Sunday, January 18, 2004

Couple finds brides are big business


Online veil shop began from her hobby

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Beckie and Robert Walker hold one of their wedding veil creations in West Chester Township.
(Michael Snyder photo)
WEST CHESTER TWP. - There are days when Beckie Walker has to pinch herself to prove that her dream business is real. But most of the time she's too busy to even do that.

Walker and her husband, Robert, are the owners of VeilShop.com, an online purveyor of bridal and first-communion veils and coordinating headpieces. They and their five part-time employees work out of the basement of Beckie Walker's mother's home. Having outgrown the basement of their own Mason home, the Walkers are building a new home nearby, complete with a 2,400-square-foot basement for their company.

"We designed the house around the basement," Beckie Walker said with a laugh.

Like many small businesses, Beckie Walker's grew out of a hobby. An accomplished seamstress, she had made her own wedding headwear and that of several friends.

"I got the idea for a business specializing in veils and headpieces from my own wedding in 1996 because of the poor selection available," she said. "But I didn't have an outlet for my veils, so the idea sat on the back burner until January of 2000, when my sister showed me how to use e-Bay."

Beckie Walker had nine sample veils, which were immediately snapped up on the Internet auction site, and demand burgeoned. She continued her career as a physical therapist until May of that year, when she could no longer keep up with orders for her veils.

"I quit my job and decided the time was right to launch a Web site," she said.

NETTING CUSTOMERS
VeilShop.com's owners believe their company competes on both price and quality with other retailers of bridal headwear. Because Beckie Walker is a seamstress herself, she says, her standards are high.

All orders from AA Bridal are shipped to VeilShop, where the merchandise is inspected by five different pairs of eyes and the veils are steamed and pressed before they are folded and packed for shipment to customers.

"The edge finish can't look tacky and puckered," Walker said.

"Our motto is: 'Presentation, presentation, presentation,'" added her husband, Robert.

Information: 759-7638 or Web site.

Robert Walker, also a physical therapist, agreed to keep the books and help prepare shipments at night.

"Neither of us had any idea how to create a Web site," said Robert Walker. "I had some business background, but it was a different ball game."

So Beckie Walker taught herself how to use FrontPage software, and the couple looked for a Web design company that could help them with the complicated aspects of site setup, like the shopping cart feature.

"We started at the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000," Robert Walker added. "We were living in Seattle at the time, living, breathing, eating the tech world. We didn't want to be techies, but thought that doing things ourselves might be the most affordable way of getting started."

"So many companies claimed they could help us, but they weren't there the next week," Beckie Walker said of the imploding e-commerce world.

They made do, and sales kept increasing.

"I couldn't keep up with the demand," Beckie Walker said. "Initially, I made all the veils and ordered the headpieces from a manufacturer in California. The business took over our apartment. We had one small corner to sleep in and one small corner to eat in. Forget cooking!"

Robert Walker left his job in March 2001 to work full-time with his wife. Then the couple learned they were expecting a baby. They knew they would need support from their families to balance the needs of their company and the needs of their new child. So they decided to move back home to Mason, where they still owned a home with basement workspace.

"In the summer of 2001, there must have been about 100 (Internet) postings from people all over the country about our business," Beckie Walker recalled. "That's when it hit me that we were a real business, not doing e-Bay anymore. It was so amazing to me that people had heard of us and that VeilShop.com was known by name."

Since relocating, the two have worked hard to increase their visibility, their sales and their inventory, while keeping overhead low. Beckie Walker no longer makes the veils they sell; instead, they order from AA Bridal in California, the manufacturer that was selling them their headpieces.

"They are a great company and do a high volume of business with us," said Emmy Flores, AA Bridal's office manager.

The Walkers have also taught themselves, step by step, the basics of Web commerce. They have tackled issues of Web site linking, setting up MasterCard and Visa payment options for their customers, and gradually creating a much more complete online store.

A major expense - and headache - has been managing their pay-per-click search engines. To keep Web shoppers coming to their site, Robert Walker constantly monitors VeilShop.com's position on search lists, making sure that certain key terms continue to drive traffic to them.

Those pay-per-click fees are not the only unpredictable expenses for an online business, the Walkers have found. Other fluctuating costs include site-hosting fees, fees for their credit card transactions, and shipping costs.

"Unless you have been in the business, you wouldn't know," Beckie Walker said. "Had we had mentors we wouldn't have done some of those things, but we've learned."

"Last year was our breakthrough year," Robert Walker said, noting that sales in 2003 were up 25 percent over 2002. "We were paying an awfully lot of money for those search engines. Now we're hoping to invest that money with an advertising firm so that we can become more branded among brides."

E-mail jcallison@zoomtown.com




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