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View Full Version : [Question(s)] What makes a robot store a robot store?



ScuD
07-28-2008, 11:15 AM
I got permission from Matt before opening this thread, thanks Matt!

Well, I bit the bullet. It's been lingering for quite some time now, but this community combined with the movements in the hobby robotics world have pulled me over the edge.

I'm going to try to start off a small business in Belgium as a hobby robotics retailer.
More specifically, I would want to focus on educational robotics, starting at age 12 or so, and working up to higher level (read humanoids running embedded linux and such) bots.

Now my question to you guys is, what do you want to see in a robotics supplier?

This question is posed in it's broadest term, any conceivable service you'd want to have from the guys you're giving your money to.

First and foremost, I'd say Service.
Trossen has proved more than once that this is the key factor in my opinion. But what is service?
Is it a hotline you can call in office hours? Just an email you can send? a 24/7 hotline? a combination of these?

Secondly, how important is speed of delivery?
Are you willing to pay a few bucks more to get your bot the next day, or are you okay with a back-order of two weeks if it saves you, say 5%?

At this point I'm trying to figure out the entire legal system in Belgium to start up, so I don't expect to be seeing anything too soon, but as I am a sponge regarding information, and you guys are the ones that know what you'd want, slam me with any imaginable thing you can come up with.

Adrenalynn
07-28-2008, 12:17 PM
Man, I could write a doctoral dissertation on "what is customer service" - oh wait - I already have. :)

Customer service is easy. Or crazy hard. It's attitude, 110% attitude. You do what it takes to resolve any issues the customer has, and you do everything you can to predict that an issue will arise so that you can shoot it before it does.

Customers don't want excuses. Honestly, they really couldn't care less that "your computers are down so you can't bring up their records or print mailing labels". That's your problem. Fix it. Work around it. But the customer doesn't care. They don't care that your shipping maven is out sick or had their guppy die. Not their problem. They don't care that there was a sandstorm in pakistan, afghanistan, tajikistan, or over the house of some guy named Stan. Resolve it.

There, of course, are times when "resolve it" is just not practical in this time-space-continuum. Pick up the phone and call them. Yes. Phone. Call. All personal. No excuses, explain the problem, and take the pulse of the customer. Are you going to refund (ouch! That's a last resort. Protect the cashflow.)? Upgrade their shipping? Go down to the local big-box-store and buy the thing retail to send to them? Upgrade their purchase? People are actually really flexible (for the most part) when you are taking the impetus to communicate. I can't remember the last irate customer that I had when I called them *first*, before they knew there was even an issue. Takes a little fight out of them when you're proactive. Drop a personal handwritten note in their package with your apologies. Thank them for their patience.

The nearly universal fact is: People remember positives better than painful experiences. Even if it starts off badly you can always save it with a little personal interaction. That handwritten note leaves them feeling like you're a human rather than some automaton invisibly hiding behind a domain name. Call them afterwards, make sure they're happy.

People like knowing they're dealing with people. Give them that and the rest just flows. Think about the times you've gotten crummy service - what did they do that torqued you?

This attitude has to be pervasive. It must be shared by every person in the company, or you're just bailing water from a leaky boat. (My metaphores are all over today aren't they?) If someone doesn't share the philosophy - throw them overboard FAST.

Above all else, remember that you have only ONE customer at a time. Every one you tick off is one more nail in your coffin of obscurity. It doesn't take all that many nails before they're burying you...


[pant pant] Ok - I'm done...

JonHylands
07-28-2008, 12:24 PM
Customer service is easy. Or crazy hard. It's attitude, 110% attitude. You do what it takes to resolve any issues the customer has, and you do everything you can to predict that an issue will arise so that you can shoot it before it does.

This is so important it bears repeating. When a customer is pissed, you not only lose a customer, you lose everyone the customer talks to in the future about it.

It doesn't matter if you lose money on the sale in order to fix it. Yeah, it hurts, but it hurts a lot less than the alternative, which is an unhappy customer who believes he or she got shafted.

Adrenalynn
07-28-2008, 12:36 PM
Yes, exactly, thank you for underscoring that, Jon! There are studies out there that are reasonably scientific that show the "down side" to the Internet. The plus side is that you can touch far more potential customer base. The downside is that so can they.

In brick-and-mortar world, the general rule of thumb was that an unhappy customer will cost you ten customers, but a happy customer will bring you five.

Think about this Internet World. Our reach has grown so far and we each know so many more people.

