‘Tis the Season
WHAT GOT HIM HERE: A failed catalog company of his own. After a brief stint working in television as a producer of a live talk show on cable TV, Chris Harris turned to direct marketing, an arena that always intrigued him. He founded his own catalog/multichannel company, the Graham Harris Trading Co., on a business model he formulated in college. His goal was to be the distributor of the finest men’s and women’s apparel and accessories available through the mail and online.
For a while, it appeared he would do just that. Starting the company with “a balance of about $50 to my name,” Harris helped guide it to $5 million in annual sales, offering 10,000 SKUs and mailing more than 2 million catalogs. But one major error brought it all crashing down.
Because the company grew so rapidly, it quickly outgrew its own in-house fulfillment capabilities. So Harris chose to outsource fulfillment. “We went with a new company that promised us a turnkey solution for inbound telesales as well as fulfillment,” he recalls. But problems began almost immediately.
“Once we got our product there, the vendor wanted to renegotiate the deal,” Harris explains. “It held us hostage, because it wasn’t doing its work.”
This had a ripple effect on the entire company. The goodwill it had built with customers was gone, vendor relationships were strained, cash flow was nonexistent. Harris was forced to shut down the company.
“Next to the passing of my father,” Harris recalls, “this was the hardest thing I’d ever dealt with. And probably the saddest, because I’d gone out as a young man and raised money to build this business. I had a lot of small investors who believed in me as a person. And we were doing so well and everyone was so excited that when we lost it, I felt like I had really let them down.”
WHAT HE GAINED FROM THIS: The importance of the back end. “You could get a million orders,” Harris says, “but if you can’t fulfill those orders properly, timely and efficiently, you’ll lose your business or your business won’t grow.”
His advice to other multichannel merchants is to constantly examine the back end of your business. “Develop a corporate culture where everybody sees themselves as being part of the sales and marketing team,” he advises. “Everybody in your company can be a touchpoint. The people picking, packing and shipping your products are handling one of the most important steps in the whole selling process. They all represent a touchpoint. Make consumers feel that they made a good decision by going with you.”
WHAT HE ENJOYS MOST ABOUT THE CATALOG/MULTICHANNEL BUSINESS: Studying people. As a political science major in college, Harris enjoyed understanding what moved people, what made them tick. For him, this was a natural transition. “Direct marketing can be very formulaic,” he says, “if you get the formula right, you can enjoy tremendous growth. Once you understand the formula behind what your particular business or niche does well, by targeting your audience properly you can put out in the marketplace enough information to get a very good response.”
To read or listen to the full interview, click on the appropriate link under related content, above.