Parallels between a website business and running a physical shop

We moved recently and found a lot of excess while packing our things. I could have eBay’d, but there were too many little odds and ends (my son’s toys). So we decided to give a physical shop a go, in Newtown in Sydney’s inner west. I couldn't help but think about the similarities between a physical market front and an online website throughout the day. The similarities were startling.

Perry Carbonell
Mar 9, 2015 · 11 min read

Let me explain.

Scene Setting

A physical market shop is closer to running a website than you think. It seems far-fetched, and it might not even cross your mind when you look at both of them.

But business is business in the end and I've drawn these crazy parallels between both worlds.

The tongue-in-cheek look starts now.

Hosting without a Domain Name

One of the first things we did was call the area within the local council that hosted these events. It was easy enough to pay cash and reserve a spot from there on.

Rosy Posy domain to my right

Now I didn't really have a domain name like my neighbours to the right because to be quite honest, it was a one-day affair and I really didn't think we needed one. But with the benefit of hindsight, I do believe that a simple sign would've helped sales (more on this later on).

In the online world of course Hosting and Domains usually go hand-in-hand. The difference here is that in the real world, I could get a host without having a domain name.

Success Criteria

I did not have any fancy metrics to measure success, like page views, bounce rate, repeat visitor count, click rate and visit duration — all of which I tracked throughout during the day (more on this later).

But I did have 3 simple criteria for a successful day:

  1. Meet the breakeven point of hiring a space ($45). Anything on top of that would be nice but I wasn't in it for the money as majority of the products were $1 or less.
  2. Teach my son the value of money. Up to this point he was convinced that his rare Star Wars and Trash Packs collectibles cost a mint.
  3. Teach myself how to sell myself. If I was going to get into the startup game, then what better way to test myself than a physical commerce setup (yes, different context but a lot of similarities).

I’ll answer these 3 points throughout this post.

Initial setup

Site Structure

After unloading another box load of books and toys from the car, I noticed that the table was lying on its side next to my wife. I asked my better half what happened and apparently the table collapsed after setup.

I asked her if she used HTML5 doctype on the table:

<!DOCTYPE html>

“That’s probably why it collapsed,” I told her. “It’s a common problem for old schoolers.”

She threw a ‘What the?’ look my way followed by ‘Don't start’ expression. That was a good enough sign for me to sort out the table quick smart.

Note: During this time I also thought if she used inline styles instead of using external style sheets; perhaps this is what contributed to the table collapse when she was moving objects around the table indiscriminately. I was not game enough to share that thought however as it was already shaping up to be a long day.

Site Design

I didn't think there was anything wrong with my initial layout design (although it was admittedly a ‘rushed’ effort).

That was, until my sister-in-law pointed out that the design did not do the products any justice.

She was right and we quickly proceeded to lay out the table in a more appealing way that maximises our small space and highlights the best products out in the open.

Old layout. Quite terrible now that I look back at it.
New layout using Flexbox. As soon as products were sold, the design was flexible enough to add other products of different sizes.

5 minutes after the new table redesign, we had our first customer buy a Batman figure. Early user validation of the website’s overhaul was working, I thought to myself.

Sister-in-law = 1, Market Noob = 0.


Before the big day, I narrowed down our customer base to parents with boys between 5–10. What I did not expect were grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, little girls and teenage-to-twenty something boys as customers. I obviously had my personas of Steve (father), Sue (mother) with Orlando (8 year old son) wrong.

I guess what was most surprising was that there were a few shop owners who actually purchased items from us. I never even considered the B2B relationship in the real world but it obviously does happen.

One shop owner actually bought a few items from us, marked up the goods and resold it in his shop. Cheeky.


I seemed to have misunderstood the market with what I thought was going to be popular. Customers and site visitors that came checked out items ranging from books, Pez candy holders, caps, goofy glasses and a set of gold GoGo’s Crazy Bones.

Pez candy holders. Candies not included.

The 2 most popular products by far were the Pez Candy Holders and a pair of goofy glasses. The click rate on these items was phenomenal.

The most rewarding product sold however was a big trash bin, which held approximately 40–50 Trash Packs edition 2, which sold for $5. My son kept reminding me of the book value (close to $100). Our elated 5-year old customer on the other hand, kept reminding his mum what a steal it was!

Success Criteria 2: Accomplished — Book value is not Market price, son.

n.b. And I tried to get him actively engaged in helping visitors and customers out. Soft skills are good skills to carry throughout life.

Tracking their line of vision

I really wish I had an eye tracking software on the ground to determine, with great certainty, where eyes were fixed.

I observed a fair few people and majority were fixed in the toy area, with a lot less in the book area (in particular, a few finance and tech books I had). I really need to work on this if we are going to do this again.

Launching the new site

Changing platforms and Landing Page

We were initially positioned behind the tree receiving little traffic until one of the other vendors suggested that we move positions to one of the front shops, which so happened to be vacant on this day. After receiving the go ahead from market rep, we were able to move to that area.

I liken this to using an established platform like WordPress or Squarespace which automatically takes care of your SEO and market position. I guess the feeling was like being featured in the 1st page of a Google search result.

On top of that, we took the opportunity of reorganising the landing page i.e. table. One of the most popular products we had was the Pez holders — and it therefore made sense to put it out in the front of the shop for that extra attention, like you would a Hero Unit.

<div class=“hero-unit”> i.e. Pez holders in front. We put up a few more after this snap.