Heck, I rave about a company here or on another forum and it may garner them two HUNDRED new customers. I can go to ten forums if I'm really ticked off and chase off two THOUSAND customers.

One person can dip the bottom line of a hundred million dollar company today - it's frightening! Which means it's also an opportunity. :)

A-Bot
07-28-2008, 01:08 PM
Here's my bit of advice - keep parts in stock. If I have to wait, I'll just order online. I need to know I can stop by a store and they will reliably have what I'm looking for... and it only takes a couple misses before I decide going into the store isn't worth my time, which is why I don't go into RC hobby stores anymore. They just cater to the RTR crowd nowadays.

4mem8
07-28-2008, 01:14 PM
Man I was going to do my splurge, Adrenalynn and Jon have taken the words right out of my mouth, All I can say Scud is best of luck in your new venture, I have thought of doing the same here in New Zealand, I would feel at home doing this sort of venture, But it is a lot to think about and probably quite expensive to start off. My main thing to you would be personal contact with the customer make them feel that they have got a great deal in what they purchase.

ScuD
07-28-2008, 01:49 PM
Customer care would be my main priority. As you said, the internet is a powerfull medium, which has both it's pro's and con's.

I have to say, thanks for the great tip on calling customers personally Lynn. It's one of those things that didn't occur to me, but once you said it, my mind went "duh".

One thing I should put straight though, I may have expressed myself falsely, it'd be an online shop but with personal customer contact at first. Meaning I'd start a webshop for the broad clientele, but approach universities and schools personally to promote the use of robotics in class since it's hardly used around here atm.

So in that area, I would cut startup costs given that I wouldn't need an actual store, I could do most operations home-based and would only need storage. (ok, and a website)

The thing is, it's a risk.
The big gamble is to give up my day job, get a loan, start stocking bots and parts and hope for the best.

Problem is, when I order a robot online, I don't want to wait three weeks till it arrives, I need to have those things in stock so I can ship them immediately; I want my customers to get their order ASAP.


Anyway, I'm going to start a small "market research" in Belgium to see if it would be feasible to get a bank to back me up. Given my age I don't have much to invest, so I'd need to have some view of whether or not I'm going to be bankrupt in two months, selling Bioloid kits in a gutter at 30$ each :veryhappy:

Adrenalynn
07-28-2008, 02:18 PM
If you don't go bankrupt the first time out, it's a fluke. But some great lessons get learned for the second time. I BK'd my first company - probably the most emotionally damaging thing I've ever experienced even including an eight year hell of a marriage and subsequent divorce.

But it's also hugely rewarding, challenging, and opportunity is always directly proportional to risk. I think at some point I also became pretty immune to the hard knocks. :)

I think you're asking the right questions though, which gives you a leg up certainly. And you have the advantage of a working model. I have nothing but respect for the way Matt captains his ship, from a customer-facing perspective - I don't know anything about the inner-workings, but can take educated guesses that it's just as tight.

I'd bet my last dollar that he has an almost fanatical attention to detail...

This is still a tough sub-industry inside of probably the toughest industry (retail). Matt and Crew are survivors from its inception and that speaks volumes. Getting in today is "cutting edge" - they got in on "bleeding edge". I'd always rather be doing the cutting than the bleeding - but opportunity is always proportional to risk, so having survived the bleeding edge, they get to run around hacking things up now. ;)

ScuD
07-28-2008, 03:57 PM
Well, I do realize it's a rapidly evolving world.
I'll need to be on the front line of all new developments, new kits, new technologies, ...

But then, that's what I do every night after work, so that part i might be able to manage..

I'd like to attend some events too, robot competitions and such, but there aren't any in Belgium, alas.
There are some in Germany and Holland though, France too I think. Might be able to take on those.

Lynn, Thanks for your supporting words. Seriously, they mean a lot to me.

I realize it's a big risk, and chances of failure are great, but what good is life if you're not living it?

LinuxGuy
07-29-2008, 02:05 AM
Above all else, remember that you have only ONE customer at a time. Every one you tick off is one more nail in your coffin of obscurity. It doesn't take all that many nails before they're burying you...
As much as is reasonable, treat that ONE customer like they are your ONLY customer. You'll get far fewer nails that way.

8-Dale

Adrenalynn
07-29-2008, 02:20 AM
Agreed. One customer at a time.

sam
07-29-2008, 09:41 AM
It doesn't look like there are to many robot sotres in Belgium, wich means less competition. I think you've got a good chance for a healthy company. All the robot sotres are flurishing and it's the time to come in and make youre parts of the money :D

I agree with Adrenalynn's fisrt post, customer service, just a handwritten note when you receive the package means a lot to a customer. When my brother recieves a package for something he bought and theres a handwritten note he sometimes comes and shows it to us... It doesn't take a lot to talk in good about a company.

