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Eric Nakamura has been running his online store since the dawn of online shopping. He even bought his domain, giantrobot.com, in 1995! Giant Robot was originally a zine that Eric started as a way to collect and share Asian-American art and pop culture, and over the years it has transformed into a uniquely fantastical brand and a retail destination.
Giant Robot operates out of 2 buildings across the street from each other in Sawtelle Japantown in Los Angeles. One half is a retail store selling toys, books, apparel, and accessories. The other half, GR2, is an art gallery that hosts art shows and other events that Eric curates.
It was clear upon visiting both spaces that Eric has a close hand in every aspect of his business. He finds products and art pieces based on things that pop up in his own personal interests. “I follow my tastes, and I let that guide Giant Robot,” he says. Word of mouth, searching the internet, meeting the creators–when Eric finds a piece he loves, he brings it to Giant Robot.
There aren’t many people who can claim to have a 22-year-old e-commerce site, so clearly he’s onto something.
I was so excited to talk with Eric and learn about his experiences selling online in the ’90s. He blew my mind when he told us that he used to have customers who would shop online and then mail a check to him for payment! As we talked with him more about e-commerce challenges then versus now, he shared with us how difficult it had been to build a shopping cart, much less the website itself.
“I think the wild west days were tough since you had to be an expert programmer to run a shopping cart and e-commerce site. You had to be a financial genius to figure out the payment gateway system and the associated fees,” Eric recalls. The only way for Giant Robot to get a custom site with a shopping cart back then was to hire a developer, and because the demand was so high, they’d jack up their costs and create unique systems that only they could fix if something broke.
“I’ve trusted so many web developers who speak a decent game but ultimately turned out to be expensive and sometimes unethical,” he explains. “My Shopify system is leaps and bounds better than anything I ever paid for, and at a fraction of the cost. I feel great having control over something that I once had no control over.”
These days, there are many tools for building websites and accepting payments that make it easier for e-commerce business owners to focus on details and marketing. “Now it’s all streamlined via brands like Shopify and you don’t even have to pay for online security for your site!” Eric says.
But he pointed out that some things are more difficult now than they were back then, like keeping up with a fast-paced customer base with new products and exciting marketing. “I thought I once had the formula for this, but ultimately, you have to stay on vision and adapt as things keep changing.”
For example, “now you have to be strong on social media platforms,” an issue which was non-existent when Eric first launched his business. Today, Giant Robot has a strong social media presence, as well as a blog where Eric shares all Giant Robot news and drives traffic to his brick-and-mortar locations for gallery openings and in-store events.
“It’s easy to add the exact product that another shop carries, but what makes your shop yours? That’s what makes your business special and unique. I see shops who are buying straight from catalogs and that’s all they carry. Those shops are the ones I enjoy least.”
Eric knows that small details can ultimately have a huge impact. “The small details are as important as the big picture,” he says. “People who notice the tiny details that you put out are often your best customers and promoters.”
“I think fairness can take you a long way. You may see others around you doing things “wrong” or “unethical” and getting away with it, but it’s all short term. If you want to be around long term, just be fair.”
Eric is all about hiring reliable, trustworthy employees. He screens every employee himself and trusts his gut to hire those who he thinks will care about the brand as much as he does and deliver the best possible customer experience.
Giant Robot has withstood the test of time, but Eric remains humble. His willingness to keep learning and adapt to change is a big part of what has led to his success. “Veteran sounds great, but really I feel like I’m still a novice,” he admits. “The biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going, and that challenge never goes away.”