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Helping a Healthy Wholesale Business Sell Stationery Online

by Arianne Foulks

January 26, 2017

What do you do when your business grows so fast you can barely keep up with it? We first met Emily McDowell in 2012, at Altitude Summit. She was starting her greeting card line and needed a website to sell stationery online. We worked with her to build that first website to sell stationery online, then back and watched with glee as she hit on an ingenious idea and her business took off like a rocket.

Emily McDowell’s greeting cards are unflinchingly funny and honest, and have revolutionized the greeting card industry, shifting away from sympathy to empathy. Her line of Empathy CardsTM launched in 2015, resulted in an incredible amount of press and national attention, and changed her business dramatically.

“At the end of 2015, in looking at our numbers, we realized that the wholesale arm of our business was bringing in slightly more than half of our revenue, but took ten times the resources and effort to run than our website, which accounted for the rest of our revenue. We had a lot of internal conversations about the best way forward, and it was clear that we needed to make some changes.”

Her brand started off strong and grew much stronger, but her retail website hadn’t kept up. When Madison Park Group joined her to take over the wholesale side of her business, that left Emily with time to strengthen her retail sales, and one of her priorities was to work on her website. Emily’s team shared,

“We had previously worked with Aeolidia on our very first e-commerce site back in 2013, so we already knew that they could build a pretty killer website. After outgrowing our shopping platform in 2014, we decided to move the site to Shopify and took a stab at managing an out-of-the-box theme ourselves. The theme we picked was fine; it was clean and simple and did the trick while our business continued to grow. Here’s the thing…as you grow, you start to realize that utilitarian themes don’t necessarily highlight the strengths of your brand or help you connect with potential customers in a meaningful way. We needed a site designed to let our products shine and decided it was time to give our friends at Aeolidia a call.”

We were thrilled to meet her again to push her online sales to the next level, and we put everything we had into making a personality-packed, high-converting online home that firmly establishes Emily McDowell Studio as a business that’s taking itself seriously.

Emily McDowell
Emily McDowell, photo © Portraits to the People

Selling stationery online: why should a business with strong wholesale sales focus on retail?

In some ways, selling wholesale can seem much easier for a business: talking one retail customer into a sale could mean $10-$50 spent, whereas talking to one wholesale customer could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars. Scrambling after retail customers one at a time can seem much more challenging. Emily makes it clear that selling wholesale at the scale her company has been is a lot of work:

“Our company has two branches: wholesale, which involves selling our products to about 1,800 stores worldwide, and what we call retail, which means selling directly to regular people on our website. Running a wholesale business on that scale requires many times the money, infrastructure, and staff as running an e-commerce site does, and the wholesale side is where most of the biggest challenges have come in.”

There are many reasons a healthy retail branch of your business can be beneficial, and even help your wholesale sales. See: Successful With Wholesale? 7 Reasons to Focus on Retail Sales

The strategy for redesigning the Shopify website

As Emily’s business grew over the years, and as selling stationery online became more important, she moved the site to Shopify, adjusting a pre-made theme. It served its purpose for a couple of years, but was lacking in the Emily-ness that you’d expect. For a business that has seen the success that Emily McDowell Studio had, an off-the-shelf theme was no longer fitting. It was a great stopgap, but they’d grown beyond that stage.

None of Emily’s products are cookie cutter—in fact, she’d once had a dress designed and made out of cards for the cover of a catalog, and laser-projected Valentines on the San Francisco fog. I wanted her new website to be the ecommerce equivalent of a card dress.

The goals for this project were to:

  • Increase retail sales by 30%
  • Increase the mobile conversion rate
  • Increase the average order amount
  • Minimize abandoned checkouts
  • Integrate the WordPress blog into Shopify
  • Increase the blog readership
  • Showcase the business’ personality
  • Create a killer, custom-tailored site
  • Showcase Emily’s upcoming book

We asked Joe Rubacka of Emily McDowell Studio if there were any pleasant surprises about working with us, and he told us,

“The best part of working with Aeolidia was the initial planning phase. Our project manager, Samantha, spent a lot of time collecting information about our business, what resonates with our customers, and where our utilitarian Shopify theme was missing the mark. Everyone on our team was excited about the goals we set for the new site and welcomed collaboration and constructive feedback to help us achieve them. We were especially psyched to be paired with our designer, Christine, whose work we’d already admired for a long time (she’s awesome!). After managing our first Shopify site pretty much on our own, it felt great to work with Aeolidia again on a project with a cohesive vision, proper budget, and timeline, not to mention the patience of our dedicated developer, Jon, who stayed up past midnight on the eve of our launch to make sure that any last-minute changes were just right when we went live.”

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the pre-made Shopify theme and the new custom site:

Focus to sell stationery online. Emily McDowell website redesign before and after


We were all pretty thrilled with Christine’s work on the site design. Let’s see it a little closer:


Christine created an initial concept that only needed minor adjustments to be just what their team was looking for. She shared,

“I’ve been familiar with Emily’s work for ages, but it was fun to really dig deep and get to know it even more. I wanted to create a homepage that shows off her colorful and witty, beautiful and honest products, one that lets customers know right away what Emily McDowell Studio is about and makes it easy for them to buy stuff.

The header is much more compact than on your current site. A reduced logo has made room so the shop navigation and account/cart links live in one area. Compact does not mean that it is cluttered, though. Each link has its place and purpose.

This makes room for a much larger slideshow image, showcasing the gorgeous color and detail in your products. I’ve moved your recommended products right below the slideshow. The sooner your customers get access to product links the better.

There are three featured categories, broken down in a more visually appealing way than your basic thumbnails.

The first category featured is cards. One of the things that makes your cards so awesome is that they take the words right out of our mouths, so I created a carousel that gives you the option to view cards based on message type. It adds some fun to the card search.

If your customer clicks ‘I’m sorry,’ three cards from the I’m Sorry category will be displayed. If she clicks ‘I’m glad you’re alive,’ then three birthday cards will replace them.”

This much care and attention was put into each page (and even more work into the behind-the-scenes tasks, such as moving a busy WordPress blog to Shopify), and we’re so proud of the results. Emily and her team told us,

“The redesign launched in early October 2016 and we’re thrilled to finally have a site that can support the needs of our business while reflecting the aesthetic and spirit of the brand. We highly recommend working with Aeolidia if you’re ready to take the plunge and spend some time and money building a custom Shopify site that does your business justice!”

More about Emily’s creative business

Are you as fascinated by Emily’s trajectory as I am? Here is some more great reading and listening:

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell, on Oh So Beautiful Paper. This is an overview of the milestones in Emily’s business.

Announcing Our Partnership With the Madison Park Group! This is the story of Emily’s solution to a rapidly growing business, with barely any time left for creative work.

Behind the Scenes of Explosive Growth podcast. Tara Gentile interviews Emily on CreativeLive’s podcast about the struggles of growing and hiring with no business experience. I was particularly fascinated to hear how difficult wholesale can be to maintain when you reach a certain level.

Is it time for a solid retail site for your business?

Get in touch if you feel that your site isn’t conveying your business’s personality or appealing to your perfect customer; we can help you sell stationery online. No, you don’t need to be at the level Emily is at to work with us! If you’ve been growing, but lately are having a hard time gaining traction, these growing pains may mean it’s time to take a closer look at your website. We would love to strategize for you and design a Shopify website that will work for your one-of-a-kind business.

Want to get to know us a bit better before diving in? Our newsletter is the perfect place. I’ll explain it all bit by bit over a few weeks, right to your email.

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