Good luck to you! I want(ed) to do the same thing, I think theres a real business opputunity in hobby robotics, but alas I am 9way) to young to open my sotre.

ScuD
07-29-2008, 09:59 AM
That's exactly it, competition in Belgium is practically zero.

There's two companies in the Netherlands that supply robotics, but both are mostly electronics / general stores that have robots in their catalog.

Problem is, they're big companies. It's not gonna be easy to compete with that, so once again, customer care and my knowledge of the robotics world is what I'm hoping would give me the upper hand.

Adrenalynn
07-29-2008, 10:13 AM
On the flip-side, it's usually quite easy to beat the big boys. They may get you by a few dollars on price (although, if you've noticed, retail pricing on hobby robotics is still pretty fixed. Not a commodity market yet), but all it takes is for them to screw up a few times and you can eat their lunch. Never doubt the competitive advantage of literally starving to death. ;)

The downside to there being no competition is the very real possibility of the market not being developed enough to support you... I like to follow the BDCs (Big Dumb Companies) into a market a little while later. Let them spend all the money developing the market, then I just have to deliver the same product or service better.

ScuD
07-29-2008, 10:40 AM
The downside to there being no competition is the very real possibility of the market not being developed enough to support you...

Yup, that's what I'm not too sure about yet.
I do know there' a lot of guys trying to source bots and bot parts on dutch forums, as I said it's pretty hard in Belgium, but the thing is belgium's pretty small, and I'm not too sure if the market is big enough.

This is why I'm going to do some more market research and contact schools and such, there has to be somewhat of a possibility before I dive in.

Adrenalynn
07-29-2008, 11:04 AM
Going at the educational market, at least in the US, is hard to penetrate - but the volume makes up for it if you can survive through the loooong sales cycles, typically several years.

rpedro
07-29-2008, 11:53 AM
prior to my current career, I had been in retail management for over 20 years!!! all I can say is start small, and focus on what customers are actually asking for... I think the frustrations for me in stores is lack of stock/selection, and actually find what I need!!! they always have a ton of crap I don't want... also obnoxious, know it all, pushy, and (I am in a special club and you can't be part of it...) people really get my goat... nothing like walking into a specialty retail store, and getting looked at like I don't belong... I hate that... that's why even if I could find all this great Kondo stuff locally I wouldnt buy it!!! I will stick to the Trossen store, and for the super rare stuff, DIRECT...:) If I can be of any help, let me know ok, I will give you all the fantastic knowledge I have...just pm me...

ooops
07-29-2008, 01:56 PM
In business there are always two main "laws" if you will:
1)Other people's money ... when it is available, and if you look it will be amazing just how available it is.
2)The customer's perception is your reality! In other words, you don't have to be a "big company" to be perceived as one. You don't have to have the answers to every question, as long as you have a quick source to get the answers in a timely fashion.
Let me add that you should enter into the business if you really love the business and are willing to "just get by". If you go into business just for the financial opportunity, whether you are successful or not won't matter if you go home at night dreading work tomorrow. On the other hand if you are passionate about your business, it will rub off on employees (someday), customers, and suppliers and they will be passionate about your business as well. In other words, do it for love not for money!

ScuD
07-29-2008, 02:41 PM
In other words, do it for love not for money!

That's the main drive really. It may sound a little cheesy, but if I can get 1000 kids in belgium at least half as enthousiastic about robotics as I am, I feel my mission has succeeded.

I'm hoping to be able to prove that robotics is a great way of education, given the broad range of "knowledge" that goes into it.

Even a simple analog wall hugger gives insights in electronics, mechanics, physics, ...

The point is, I don't think I could ever find a job that would give me the satisfaction of my own robotics company.

However I'm very aware of the great amount of effort it will take, and the things i'll need to learn (finances, taxes etc etc) that somewhat downright scare me at times, but hey, I only live once, I might as well make the best of it.

That being said, if I could ever make some more than a decent living out of it, that'd just be the frosting on the cake, and I wouldn't say no to it :wink:

Rpedro, rest assured, I'll be bugging the hell out of you sooner than you want! :veryhappy:

One more thing; thanks to all you guys for the support and the great info. This stuff is invaluable and will definitely be remembered..

