Many merchants, large and small, are contemplating their mobile commerce strategies, and one merchant that has just launched a mobile version of its ecommerce site is The Popcorn Factory. The person responsible for marketing that company and that site is Tom Russell. He’s senior vice president for 1-800-Flowers.com, the parent company of The Popcorn Factory, and he spoke with us about the company’s mobile efforts.
Practical eCommerce: Please give us a little background on The Popcorn Factory?
Tom Russell: “The Popcorn Factory was founded in 1979 in Lake Forest, Illinois. It was originally a family-owned, family-founded business, and then 1-800-Flowers.com purchased it in 2003. Since that time, it’s become one of the largest direct consumer ecommerce popcorn businesses in the country.”
PEC: How many inventory items are sold on the ThePopcornFactory.com?
Russell: “It varies by time of year. Our business is fairly seasonal, so we go from 50 or 60 during a slower time to more than a couple hundred during the more critical times of the year. Christmas season and the holiday season is number one, and Halloween is right behind it.”
PEC: When did The Popcorn Factory first launch its ecommerce site?
Russell: “It was well before my time, but I believe it was in the late 1990s. I think 1-800-Flowers, our parent company, was the first merchant that opened at AOL, which was a long, long time ago. So, we’ve had a website for quite a while now, and while we continue to send a lot of catalogs and do a lot of catalog business, more and more of our customers are ordering online and clearly the majority of our revenue does come in through the online channel.”
PEC: What kind of shopping cart does the website use?
Russell: “We are on the IBM WebSphere Commerce platform, and The Popcorn Factory is on that platform. Another one of our brands, Cheryls.com, which is a cookie company, is also on that platform.”
PEC: Can you tell us why ThePopcornFactory.com recently launched a mobile version of its site?
Russell: “We want to be where our customers can access us. It’s as straightforward and as simple as that. Obviously, more and more people are carrying around mobile devices, and they’re using them for more than just placing phone calls and sending emails, and more and more commerce is being done over [mobile devices]. So, it’s an opportunity for us to be in front of our customers where they want us to be. If they want to access us on the road, they can absolutely do that now very easily.”
PEC: When did you launch the mobile site?
Russell: “We launched the mobile site towards the middle of September 2010. It’s new.”
PEC: Are your customers actually buying products off the new mobile site, or is it more window shopping?
Russell: “The mobile site is absolutely an ecommerce site. Customers can place orders on it and we are receiving transactions and revenue through the mobile site today.
“A lot of what we do is gifting. I would say that more than half of our business is gifts, both consumers sending a gift to another consumer – whether it’s for a birthday or Halloween or for the holidays – or businesses sending gifts to other businesses to thank them for their business.
“It’s not the most impulse purchase where you’re out on the road, like, ‘I’ve got to send somebody a three-gallon tin of popcorn.’ So, clearly, part of the objective is to have it be a marketing or branding element force, but we absolutely built it to take orders on and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
PEC: Can you tell us how you expect conversion rates to perform on your new mobile version versus your traditional site?
Russell: “We have not really started digging into conversion yet on the mobile site because it is so new, and because a lot of the traffic that’s come to it (at least in the first couple of weeks) was us kind of looking and playing and making sure it was up to snuff, and so the numbers will be a little bit skewed.
“I’ll tell you that, usually for most ecommerce sites that I’ve been involved with in the past, conversion and traffic move in opposite directions, right? So, the more traffic that you send to your site – whether it’s through search or display advertising or whatever – over time, that traffic is less qualified, and so your conversion goes down. The goal is to optimize or bring the right amount of traffic to the right amount of conversion for your profitability.
“But, at the ThePopcornFactory.com, conversion and traffic tend to move in the same exact direction, which means when I drive more traffic, conversion goes up. The reason for that is because our business is highly seasonal. So, in November and December when people are in gift-giving mode and they are getting our catalogs or getting other marketing materials, they are a very qualified audience and they are buying. So we see quite a hockey stick in our business during the key periods of year where both traffic and conversion go up.
“I would expect the same on our mobile site; although I would also expect that our mobile might be a little bit more for everyday kind of occasion usage versus just the holiday season. That’s one of the things that we’re going to be looking at is this traffic and conversion. What is the relationship between those two things in a mobile environment versus on our full-fledged kind of ecommerce site? We absolutely will be focusing on it because we literally look at our conversion statistics and traffic statistics every single day. One of the most important statistics that we look at, right after daily revenue and demand, is how our site is converting.”
PEC: As a company, do you have a long-term prognosis on mobile commerce versus traditional ecommerce?
