When Pam Macharola wanted to take her family’s business online in 2000, her brothers were skeptical. Founded by their grandfather in 1938 as a newsstand, Blair Candy Company had grown to a successful full-service wholesale candy, tobacco, paper supply, and small games distributor — all without a web presence. Starting an ecommerce business in the midst of the dot-com bust was risky, but Macharola, who still enjoyed shopping online, forged ahead.
Since then, BlairCandy.com has picked up business and consumer accounts across the country and grown its online division to be extremely successful. Revenues from the site alone exceeded $1.5 million in 2008.
PeC: Your current store is on the Yahoo! Small Business platform. Have you always used that platform?
Macharola: “The first 15 months were interesting while trying to work with an in-house built system. We didn’t really understand ecommerce or computers in general. We switched to the Yahoo! Store platform in 2002 because of its easy fill-in-the-blank content population and easy order management backend. The security and branding that comes with the Yahoo! name was also a key factor.”
PeC: How many employees does BlairCandy.com have?
Macharola: “Eleven make up the ecommerce division, but we pull from other departments when necessary. Because of the brick-and-mortar, warehouse, cigarettes, and small games-of-chance divisions, we have about 75 employees [in total].”
PeC: So what did you find was the real difference between brick and mortar and online sales?
Macharola: “It took us about three months to realize that selling online is a different ballgame than selling within the 120 mile radius of Altoona, Pa. We’re selling nationwide. It changed the way we do purchasing and what products we stock, too.”
PeC: How has the inventory changed?
Macharola: [Laughing] “Well, it can be a guessing game 90 percent of the time. One minute we have 500 of something, and within 10 minutes someone bought it all without warning. We all put a lot of time and effort into the inventory and the buying end. We brainstorm a lot and have gotten pretty good trying to guess!”
PeC: Online marketing is a key part of the success of your business strategy. What strategy do you use when making decisions around marketing and advertising?
Macharola: “Blair Candy’s marketing focuses on two key things: customer acquisition and retention. We use pay-per-click, search engine optimization, comparison shopping engines, and social media to acquire new customers. We just jumped on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagons and it’s proving to be effective. Once the customer is through the door, we really use email marketing and personal contact to nurture relationships.”
PeC: A quick Google Search for “candy” shows that you have great PPC rankings, not to mention great organic rankings. Candy is a very competitive term. How do you maintain a positive return on investment?
Macharola: “PPC is huge for us. We spend big and get big results. Our PPC makes up for more than half of the orders that we get. I started off managing the campaigns myself, but the return wasn’t justifying the time. We outsourced the management and gradually increased our spend over time. I am in constant contact with my PPC account manager and we brainstorm continuously. This team setup has given us dramatic positive results with PPC.”
PeC: How does the Blair Candy Blog help your business?
Macharola: “I handle the blog and try to write once a week or more if I have the time. We’ve been in business over 70 years and I’ve been involved for the past 28, so blogging about candy is pretty easy. Few people know candy like we do. We make it fun and tell real stories while promoting our products.”
PeC: Do you attend any ecommerce conferences?
Macharola: “Back when I took our company online, there really wasn’t much of anything being offered, other than books to read. I would scour the Internet, looking for something a little more hands-on. I did what most moms would do – asked my teenage sons for help. They started noticing the Yahoo! platform. I then found Solid Cactus, only a few hours away and eager to help. They started to offer hands-on, one-on-one ecommerce boot camps and teaching events because there were a lot of others just as clueless as me. I used these events to form a network of online storeowners to share and brainstorm with. I’ve built a great network through these events and online forums, too.”
PeC: Speaking of forums, if I mention Candy Pam in any number of online forums, people recognize you right away.
Macharola: “Well, sometimes being a social butterfly can help a ton. Aside from the company, I personally am on Facebook, Twitter and various forums. I’m surprised at the doors that has opened for us and the customers that it has driven to our online store.”
PeC: You also coordinate the customer service side of the business, right?
Macharola: “Yep. Blair Candy has an in-house customer service center for phone inquiries, orders, and service inquiries that supports both the online and brick-and-mortar sides of the business. Customer service is priority one. Do more with less, but never let your customer service suffer.”
PeC: So, it seems that you’ve got your finger on the pulse of every single aspect of BlairCandy.com.
Macharola: “You need to have tight coordination of all aspects of the online business. We work with Solid Cactus for our development, tech support, and Internet marketing. When you make a change in one area, all the others are affected. It’s important to tie together everything. Working with one ‘do-it-all’ provider makes that process easy. Each channel must feed from one control system; if not, you could end up losing a lot of money. We’ve done that (when we started) and learned a very expensive lesson.”
PeC: What advice would you give someone who is new to ecommerce or is considering opening his or her first online store?
Macharola: “Ecommerce is not a get rich quick scheme. Your store is open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Don’t start without the proper tools in place. Find a professional company to help you that actually knows what it’s like to be open every single day and hour. Participate in online forums, ask for feedback, and take everything into consideration when people give it.”
“Finally, you have to spend money to make money. Do it wisely and target your marketing to your demographic. If this is done right you will see major traffic. Make sure you plan and plan well, from marketing to shipping to post-order follow-up.”