Electricity
07-29-2008, 02:56 PM
The little things. Seriously, carry a ton of little $.01 parts and accept as many forms of payments as you possibly can.
I went to buy me my first bot parts this weekend. I had two criteria, 1 they had to sell ardunios. 2 they had to accept paypal. Well the paypal was the harder part, I had to eliminate a bunch of retailers off the bat because they didn't have ardunios and didn't take paypal. After that I was down to about 5 places. The first just had ardunios. Absolutely nothing else, which didn't work for me as I wanted a proto board, a servo controller, a few servos and some other stuff. The next had a bit more inventory, but everything was 2-3 bucks more expensive. Ardunio's got for ~$33 usd everywhere but there, they where $37. Not much more, but when I had exactly $120 to spend to get as much as I could. The retailer I ended up going with had everything I wanted and more, and took paypal. So thats how they got my bussiness. Or course I ordered sunday, and payed extra for 2 day mail, and they havn't shipped yet, and now I have to write them an angry e-mail.. But..
The retailer I liked the most had teh Arduino with protoshield, wall charger, and 9v power supply + a starter kit (simple electronicy things) with some intro lessons for $60. It was probably overcharging, but I really wanted it..

ScuD
07-29-2008, 03:03 PM
Well, while you might have been charged a bit more, it was easier than scoure out all the cheapest parts and have them sent from different distributors.

So can I take it that you'd be willing to pay a few bucks more if it can spare you some effort?

My point is, I'm more inclined to stick to one online store than get different bits for the same project from different suppliers, since a) i only have to pay once for shipping and b) it's frequently a lot easier to just add the things to the basket and check out.

But is this view shared by most of the people here?


Paypal was my first idea, but back here in Belgium credit cards aren't that widespread, so I'm looking into different ways of payment (we have standard bankcards that can be used over the internet, but it's still in it's infancy, not supported by a lot of stores yet)

Adrenalynn
07-29-2008, 04:34 PM
as long as you have a quick source to get the answers in a timely fashion.


THAT'S the real reason you have me on speed-dial, huh? :robotsurprised: :p:p:p

rpedro
07-29-2008, 08:39 PM
Scud, I forgot to ask... is this going to be an online setup or a storefront???
Just curious...

ScuD
07-30-2008, 04:19 AM
Online setup.
Storefront is a possibility, but that wouldn't be for oh say... another two years or so.
I need to be sure the market's big enough before I make that kind of financial commitment.

rpedro
07-30-2008, 06:01 AM
imho, online is the only way to go right now... man, have you seen all these big companys closing lately, wow, now Bennigans... unreal... I know you live in a different country, but I would be very wary of a retail storefront... I would love to open a store here in The Woodlands, TX where I live, but times are crazy right now in the US...:)

Adrenalynn
07-30-2008, 06:09 AM
>> but times are crazy right now in the US

Which is the GOOD time to take calculated risk. Lasting fortunes are always built when everyone else is pulling in their horns.

rpedro
07-30-2008, 07:38 AM
while I agree with you adren, signing a 5 year strip center or a 10 year mall spot at this time just isn't a smart move at this time imho... Just my opinion, but I hate to say the day and age of mom and pop shops are in the past... Sucks, but that'ts the way it is... However, an online option is definately a smarter choice...

ooops
07-30-2008, 07:49 AM
Quote:
Originally Posted by Oopsie http://forums.trossenrobotics.com/ambience/buttons/viewpost.gif (http://forums.trossenrobotics.com/showthread.php?p=16491#post16491)
as long as you have a quick source to get the answers in a timely fashion.

THAT'S the real reason you have me on speed-dial, huh? :robotsurprised: :p:p:p


I am proud to say that YOU are a big part of my network!!!

ScuD
07-30-2008, 07:52 AM
I have to admit that the state of the global economy at the moment kind of gave me the idea it was the ideal time to setup the business.

The thing is, i know it's a good time, but I don't know why.. strangely...

ooops
07-30-2008, 08:28 AM
The thing is, i know it's a good time, but I don't know why..


The state of the economy isn't nearly as important to success as your state of mind!
Seems to me you could get started with just a small capital investment and a huge investment in time. Start small and grow it!!!
The hard part is actually taking the leap ... it is all down hill after that.
As Nike says "Just do it":)

ScuD
07-30-2008, 08:37 AM
One thing I'm not yet sure about is what to invest in in the beginning.

