To be honest, it was a little embarrassing to be the daughter of an entrepreneur trying to start a mail-order livestock supply business in 1975.
Ruth Jeffers was a little girl when her dad, Dr. Keith Jeffers, decided to provide a higher level of service to his cattle clients around Springfield, Missouri, and launch a livestock supplies catalog.
“When my grandfather died, we moved from St. Louis to the ranch in southwest Missouri,” Ruth explains. “Dad started selling cattle. He was always hard-working and extremely honest, and he became the world’s largest cattle dealer. Then he started selling livestock supplies out of our basement to the people buying cattle from us.”
That doesn’t seem too embarrassing. But there is more.
Ruth Jeffers: As kids, my sister and I were totally embarrassed because we had to answer our home phone, “Thank you for calling Jeffers, this is Ruth. May I help you?'” We also had to collect empty boxes that we could use for shipping. I remember going into Springfield and going up and down the aisles of Bass Pro Shops (home store) looking for empty boxes. We got a penny for each one we brought home.
Birth of a Business
The Jeffers family grew their little business on the strength of catalogs, which they produced and mailed to current and potential customers. It reached a point where the basement of the ranch house was no longer big enough to house the business.
Jeffers: Most of the response from the catalog business was coming out of the Southeast and Dad thought that moving to a better shipping location could cut shipping time. We looked at several cities and decided on Dothan, Alabama, because of UPS shipping that allowed us to get packages to most customers in one day instead of two.
Meanwhile, back on the Internet, Ruth had gotten a degree in political science and worked on the 1992 George H.W. Bush campaign. Bill Clinton’s election effectively shut down a budding political career with the Bush family.
Jeffers: When I came home in ’93, I was already able to buy groceries off the Internet. I just knew that a lot of people were going to want to use the Internet as an information source and as a place to shop. I just felt a real strong need that we had to be there.
Ruth went home and pitched the idea of selling the Jeffers products online. So how did Dad, in his seventies and still working in the business react to the college girl coming home with new-fangled ideas?
Jeffers: Dad always prided himself in staying on top of things. He read constantly and wanted us to read certain industry magazines every month. He always did it better than anyone. He passed away two and a half years ago, and two years before that he came in one day and announced that we needed a blog. I said, “A what?”
The first Jeffers website was another embarrassment for Ruth. They spent $200,000 on it (1995), and it was a navigational nightmare. It produced an average of two or three orders a day. But with a whole family and company trying to stay on the cutting edge, rather than abandon the idea they went for a redesign and upgrade.
Jeffers: We went with a company in South Carolina and redesigned the whole site. Then we started to see an increase and we saw 10-15% of our sales coming from online. We trashed the entire old site and reentered all of our data. We added categories and better navigation, so people could actually find things. The big difference was making it so people could find things easily.
With a website that worked — up and running and producing more business every day — the natural temptation for many business people would be to toss the expensive, time-consuming catalog and concentrate on the web channel. But Jeffers saw it differently. Rather than dumping huge resources into driving traffic to the site, they remained true to the customers who built the business: catalog buyers. That strategy ultimately drove traffic to the site as well.
Jeffers: We had discussions and one of the things that always came out was that we wanted to have a catalog for those who wanted to buy from us that way. We didn’t want to leave them behind, so we stayed true to our catalog customers. Since we started the website, we have actually increased the page count in our catalogs.
Jeffers, without saying it out loud, has been a multichannel marketer. They use the catalog for folks like Ruth’s mom who has a disdain for companies that force her to use the Internet only — she dislikes putting her credit card number into the system, as do many people her age. But for the customer from Ruth’s generation, the Internet is the only they way want to shop. Maintaining a presence in both worlds is the only thing the Jeffers team knows.
In late June, the now in-house Internet marketing and web development team was deeply involved in the third major redesign of the website. Nine people sequestered themselves for long sessions. In the first one, they found out they weren’t communicating.
Jeffers: The first hiccup was that we all didn’t have the same definitions for things. We had to decide what to call certain things so everyone understood — this is a left-hand navigation, this is global navigation, this is an up-sell, and so on.
The group is analyzing everything on the home page and re-examining content, navigation, and other aspects as they relate to viewer habits, comments, and technology now available.
Jeffers: We were also going through the Internet Retailer’s Top 500 looking at conversion rates. Specifically, we looked at companies that had traditional catalogs and an online presence. We looked at their conversion rates and what they were doing in their sites to produce those rates.
The current effort is the first such exercise since the major overhaul in 1999. Jeffers and her team noticed the site wasn’t where they thought it should be. Buying habits have changed, site design has evolved, and true to the lessons of her father, Ruth is working hard at staying ahead of the curve.
Jeffers: For example, in the past you wanted lots of product on the home page. Now the successful sites have warm and fuzzy on the home page. You have customers buy products on other pages.
So with big investments in both paper and Internet marketing, what’s the balance?
Jeffers: We do almost all of our business in catalog and Internet — about 40% of our sales online. We have a retail store at our fulfillment center and we have people from all over the country stopping to see us, and they want something from Jeffers. But that is a small percentage of overall sales.
With sales going from $44 million in 1993 to $56 million in 1999 and more than $60 million projected for 2008, the Jeffers Pet team must be doing something right. The work ethic of the late Dr. Jeffers plays into the energy that Ruth and her team bring to the effort. Staying ahead of the curve in industry, market, and technology knowledge helps. What else?
Jeffers: Don’t guess . . . test! It is so easy to get emotionally attached to an idea or a product or manufacturer. We’re in an industry where people love their animals and they are really great people. But you always have to go back to the numbers.
We test everything. We test things on the site before we put them in the catalog. We roll out ads to small samples to test them. We test everything.
Also when something isn’t working, we look at it as our fault. If a product is not selling, what are we doing wrong? If a customer returns an item, we want to know what we did wrong — did we not describe it right?
Another thing that works for us is not having any ego. It’s always about putting ourselves at the bottom rung and our customers at the top and asking, “How do we fix it?”
That little girl, who was embarrassed about having to answer the phone in the name of the family business when her friends might be calling, isn’t embarrassed anymore. She understands that what may seem like a bruise to your ego is really the blessing of understanding how to be successful in life and in business.
Ruth Jeffers is vice president of Jeffers Pet. The company is located in a 120,000-square-foot building at 310 West Saunders Road in Dothan, Alabama. The company produces three catalogs per quarter and maintains a web presence at JeffersPet.com.