I had more visitors almost immediately after the platform and landing page refresh. This stuff really works!

Interactivity with JQuery

There is no:

$( 'div').hover(function() {
$(this).addClass('red'); // red hot deals right here!

on the table (yeah, imagine that).

But I could have presented some products quicker when asked, similar to this crazy JS library:

if (annyang) { 
// show batman when asked 
var commands = { ‘show batman products’: function() { $(‘#batmanproduct’).animate({bottom: ‘-100px’}); } }; // Add our commands to annyang 
annyang.addCommands(commands); // Start listening. Call this here, or attach to an event etc. 

Admittedly this idea could have come across as rather creepy in the real world.


Page Views

This doesn't really happen in the online world but when a shop visitor checks out your physical goods in a market place, they can block the view of passers by. The number of visitors can hamper potential sales in the real world, which is obviously not a problem in the online space.

I guess this is just one of those things that tech world dominates over the real world.

Page View Duration

Some people will browse longer than others. The problem here is the aforementioned ‘physical block’ some visitors impose on the landing page (table). There is nothing wrong with this so long as the people blocking actually buys stuff.

Perhaps this was my fault for not talking as much as I should've, but I did chose my spots chatting to customers where I could.

The beauty of selling on the net is that the process of selling is all coded up. The downside is that it can get mechanical and it loses that human touch.

But there is a workaround; so long as website owners leave their contact details — e.g. Twitter handle — then this should at least leave a nice personal touch to their site. It’s not the same but its something.

note: Twitter handles and email addresses is a little more personal than a form IMO.

Bounce Rate

I may have a high bounce rate or it may have been average. The thing is, I don't really know. I believe that I received equal amounts of people that would ‘stop, look and move on’, TO those that would ‘stop, look and pick-up a 20 cent figure’.

I really don't think my bounce rate was that bad, but then again it’s hard to judge given that this was my first time and there were no comparable shops that sold the same products.

Repeat visitor count

Yes, believe it or not, I had repeat visitors i.e. visitors that came to the site on at least 2 occasions. Of the 5 repeat visitors (my guesstimate), only 1 translated into a sale.

I should have clearly stepped in when they came back, but I missed the opportunity on 3 occasions (having spoken to 2). I'll chalk this up to experience on what I ought to do next time.

Click rate

If you are willing to accept my apology for defining a click rate as ‘number of times a visitor has picked up a product’ and not necessarily having an ad attached to my table, then you're good to hear my findings.

My click rate was high on certain products i.e. the Pez. It was lacking in others i.e. the books. I really need to market the books a little bit better next time around.

Managing the site

Traffic matters

In my scenario, foot traffic matters. Although we were happy with the humble visitor in the first hour, it was an absolute godsend when we refreshed the platform (located at the front) and landing page (table).

Traffic was headed our way, literally. And traffic grew the business in leaps and bounds.

Automate as much as you can

I couldn't really automate anything in the real world, which made me appreciate how much better commerce-based websites like Shopify handle transactions. They have the entire commerce cycle down pat, from product presentation, orders, adding items to the shopping cart and shipping is simply brilliant.

I found it quite challenging serving one customer at a time — having to handle collecting spare change, while trying to keep my eye on the shop at the same time.

Going Viral

A family of 4 came down at one point, and they in turn attracted a crowd.

I am not sure if viral phenomenon is at all related to crowd psychology, but our chances of attracting more visitors increased when a couple of people fussed over the display.

Success Criteria 3: Accomplished — Selling stuff is tough work but I am totally convinced that we did the right thing. I certainly knew a little bit more about selling after this day.

And hopefully, connected more with people.

Wrapping up a great day

Why running a physical shop is a good idea before running a website business

I was glad that we went ahead with this day. I truly believe that people who do business online should try putting up a physical shop themselves, as there are so many subtle little things to pick-up from visitors, customers and the business environment.

You can't hide behind your monitor in the real world, and you are really forced to interact, and hopefully connect, with real people. People of all types: kids, adults, teens from all walks of life. How in the world was I going to connect with people behind my Mac if I could not connect with them in real life?

This setup would also work for early user testing, particularly if one had physical products. Not only will you be able to refine your product, but some common questions can be converted into FAQ’s for your website.

All that for 1 day and $45. The value I received back was beyond the time and money spent.

Some personal learnings

I also had some personal takeout’s above those that I've mentioned:

  • We should have added some last minute deals in the last half hour or so, similar to Groupon, less the coupons.
  • The marketing department inside my head was asleep in the lead-up to this weekend. We could have designed the shop a lot better and set-up signs for toys and books (for example).
  • Consider Mobile first approach and make the site responsive next time around. This site had a fixed layout but I could have broken it down into 2 smaller tables and rearranged the table to our advantage.
  • We need to seriously consider another market as a host because as good as Newtown is, the profile of the area is different to our target market i.e. we needed more foot traffic from families.

Now with that all said, the day was still a screaming success in my books. The grand total profit for the day was a STUPENDOUS $6 DOLLARS (yes, above breakeven)!

Success Criteria 1: Accomplished.

Not a bad day at all considering it taught my son the value of money and taught me how to run a physical shopfront business.

About this post

This post was written in the name of silliness and good fun, to see how many parallels I could draw from a physical market to online sites. This was an unintentional side effect whilst setting up shop. Blame it on my wandering mind and strong coffee.

Perry Carbonell

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Creative and collaborative. Releasing energies with my group Collective Network. It’s half full…except for my coffee