Do I get, eg., 5 bioloid kits, 5 robobuilder kits, a bunch of small parts to go with them, and try to make sure that's the amount I keep in stock? (unless offcourse I'm selling more than 5 kits per week.. )

It's a bit hard to decide on the inventory, I still need to research what there is on the market and what would get the most hits so to speak.

ooops
07-30-2008, 09:29 AM
I would think that unless there are some significant quantity discounts, and or some sort of floor planting arrangement (consignment). That you would want to start small on the expensive stuff 1 or 2 of whichever kits you think will sell, and go heavier on the "bits and pieces" that are cheaper aka more stuff for less capital.
You will probably find the the profit margins are better on the bits and pieces anyway.
Usually, the margins are lower on the items that are widely distributed. Profits are better on Niche items.

rpedro
07-30-2008, 11:44 AM
that's pretty true on any retail item... the kits won't make you a ton of money, so unless a huge demand on a particular kit, why not invest in 2-3 kits first, see how they go... load up on parts/accessories,etc... within reason of course... also consider some special bundling of robot kits, with needed accessories, etc... I wouldnt go overboard with this idea, but keep it in mind, selling as many attachments with each kit sold will only help your profit margin, as well as give the customers what they need... take a look at the KHR-2HV bundle on the TR store site, and you will kind of see what I mean...:)

Electricity
07-30-2008, 12:09 PM
Theres another one, someone mentioned I should have used Trossen to buy me arduino. I didn't because I had no idea they carried them! They are listed under Atmel, which I had no idea made the board, also Trossen is not listed on the retailers section of the Arduino website (http://www.arduino.cc/en/Main/Buy) which is where I started my search..
Had I known I certainly would have ordered through Trossen!

ScuD
07-30-2008, 03:13 PM
This is indeed one of my concerns, keeping the website/shop easy to navigate.
I do feel that trossen has a unique view on this though, given the amount of parts they supply I can imagine it must be a nightmare to keep everything "linked" together to keep a good overview.

Electricity
07-30-2008, 03:59 PM
This is indeed one of my concerns, keeping the website/shop easy to navigate.
I do feel that trossen has a unique view on this though, given the amount of parts they supply I can imagine it must be a nightmare to keep everything "linked" together to keep a good overview.
They have a deceptively large amount of inventory, everything is just hidden inside a bunch of submenues.

rpedro
07-30-2008, 11:00 PM
I love the layout of the TR store... I have already ordered three times, (in two weeks!!!)and will be going back for more!!! I just wish they offered some of the rare and harder to find stuff for the Khr-2hv... looks like I have to order direct for that stuff...:)

Electricity
07-31-2008, 12:18 PM
I love the layout of the TR store... I have already ordered three times, (in two weeks!!!)and will be going back for more!!! I just wish they offered some of the rare and harder to find stuff for the Khr-2hv... looks like I have to order direct for that stuff...:)
I do to, unfortunately its layout is set up for someone who knows what their doing, I don't, so its confusing for me.. heh

rpedro
08-02-2008, 02:14 PM
yeah, I know what you mean... I am about to email Alex to discuss other KHR-2HV options for the shop...:) It will make it easier to find cool and exciting stuff in the USA...:)

LinuxGuy
08-02-2008, 04:48 PM
Theres another one, someone mentioned I should have used Trossen to buy me arduino. I didn't because I had no idea they carried them! They are listed under Atmel, which I had no idea made the board, also Trossen is not listed on the retailers section of the Arduino website (http://www.arduino.cc/en/Main/Buy) which is where I started my search..
Atmel makes the processor on the Arduino board, which is an Atmega168. Atmel does not make the board - that's made by the Arduino folks (http://www.arduino.cc).

I just ordered an Arduino Decimilia from SFE, because I was ordering other stuff from them also that Trossen does not carry (a JTAG unit). I am also looking forward to tinkering with the two BlinkM LEDs I ordered.

8-Dale

Electricity
08-02-2008, 04:55 PM
Atmel makes the processor on the Arduino board, which is an Atmega168. Atmel does not make the board - that's made by the Arduino folks (http://www.arduino.cc).

I just ordered an Arduino Decimilia from SFE, because I was ordering other stuff from them also that Trossen does not carry (a JTAG unit). I am also looking forward to tinkering with the two BlinkM LEDs I ordered.

8-Dale
Well its listed on Trossen under Atmel.. lol
I'm looking forward to messing around with some BlinkMs myself. They are very interesting.

Adrenalynn
08-02-2008, 06:52 PM
There are Arduinos not made by Arduino. There are also Atmel-based boards that aren't Arduinos - John's Axon for example.

If you broke them down by marketing brand name, you'd have literally thousands of "catagories", so they're broken down by what's on the board. Just like PCs.