“Lessons Learned” is an occasional feature where we ask seasoned ecommerce professionals about their experiences in online retailing. For this installment, we’ve asked Rob Holzer, emarketing manager with S&S Worldwide, a 100-year-old company that sells craft kits, games, educational supplies and other products, to organizations. The company’s roots are in catalog sales, but its ecommerce site now accounts for roughly 30 percent of revenue. S&S Worldwide is based in Connecticut and carries approximately 9,000 inventory items on its website. It registered its first domain name in 1995 and launched its first ecommerce site in 1999.
Prior to joining the ecommerce team at S&S in 2005, Holzer held various positions in the call center beginning in 2002. He also ran a small ecommerce gifts and collectibles website and has experience in web design, development, email marketing, analytics and online customer service.
What follows are Holzer’s experiences, suggestions and observations.
“As we are a catalog company, our product information has to be maintained for print and online, which can be a challenge with canned shopping carts. We have a legacy customer database that also needs to be tied into the website. For these reasons, we have our own proprietary shopping cart system that ties into our internal customer and product databases. This is possible thanks to our technical team who is constantly suggesting and helping us implement new site features.
“For small and new ecommerce businesses that don’t have constant access to technical staff, I would strongly suggest sticking with a good hosted solution. While hosted solutions may seem limited at times, they’ll fill 90 percent of your needs. If you find a cart that has most of what you need, contact the company and see what its roadmap looks like. It’s possible that it is planning on adding the functionality you’re looking for or are willing to develop it for a one-time fee. I won’t bore you with the whole ‘do your homework’ speech but… do your homework!
“If you do have access to good tech people, consider starting with one of the free or low-cost open-source shopping carts. Make sure you know what features you want before choosing a cart because some are easier to customize with certain features than others.”
“Again, at S&S we rely on our technical staff to manage our in-house web servers. One of the issues we’ve found with managing our own servers is that our visitors, who can be 3,000 miles away, can experience a decrease in site performance. One solution would be to rent multiple servers throughout the country and manage them remotely so that visitors will be served your site content from the server that is geographically closer to them. Most small businesses don’t have that luxury (or burden, depending on how you look at it), so they must rely on third-party hosting companies.
“When looking for a host, most of us start out looking for robust functionality and tons of space and bandwidth. But the reality is that reliability is the most important thing. A host can have all of the bells, whistles and space but if it doesn’t properly manage the servers, your site will be down frequently and you’ll lose business. Look past the promises of unlimited bandwidth, unlimited space, unlimited domains, and ask candidates how long they’ve been in business and if their servers are managed 24/7. Once you are comfortable, choose a host, make it your friend, and keep its phone number handy in case of an emergency, because even the best hosts can slip up.”
Search Engine Optimization
“For small websites with a few hundred SKUs or less, search engine optimization can be daunting. For large sites with thousands of SKUs, it can be a nightmare.
“In 2008, we redesigned our website. So I took the opportunity to give our technical team some SEO guidelines. I focused on the technical aspects of SEO, such as correctly formatting the HTML, and using the right tags in the right places. Within three months we saw an astounding spike in search engine traffic and sales, which continued throughout the following year. Natural, organic search sales in 2009 were almost 60 percent greater than 2008.
“With more than 9,000 SKUs, it would be difficult to optimize all of them. So our next SEO project will be to optimize the category landing pages and then some select product pages. I am not a believer in over-optimizing, so I would recommend focusing on writing good quality selling copy that incorporates your top keyword or phrase. Don’t ‘force’ the keywords because it can completely ruin your copy.”
“I won’t name names, but one big mistake we made was trying to switch to a new email service provider (ESP). We were not 100 percent happy with our prior vendor because of the high pricing model and a few glitches with its system. So we decided to switch to another vendor. The new vendor promised great service, better pricing and everything under the sun. It seemed like a no-brainer. I won’t go into irrelevant details, but it was a nightmare to implement and did not work as expected. In the end, we went back to our old ESP and negotiated a much better price, which made the glitches worth dealing with. The point of the story is that if you are unhappy with a vendor, talk to the company and see if you can work it out before running to another vendor.”
“We’re fairly new to the social media game and as a primarily business-to-business catalog company, we haven’t been able to harness the power of social media in the way that some business-to-consumer companies have. It’s possible that either our target audience doesn’t use social media or they associate our brand with their work lives and steer clear of our site on personal time. I tend to think it’s the latter, but some research is necessary to figure this one out.
“Contests and giveaways seem to be popular methods of gaining new “Likes” for your Facebook page, which in turn becomes a great branding campaign. Not many marketers have been able to tie their social media campaigns back to sales, so it’s difficult to justify doing it. However if you’re not involved in some way, your competitors may be gaining a leg up on you so it’s even more difficult to justify not doing it.”
“We send over three million emails per month, including promotional blasts, order confirmations, shipment notifications, product review solicitations, abandoned cart emails, abandoned site emails and many others.
“Triggered emails (personalized one-off automated emails sent to an individual email address based on a specific action) have become so popular that even some smaller email service providers and hosted shopping carts are starting to implement the functionality. If you’re not doing some form of triggered email, you’re losing sales. Triggered emails usually get high open and click rates and amazing conversion rates, especially abandoned cart emails. Our abandoned cart emails receive a 25 percent conversion rate compared to promotional blasts, which typically convert at 6 to 8 percent for us.
“Although triggered emails are now an essential part of our email marketing program, the promotional blasts are still going strong. It’s just like in the catalog business: if you don’t stay in front of them, they will forget you. We tend to use lots of offers (free shipping and discounts) to drive our email success because it helps increase conversion and average order value and, well, because our competitors do it.”
“We find that being open and honest is always the best approach. We don’t hide or ignore our bad product reviews. We let our customers use them as decision-making tools and act on them when necessary.
“We pride ourselves on having awesome customer service. We even post our customer satisfaction rates on our site. It’s mostly based on customer service call logs in conjunction with our satisfaction survey that goes out via email after every order. We also have a testimonials page that allows customers to read and submit their own.”
“I suggest making it as easy as possible for your customers to provide feedback about your products and your company. If you make it too difficult, you’ll be in the dark and won’t know what needs improvement or what your strengths are.”