Want to know what it takes to build a highly successful eCommerce brand that gives everyone the warm and fuzzies? We’ve got the inside scoop!
Blue Planet is a multi-million dollar leading eCommerce brand that’s dominating their niche both on- and off-line, enjoying a great 32% return customer rate. Not a new business, Blue Planet was born from an idea to take their older brand, Blue Gem Sunglasses, to new markets. Matt, David’s son, helped launch the sister brand to Blue Gem Sunglasses in 2008.
Their big eCommerce idea? To create a new eco-friendly and sustainable line of eyewear, a line that would enable them to create glasses and sunglasses out of plastics and metals recycled from other sunglasses.
This led to the launch of Blue Planet – a brand that repurposes excess production material from Blue Gem Sunglasses into a brand new sunglass product. While Blue Gem remains their fast-fashion line, it has enabled them to feed all its excess materials to Blue Planet – materials Blue Planet used for recycling and repurposing to create the zero-waste product their customers rave about.
So what’s the big secret to their success?
We sat down with Matt Lawenda (Weinstein), the brand manager and vice president of Blue Planet, to find out how they took an idea to create an eco-friendly, socially responsible eyewear and built it into a brand that not only generates huge revenue, but literally changes the lives of hundreds and thousands of people.
How and When did you become an eCommerce entrepreneur?
I was a jack of all trades and world traveler and fell into this role in 2011 when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I was in Guana at the time – volunteering at an orphanage, when I got a call from my stepmom to come home.
I got to spend an amazing seven months with my dad, when he spent a lot of time teaching me about the business. He offered me a job at the Blue Planet brand, where I worked my way up from an entry-level sales position to product design and then my wife, Lisa (CEO), and I (Vice President) took the brand by the reins and grew it into an amazing brand.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in starting and growing your own eCommerce business?
My biggest challenge was with launching our eCommerce website. Not coming from an eCom background, I didn’t have any experience in website design. Having no experience is what led me to Shopify, after trying Squarespace and Volusion, as it was easier for me to create and edit the site we wanted.
I was constantly reading articles and on the phone with Shopify almost daily, looking for apps and suggestions on how to do things. Now I can create a Shopify store, maintain it and really enjoy it. I get to update the images and put my own feel on it to ensure our site is simple and clean.
I slowly taught myself how to do everything on the site, including loading products and changing designs. Looking back, it’s exciting to see the evolution of the website, from when I first launched until now. It just blows my mind.
Customers want the fastest route from the product to the checkout, and once I got that, our conversions increased and have been doubling every year.
My new challenge is becoming more of an email marketing expert, to get those shoppers back onto our site.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I am sure there is… But everything I did or didn’t do has led me to where I am today, so I wouldn’t change any of it for a second. It’s been a hard road with a lot of lessons I have had to learn, but the knowledge I have gained and the friendships I have developed through it all have been epic.
It’s been an amazing journey and seeing a business change, develop and evolve is part of the fun.
How lean is your business?
We now have 15 team members, including warehousing staff, a sales manager (managing over 100 outside sales reps), a purchasing manager, an order entry data manager, a retail customer service manager, a wholesale customer service manager and a controller. Our team has been with us for many, many years, watching the business – and me, in some cases – grow over the years.
On a freelance basis, we have two photographers whom we outsource to. One photographer handles our lifestyle photography and model shoots, and another photographer handles product photos for our catalogs.
Did you ever DIY your own product photos?
We’ve always had a photographer who has helped us with catalog photos. We believe that product photography is what sells a product, and that has to be perfect. We would rather invest in great product and lifestyle shots, because it’s all about the product. That’s what people want to buy, that’s what they want to see, so invest in a good product photographer.
What are your steps to creating and launching your products?
Step 1: Getting Design Inspiration
My wife and I visit our factories to brainstorm ideas by looking at new shapes and colors, with the goal to find unique styles suited to our target buyer and customer base. We go to a lot of vision shows to get inspiration on current trends and fashion internationally. We also stay in touch with our suppliers to find out what is selling well for them and how we can incorporate our ideas.
Step 2: Developing Our Ideas and Choosing Collections
It’s a lot of trial and error. Especially because we put a lot of bamboo and wood temples on designs – which is what gives them that natural look – which is super cool. It’s the basis of our signature look. We then ask for imaging first and then get physical samples made. Our whole team then weighs in and tests the designs. If the designs make the cut, they are then added to the following year’s line and go into production.
Our six main suppliers are in Thailand and China so we alternate between traveling to China and Thailand every year to visit factories.
How did you find and choose your suppliers?
We’ve been fortunate enough to work with most of these manufacturers for 20+ years. However, there is definitely a challenge in adding new suppliers. What we like to do is start off small, working with only one or two styles with the new factory until we know what their delivery is and how they operate. Ultimately, we try not to put all our eggs in one basket and my advice would be to feel it out; don’t go big with one new supplier.
How often do you launch new collections?
We come up with and launch a new line every year, but keep or carry over bestsellers and take off the under-performers. Additionally, we try to always have as many new designs as possible; that way, our online customers will come back to look for new collections and designs and our wholesalers are keeping their stock fresh and relevant. Then, we release one or two new styles throughout the year.
What are your best-selling products?
