Practical Ecommerce

Lessons Learned: Allstate Sign & Plaque Owner Relies on SEO

Allstatesign.com home page screenshot.

Allstatesign.com home page screenshot.

“Lessons Learned” is an occasional series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we asked Mark Fick, owner of Allstate Sign & Plaque. Fick’s grandfather started Allstate Sign & Plaque in 1956, and it currently sells over 2,300 traffic, interior and safety signs, as well as a variety safety products. This earns them about $2.7 million in annual revenue. The company is based in Deer Park, N.Y and has 13 employees. Here we give you Fick’s experiences and suggestions.

Shopping Carts

“In the last year or so, we have migrated to the Magneto platform for our ecommerce needs. Magento came onto the scene at just the right time for us. We had outgrown our previous cart, and it [Magento] had everything we needed and more. It’s extremely SEO-friendly, open-source and has a large community behind it. We began to see an improvement in conversions almost immediately after the switch. The learning curve can be a bit steep at first, but once you understand the templating system, it’s very powerful and customizable.”

Hosting

“We use Crucial web hosting. We started using them when we switched to Magento because they specialize in Magento hosting. It’s really important to get the proper hosting, or you will be disappointed with the speed of the cart. Also, a slow site has been proven to decrease your conversions, so you want to make sure you don’t skimp on this.”

Employees

“In the office, most of the employees are working in sales. We also have an in-house bookkeeper and myself who handle all the website-related tasks. In the warehouse, we have several people working on manufacturing the signs and other products. We also have a dedicated shipper and order picker.”

Marketing

“Our sales are primarily driven by our catalog. We produce and mail out a 100-page catalog to about 500,000 potential customers. It’s a really big expense for us, but it brings in a huge amount of business and pays for itself in the end. Catalogs can have a long shelf life, and some customers keep them around for years.”

Mark Fick

Mark Fick

Pay-per-click Advertising

“We have tried per-per-click advertising but have not found it to be that profitable. Our focus has always been more on organic search engine
optimization.”

Search Engine Optimization

“From early on, search engine optimization has been central to the design and deployment of our website. We have tried to always keep it in mind when writing copy for our products, creating URLs and writing title tags.”

“With a large amount of products, it can be difficult to spend a lot of time optimizing each one, so you need to at least follow best practices when creating your product listings. For us, that has been unique title tags, clean URLs and keyword-rich copy.”

“We have also consulted with a couple SEO companies to get feedback on where we stand and how to improve. These ‘audits’ can be very valuable every 18 months or so because the SEO landscape is constantly evolving. In addition to SEO, we have tried to create some link bait in the form of useful content on our site such as tutorials and free printable signs. These bring in traffic and get more links to our site.”

Expense Control

“Expense control is an important topic in these tough economic times. In order to minimize our expenses and maintain cash flow, we are more closely monitoring our inventory these days. We are now trying to more accurately predict demand and maintain inventory accordingly.”

Accounting Software

“We use a program called RealWorld Accounting. It is an older package, but it has served us well for a while so we continue to use it.”

Order Management

“Our order management software is called Commerce Management
System by NewHaven Software. This software allows us to take orders via phone, fax and web and puts them all on one central place. We take a large volume of phone orders, so we needed something that had real time shipping and credit card processing built in. By the time the customer hangs up the phone, they know what the total is with shipping, and the card has been charged.”

Shipping

“We do all of our shipping with UPS. We mostly ship within the U.S. and Canada. We have found UPS to be the most reliable of all the major carriers. After an order is placed, the details of the shipment are automatically sent out to the warehouse and into the UPS WorldShip program. This streamlines the process and leaves less room for human error.”

Credit Card Payments

“For both our website and phone/fax orders, we use Authorize.Net. It’s a good company with a solid reputation for security. With so much identity theft and fraud going around, it’s important for customers to feel they are working with a trustworthy company. Authorize.Net gives you a free trust seal to display on your website which helps ensure weary customers that their data will be safe.”

Social Media

“Twitter is our only attempt at social media so far. It is a powerful channel worth exploring, and we hope to get more involved as we go.”

Blogs

“We have a Funny Signs Blog on our site that we try to update regularly. Customers seem to enjoy it and we have received quite a few back links from it, which is great for SEO. Any kind of content you can create that will bring customers back on a regular basis is a great marketing tool. It also gives your site a more human feel and helps you connect with your customers.”

Customer Service

“It may sound cliché, but we really pride ourselves on our customer service. In fact, for many years, one of our slogans was, ‘service is our most important product.’ Many of the signs people order from us are customized, and we work with them to make sure they get exactly what they want. Our staff is very knowledgeable and always tries to find the solution that best fits our customer’s needs. As a small business, service needs to be a priority. This is where you can really differentiate yourself from other larger companies.”

General Business Attitude

“We are a small business, and that can be to our advantage. Some of our competitors are huge, billion-dollar companies, but we feel we can be more nimble and flexible for the customer than they can. We have many customers who come back to use because they know we will be able to find the solution to whatever the signage or safety problem may be.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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Comments ( 2 )

  1. JakeS September 30, 2009 Reply

    Can you give us some insight into how you migrated your old page names with your magneto set-up. I have been looking to migrate a client off of Volusion however setting up 301’s is a huge barrier for us.

  2. markfick October 1, 2009 Reply

    Jake,

    That is an excellent question. We did use 301’s in order to preserve as much traffic and page rank as possible. It is unavoidable that you will probably see a slight dip in traffic while google re-crawls and reindexes your new site, but implementing 301s will help make the transition much smoother and pass on your existing page rank to the new pages.

    As long as your host allows you to do this, its really pretty simple to set up. Below is an small example of what we inserted in the .htaccess file in our site root folder:

    Options +FollowSymLinks
    Options +Indexes
    RewriteEngine On
    RewriteBase /

    RewriteRule "store/Posts-and-Poles/$" /posts/ [R=301,L]
    RewriteRule "store/Workplace-Safety/Charts-Posters/" /safety/charts/ [R=301,L]

    We have over 2,300 products online, so it was not practical to 301 every single product. We decided to 301 all the the main categories and subcategories (about 150). Then we took about 75 of our top selling products and 301’d them too. (Use analytics to determine) The rest would be re crawled soon enough by google anyway.

    This is not a perfect system, but it helps to minimize the trauma of moving an entire site to a new URL structure.

    Hope this helps.