During the course of building an online business, many eommerce webmasters find that they morph into proverbial interactive jacks of all trades.
In the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, 34 year-old Lance Coffman is one such renaissance man. The webmaster for SSK Sign Supply, Coffman has paid the bills these past several years by developing an affinity for all aspects of the web business: design, site development and data management. Located in Nicholasville, a town of roughly 20,000 people, SSK Sign Supply is a wholesale supplier to sign companies.
“You can’t just do one part of [the web business] and expect to be good,” says Coffman. In January 2005, the Florida native was tasked with enhancing SSK’s online presence and ecommerce store. His first order of business was to convert the company’s static website to a dynamic one, with product information stored in databases instead of hard-coded on HTML pages.
Coffman’s next challenge was to select a shopping cart for the $5 million per year business. While he eventually selected Early Impact’s ProductCart software for the business based on his research of the features SSK customers wanted from an online store, the foundation for all his eommerce-related decisions was simplicity. “Keep it very simple,” he said. “Less options mean less confusion.” We asked Lance to tell us about the business, its website and his experiences, good and bad, with growing an e-business.
PeC: Tell us about your background.
Coffman: “I am originally from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area [Clearwater]. I didn’t go to college after high school, but worked various jobs until I found a graphic design position, which I landed because of my PC and art skills. I eventually got a job doing help desk support. Because I love to learn, I became a software engineer/database administrator, and parlayed that into a webmaster position here at SSK Sign Supply.”
“I think to be a good and productive web designer it’s important to have a good balance of graphic design skills, programming skills and database knowledge. Take time to understand those three areas, and programs like Photoshop, Dreamweaver and SQLServer – any programs you can get a hold of. When I first started, I used to sit in the bookstore and read books, taking notes instead of buying the book [since they’re always making new versions].”
PeC: How did SignSupplyStore.com get started? What spawned the idea?
Coffman: “SSK began life as one of the many custom auto services offered by Tint America, the premiere automotive window-tint and accessories business in Ashland, Ky. Founded in 1991, Tint America grew quickly, eventually offering vinyl graphics along with top-flight window tinting, car security systems and other custom automotive treatments. From such humble beginnings, Sign Supply of Kentucky was born in 1995, and is now known around the world as SSK Sign Supply. They took it online about three years ago with basic HTML and a StoreFront shopping cart.”
PeC: Tell us some of your most significant ecommerce successes to-date? Any innovation you’re particularly proud of?
Coffman: “Redoing the original Sign Supply Store Web site from its basic non-database “bot” code web site to what it is now-all dynamic pages out of SQLServer 2000, and all in two months. It’s much easier to maintain with CSS in place.”
PeC: Please share some of your biggest ecommerce mistakes. Impart some of your wisdom to our readers.
Coffman: “ Underestimating a good shopping cart and its search engine capability.”
“Moving from static, hard-coded META tag web pages to dynamic pages could kill you in your search engine listings, but researching a good shopping cart pays off. We used ProductCart by Early Impact, and almost instantly our pages were being indexed with dynamic titles and META tags. We now have double the number of indexed pages with a lot less programmer work.”
“ Not clearly stating that a customer will be leaving to a secure site via SSL BEFORE he or she hits the ‘continue’ button. When you get to our secure checkout page, we make it clear that you’re on our secure site by disabling menu options and even changing the logo. https://www.signsupplystore.com/productcart/pc/gw%20pfp.asp”
“ Giving customers too many options on an ecommerce site. Try not to make your customer click everywhere to see your wide variety of products. Customers would rather scroll a little than click again.”
PeC: Why and how did you choose the technologies associated with your Web business (shopping cart, for example)? What advice might you offer eBusiness owners?
Coffman: “Well, we offered many kits. They were time-consuming to create and push to the Wwb, so we looked for a build-to-order program similar to what Dell.com offers so that our customers could build their own kits. We also needed a rewards program for our customers, a very easy account login where customers can view their previous orders and a way for people to leave messages with our customer service team.”
“Another item we really liked, similar to something Amazon offers, is the ‘Recommended Items.’ Making those suggestive sales really help your sales go up that extra percent. As I said before, I really had to have a good dynamic search engine functionality.”
“Take time to understand your customers and all the issues that your customer service team hears about. Find a cart to resolve those issues. An issue could be as simple as the one we had where many of our customers would call for copies of past orders. We’d have to fax them; well, we looked for a cart with the capability to display information about previous orders.”
“Last but not least, since I love programming, I really enjoyed the fact that Early Impact’s ProductCart gave you the ‘open source’ code because you will always be getting new ideas.”
PeC: What’s the business’ gross revenue per year like? At what rate are you growing each year?
Coffman: “About $5 million a year and about a 20% growth rate.”
“SSK Sign Supply Store started out primarily as a catalog ordering company, and has tried to move into ecommerce more in the last 2.5 years. Currently, our online sales are about 35% of our total sales, which is an improvement over last year at about 20%.”
PeC: What advice would you give somebody wanting to start a business online or extend a brick-andmortar store via the Web?
Coffman: “First, take time to understand your customer! This will help you to answer questions about site layout, which shopping cart to use, images, etc.”
“The biggest question to answer is which shopping cart to use. Really take time to look at all the features that a shopping cart offers, and don’t go cheap. This is the engine of your whole web site. Picking the wrong cart can make your job incredibly frustrating and really slow your ecommerce growth.”