Our reading glasses do better than sunglasses because of volume. When people find a pair of reading glasses that they love, they will stick with it. They often buy multiple pairs in different colors or styles, or they need to upgrade to a higher number, which brings in a lot of repeat business. While sunglasses people tend to buy only one style at a time. We counteract that with special bundle promotions that are affordable enough for someone to buy multiple pairs of sunglasses.
Overall, we have about 94 collections or style profiles for sunglasses and reading glasses combined, each of which have varied colors and designs.
Do you sell offline as well?
Two and a half, three years ago we started selling to retailers, which we have had amazing success with. Wholesale brings us a lot of our revenue. Some retail brands where you can find our Blue Planet lines are Rocky Mountain region Wholesale Foods, Lulu Boutiques and Soft Surroundings.
What are the best ways to attract new customers to your store?
I would say word of mouth is the best way. This includes partnering up with other brands that have a similar customer base to us for joint promotions or giveaways. We have had a lot of success attracting brand new shoppers with this kind of WOMM and it seems to bring in the most people.
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An example of such a campaign is one we just did with other brands including Meadow Rose Artwork. The campaign got a host of new emails which were then able to market to.
What are your best ways of driving traffic to your online store?
Our two biggest traffic streams are Google Ads and email marketing.
What you guys do for us in terms of Google is amazing. Because I am Google Ads-illiterate, to have a platform that does it for me so successfully is great. I like the transparency of Traffic Booster that allows me to see what it is doing, what traffic it’s bringing in, and frees up my time so that I can do other things important to the business.
Email marketing is an important way to tell our story to our audience and keeps people interested in the brand so they come back regularly to see new designs.
Some additional PPC campaigns we’re running are Facebook and Instagram campaigns to highlight new collections and designs.
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What email marketing strategies do you have in place?
We’ve had a lot of success with our promotional email collection tool. We have found that our potential customers enjoy the game of entering their email for a chance of winning. They can win anything from a discount to a free pair of sunglasses.
We found that having a whole series of onboarding emails made a lot of potential customers leave us, so we have since dropped it, and instead, after a few days, a new email signup will get an email from me and then go straight into the newsletter list. Our strategy is not very pushy. Therefore, we don’t want to inundate our customers and potential shoppers. Which is why we aim to do meaningful emails instead of bombarding new users with a whole onslaught of automated emails.
We do use automated emails for after-sales, where we will ask for a review and include a coupon code that expires in 30 days. This has been very successful for generating repeat business and conversions.
Each of our marketing emails include information about our brand at the bottom of the email and invite them to click to find out more about our story, categories and giveaway programs. It’s much more subtle than an onboarding series and works a lot better with our target audience.
For abandoned cart emails, we use Shopify, which we have a decent rate for. For email marketing, review collection and receipts we use Conversio. This includes a widget for displaying the reviews it collects on our site.
Tell us a little bit more about your awesome Give Back Programs.
I am super honored and grateful to be in a position to give back as much as we do. I know it also empowers the Blue Planet family because we know that with every sale we make, so much good comes out of it. Yes, these programs help with marketing, but they are also very dear to our hearts, allowing us to give back. It’s so important for us as a family to instill the mindset in our children to want to help people.
We have two main give-back programs.
Give Back Program
For every pair of glasses we sell, we donate one to a person in need. To date, we have donated about 850,000 pairs of glasses. We partner with a number of local clinics in the US that have international doctors.
Additionally, we have partnered with Direct Relief, an organization that offers assistance internationally whenever there is a natural disaster. They do a ton of things and include our glasses with emergency relief packs, which also include food. During the hurricanes, we were able to donate 25,000 glasses to them that they were then able to distribute to people who had lost everything in the hurricanes.
Random Acts of Kindness Program
Our Random Acts of Kindness program is where we, as a brand, volunteer in the community. We set this program up as a way to be more involved in the community where our business is located.
After our warehouse nearly burnt down in 2018 because of the Thomas Fire (being evacuated and shut down for two weeks), I was inspired by how strong our community become after that. Everyone came together to help as many people as possible with anything from delivery volunteer packs to cleaning trails.
We wanted to keep that community-strength momentum and initiative going, and are embracing it as part of who we are as a company. Examples of some of the 15 community volunteering opportunities we have taken part in since then include:
- Rebuilding one of the trails after a big mudslide we had here after the fires
- Working with dogs at animal shelters
- Planting trees
- Adopting a family for the holidays – raising money to give them a special Christmas Day they wouldn’t have been able to afford
What books, podcasts and resources do you recommend for budding online store owners?
I am huge on Audible books and can recommend the following to other eCommerce entrepreneurs:
- Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday
- One Page Marketing Plan by Alan Dib
- The Conversion Code by Chris Smith
Another book I would recommend is The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason.
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What’s your number one piece of advice for new online store brand owners?
Take it slow and persevere. There are a lot of challenges along the road and you gotta keep on getting through it. Keep on learning and educating. You never want to stop learning.
Inspired yet by this fabulous multi-million dollar leading eCommerce brand? We are! By building a strong brand, designing outstanding products, giving back to their community and focusing on their customers, Blue Planet has shot to fame in their niche.
Developing a popular brand that focuses on sustainable fashion, they combine style and giving back to set their sunglasses and reading glasses brand apart.
Remember to check out the Success Stories section of our blog for more inspirational stories and eCommerce tips from some of the most successful eCommerce merchants around.
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