US News: Make Your Website Pay

Bob Vereen interviewed successful website retailers and website developers and came up with this “how-to” article to help hardware retailers improve their existing websites or to start using the Internet to help their businesses…

Increasingly, the Internet is becoming the world’s primary means of communication and learning. People turn to the Internet to find out what to buy and where to buy, even though they might not actually buy over the Internet.

AHJUSNews01Aug06Customers to Virgil Cox’s website can find out what’s in stock and what his prices are to ensure that during their visit to his store they will get what they want

Dennis Stillwell, chairman of New York-based, Imex.com, a website developer, says that 20% of the people who use the Internet to find out about products, go to a store to purchase those products after researching them on the Internet. Failure to have a website means limiting your access to potential customers, as well as depriving existing customers of information about your products and services. Today, a retailer’s website can be the most complete and useful source of information about one’s business, products and services.

Certainly, generating sales should be a part of the strategy behind having a website, but not the only reason for it. Your web site should be a reflection of your business – its philosophy, style, its merchandise offerings, its services and, most importantly, its role and relationship to customers in your community. Many retailers say a website is like a brochure about the company or a Yellow Pages ad.

Standing Out In A Crowd
Internet Retailer, a US trade magazine, recently reported that hardware and home improvement is the web’s fastest growing category, increasing at an annual rate of 50%. From 2004 to 2005, sales grew from $48.2 billion to $70.5 billion. It is estimated that Home Depot generated sales of $279.7 million from its website and Lowes, $148.8 million. Home Décor Inc, a far less well known retailing name, generated nearly $80 million in web sales, up from $50 million the year before.

Virgil Cox, a retailer in Houston, Texas, insists that his web site would be a valuable investment even if it didn’t ring up a single sale, though it does generate sales at a satisfying rate. He sees his site serving a key function by providing information and convenience for current and potential customers.

Dave Petersen, who operates a lumberyard in Massachusetts, says that with more useful information available on the website, and /or links to helpful information, you will have more ‘pre-educated’ consumers walking into your store. This results in less time explaining a product’s features and benefits, since they have researched online.

John Fix of Cornell’s Hardware in Eastchester, NY, has niche categories, including ‘As advertised on TV’ items on his website. These are unusual items and are, in many cases, pre-sold from their TV exposure, so finding them locally generates sales for his store

One often overlooked use of the web is to convey the experience of one’s employees (an important point of differentiation). Most independent retailers insist that their employees are well-trained, knowledgeable and great problem-solvers for customers, yet too few retailers use the web to emphasize those employee differences and qualities.

Once developed, a website becomes a never-ending and “free” advertising method for a retailer, though it does require regular maintenance to be kept up-to-date and valuable for site visitors.

The web also provides an opportunity to promote niche departments as a competitive offset to bigger stores. Indeed, specifying niche departments is one web essential. Most retailers find it difficult to sell everyday, low-value regular stock off the web, but the web does enable customers to seek out niche products and new items before they journey to your store.

Many retailers are effectively using the web to build their reputation as an “expert” by offering tips and advice and by convincing site visitors that they have “everything” in a category, especially hard-to-find items. The Internet provides a method of advertising the kind of knowledge and service retailers pride themselves on.

For many years, Orchard Supply Hardware, a West Coast chain now owned by Sears, regularly ran newspaper ads headlined ‘Hard-to-Find Items’. These appealed to the curious nature of consumers, spotlighted unique problem-solving items few people knew about, and helped create an image that the store was the first place to turn to for problem-solving. The same headline will work on the Internet and create a unique image for a retailer. This concept is emphasized by specialty retailers like The Sharper Image, Hammacher & Schlemmer, Crate & Barrel, whose merchandise assortment sets them apart from mass merchandisers like Wal*Mart and Target in the US.

The Internet can be used to encourage a personal relationship with customers. One way is by developing an on-line newsletter with information about local events, how-to tips, safety suggestions for the home, etc. You don’t need a journalism degree to do this; you just need to write about what’s going on in your area, what you know about products and customer concerns, and answers to common DIY problems.

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Menards is a good example of a website that gives broader exposure to traditional advertising media – circulars, newspaper ads, etc

The role of your website developer is to make your site look good, be easy to navigate and to ensure that people will find it when they look for your store, or your kind of products.

 

  • Ask about registering your site on the major search engines
  • What key words will they use to drive traffic to your site?
  • Are they familiar with meta-tags and their use?
  • Can they help you develop reciprocal links to other sites, which help increase your own site traffic and rank you higher on search engines?Website Musts
    Some key things to think about in establishing a new website or to improve an existing site:
    (1) It should contain a search engine, in which viewers can type in the names of items about which they are seeking information
    (2) Keep the design relatively simple so it’s easy to navigate
    (3) Emphasize your strengths – extensive inventory, hard-to-find items, niche departments, excellent personal service, etc
    (4) If you don’t want to try generating mail order sales, at least use the site to generate in-store sales by featuring specials, unusual items, seasonal categories
    (5) In order for your site to be found easily on major search engines like Google, Yahoo, you need to be sure that key words are included in your site – hardware, tools, plumbing, electrical, etc
    (6) Use the site to establish your firm as a hardlines “expert”
    (7) Collect e-mails from in-store customers, especially charge customers
    (8) If possible, develop an e-mail newsletter reporting on local events and activities, offering how-to tips, etc
    (9) Search for other sites that you can link to on your site and ask for a reciprocal link, if possible – it will rank you higher on search engines and be a good service to site visitors
    (10) Collect email addresses from your in-store customers
    (11) Develop an email catalogue and send it out to all collected email addresses; you can also buy email lists targeted to your own area
    (12) List your web address everywhere – in ads, Yellow Pages, cards, letterheads, etc.