Russell: “I think that over time those terms will become blurred. I think that there will be less talk about traditional versus mobile over time because mobile will become more and more important. Now, having said that, I think that it would be interesting to see what even happens to the definition of mobile. I mean, for instance, is the iPad a mobile device? You’ve got this whole class of technologies that are coming out right now. Everyone is going to come out with their slate or their tablet. Is it a mobile device if it can make a phone call, but you’re not carrying it in your pocket?
“So, it will be interesting to see what is the definition of mobile in the future versus traditional ecommerce, but I think that clearly they will converge. I don’t think that conversion will happen in the next 12 months – these things always take longer than you think they are going to – but over time, we won’t be talking in terms of traditional versus mobile.”
PEC: Why did your company choose the hosted mobile solution, Digby, to roll out The Popcorn Factory’s mobile site, versus developing something in-house?
Russell: “For us, it was really speed to marketing resources. We’ve got a lot of technology work going on right now on our ecommerce sites and we felt that an expert in this area could very quickly get us up and running and probably could help us make some right decisions about how to do it.
“Digby launched a mobile site for 1-800-Flowers.com that has been fairly successful. The Flowers team has been very happy with that site and working with Digby. So, the choice for us was pretty simple because we already had somebody that we, and our IT team, knew. We saw the success they were having, and we said, ‘Why don’t we give this a shot at the ThePopcornFactory.com?’”
PEC: It seems contradictory that you believe mobile will be an increasingly large part of The Popcorn Factory’s business, yet it’s something that your company has outsourced.
Russell: “Right. Yes, and I’m not convinced that, three years from now, outsourcing will be the model. This was our chance to very quickly get this done and get in front of our customers wherever they are in a new way, and kind of see what happens from there. It was really a speed to market versus the available resources kind of issue more than anything else.
“I do think that the two will converge, but right now this mobile thing is pretty new to us. So, we can work with somebody who’s kind of done this already. Two or three years down the road, that might not be the case.”
PEC: What is your advice to smaller ecommerce companies as they consider mobile commerce?
Russell: “The number one thing is to understand your customer and to ask them if this is something they are going to use, ‘Is this something that makes sense for you based on how you interact with us?’ Really understanding that is important for a smaller company, because the level of investment is probably a bigger part of their available money to spend on stuff like this, right? Ask yourself, ‘Does it make sense for the business that I’m in for my customers to do this, and is there value that they’re going to get in interacting with my business on a mobile site?’
“Secondly, there are a lot of [mobile commerce] companies out there right now, and this is a very, very hot area in ecommerce. I get calls and emails almost daily from companies who want to [sell us] something with the mobile arena. There are a lot of companies and there’s a lot of expertise out there, and it is good for a small business to be able to tap into if they can find the right partner.
“There are some alternative ways of tackling this where maybe there’s a little bit less of an upfront spend that you might have to make with a company that comes maybe with a revenue share company or something like that, because I know that those models are out there. So, depending on the business that you’re in and depending on who your customers are, if you want to go after them, there’s a couple of different ways to do it that might be a little bit lower risk.”
“I would [start with] a hosted solution. They are taking the orders and revenue, you’re getting that revenue and they get a cut in order to build that. You both kind of learn together, and clearly a business that’s doing that and is finding that partner has a lot to learn about how customers are interacting with [mobile]. What is the value that you are providing for them, and at the end of the day is it adding more value to that business because you’re able to interact with your customers that way?”
PEC: Any other thoughts for our readers today?
Russell: “Once again, I would say to just think about your customer experience. That’s one thing that we spent a lot of time on before we pushed this site live. Given the form factor of a BlackBerry or other type of mobile device, you really have to think through (just like you do on a full-fledged ecommerce website) clicks and how much time does it take for somebody to get through the process. We know on our ecommerce site to minimize clicks. Let the customer find a product as quickly as possible, let them get the information that they want from what page about that product as quickly as possible, and make it easy for them to add to their shopping and easy for them to check out. We talk about that all day long.
“Mobile is not any different. In fact, I would argue that it’s even more important given the difficulty of typing and entering a bunch of texts. It’s just different than having a keyboard and a full screen in front of you. So, as you build it, you just don’t draw up a mobile site and say there it is. You really have to work through the limited ability to enter text and limited ability to see things. [Our mobile site] tends to show one product per page; a very different kind of experience versus our full commerce site where a search can come up with 48 items, right?
“It’s tough to get on a mobile device, so my advice is to take it from the customer’s perspective. As long as you do that, you’ll be in good shape.”