from Belgium and Switzerland, I developed some serious research projects--first cataloguing details of unusual rug end finishes, then collecting examples of offset knotting in pile rugs, and later researching specialized tent band structures. One result of this collaboration: the website gained credibility and more exposure.
As the Search Engine listings improved, site traffic picked up dramatically, and has improved continually since. Now an average of 2600 people visit the web site daily. Over 40,000 hits are registered each day-over 40,000 images or pages accessed. More to the point: I am sending out rugs or textiles every day. People ask me what it costs to get good listings, but I have never paid a penny to Listing services or Search Engines to enhance my rankings. I still need to work at improving my listings in one or two specialized textile sections.
A big hurdle to overcome is people's natural reluctance to entrust money to a web business without visiting an actual gallery or meeting the proprietor. It is surprising how many new customers begin their e-mails by writing, "I have been looking at your site for several months now..." Building credibility was one reason for including informational material. To further compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact, I attempt to make my correspondence personal. It is gratifying that a large percentage of my sales are to repeat customers. Site statistics now show that over thirty percent of my daily website visitors come directly to the site, presumably having bookmarked it. A few loyal customers laughingly refer to themselves as "site stalkers," ready to pounce on interesting newly posted pieces.
My plans to liquidate the inventory and shut down the textile business have now evaporated! Instead, the inventory has been expanding wildly. Although my focus and passion has always been Middle Eastern
kilims, for the past 27 years I have handled a range of antique and ethnographic textiles from other parts of the world as well. I showed a sampling of these online. At one point, I was astonished to discover that more people were clicking onto the site to look for old Japanese kimono than anything else. With only a couple of embroidered examples posted, it seemed sensible to add a few. With help from a kimono expert who had 30 years of experience in buying old garments in Japan, I gradually built a substantial Japanese kimono web selection: It now shows 150 antique and vintage pieces.
Other sections expanded as well. I encountered an old friend who was finding wonderful Minority embroideries and costume items in China, and together we developed a
marvelous, constantly changing collection. I upgraded my contemporary folk art tapestry offerings after tracking down an obscure Egyptian studio. I expanded Indonesian
ikat, African textile and Han Chinese embroidery offerings. As time permitted, I added bibliographies, background information and translations of inscriptions, with generous help from a new Beijing acquaintance and a Singapore linguist friend. Then along came a man with exquisite Lao brocades, some young women with Indian pieces, and people with Afghani and Pakistani textiles. I intensified my regular kilim searches in Turkey, and began looking more diligently for Central Asian and Ottoman textiles. I now have large piles of textiles in reserve, waiting to be posted.
The more the website grew, the more attention it attracted. Over 1400 textiles have now sold from the on-line offerings, to customers all around the world. In the process, I've made fabulous new friends among textile collectors. What an enjoyable "retirement"! So much for quitting the business!
To anyone considering a new website venture, I would offer encouragement: If I can do it, anyone can. The downside is the vast amount of time required. I have never before worked such long hours. For me, at least half of each day is spent composing e-mails, answering calls, typing invoices, and packing textiles. Perhaps forty percent of the time is spent photographing weavings, editing the images in
Photoshop, matching colors to the textiles, and constructing web pages. On a good day I can post only four or five textiles. Little time remains for restoration work or the textile hunt. Overseas buying trips must be arranged to accommodate the continual onslaught of e-mails. The ultimate irony is that I now discourage people from coming to my home gallery to see textiles, because there is little time for that. My long-time enterprise has been transformed-to become almost entirely an on-line gallery business.
My customers have been frank in telling me what they like and don't like about rug and textile websites. First, everyone says that they want to see prices listed. Most dislike having to send inquiries, and they tend to skip sites without prices, as they often have no idea what might be within their budgets. My listed prices are firm, and many people are relieved that they need not haggle over them. Folks appreciate clear and accurate website photos; they don't like receiving unrecognizable purchases in the mail. Thus I'm convinced that the effort expended in learning to use
Photoshop's editing options was time well spent.
People appreciate that any piece can be returned for a refund if they don't like it. I'm convinced that I would sell very little if this were not my policy. I personally would not buy a rug or textile from photos without having return privileges, and I don't expect my customers to do so. They appreciate having flaws in pieces pointed out and accurate condition assessments noted in descriptions. They appreciate having their e-mail inquiries answered promptly. Whenever possible, I respond within an hour or two.
Everyone is annoyed with sites that are badly out of date, or that show more than occasional items marked SOLD. Nearly every customer asks that I notify him or her when I get new pieces, but since my time is limited, I don't promise what I can't deliver. I don't send out announcements of newly posted items because I add new pieces somewhere on the site nearly every day. Some textiles seem to languish on the site forever, while others sell within a day or two of being posted. This often has little to do with their relative quality or value. The pieces that are most "photogenic" inevitably sell first. Ironically, it is usually a piece that has been posted forever that three people then desperately want at the same time!
Finally, people appreciate knowing with whom they are dealing. I hear complaints about websites that offer merchandise
anonymously--sites on which you cannot find the proprietor's name.
I enjoy every aspect of building and maintaining my website. I have not been an enthusiastic letter-writer in the past, but I have come to enjoy corresponding with other rug and textile enthusiasts. For me, the world-wide-web is fabulous, and I am delighted to have become a part of it.
Atlanta, Georgia USA May 2004