Stephen Sibbald’s 15-year-old nephew washed boats for his uncle one summer, but he really wanted to work on the computer. Sibbald made him a deal: One boat-washing day earned one computer day. By the end of the summer, Scottie’s Canvas & Marine Outfitters in Fort Myers, Fla., had a Web site selling a $120, French-made recliner.
“All of a sudden, we had sold 20 one month,” Sibbald says. “The next month we sold 40, then 60 and 80. A couple months we sold 400 to 500…I said, ‘OK, there’s something to this.’”
A decade later, the president of Scottie’s says the Internet “has totally changed our business.” The company now uses the Internet to sell a variety of products and custom services to a customer base that has expanded to a global reach.
Companies whose sole business is selling ready-made products may be able to pump out orders easily enough, but those that customize products have other considerations, including how to communicate with potential customers who have very specific needs.
Because Scottie’s offers a wide variety of products and services—from boat covers and accessories to residential awnings and custom welding—the company maintains multiple sites, all linked to www.scottiescanvas.com. “There’s so much junk with one Web site that it’s hard to sift through it all. People are looking for a certain product,” Sibbald explains. In December, Scottie’s sent $3,000 worth of laminated vinyl to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas (for covering bags to cushion falls)—an otherwise unlikely sale for a Florida company selling marine products and awnings.
Invest in Web support
“One drawback [of Web marketing],” Sibbald says, “is you have got to have people answer the phones.” He not only added three staffers and three phone lines to handle inquiries, but also hired two full-time Web designers.
He also cautions about the dangers of doing online business in unfamilar territory. Sibbald found out the hard way when he shipped a couple of boat motors to Taiwan and never got paid. “[Now] when sending something anyplace questionable, we require wire tranfer [payment],” he says.
“What we try to do with our Web site is put on it projects that we have completed,” says Pete Weingartner, president of Cincinnati-based Queen City Awning. “What our site helps them do is get familiar with the options so when they call or stop into our showroom, they are more familiar with us. It gives them a certain confidence level before they proceed with purchasing.” Weingartner also cautions about putting out information that is not pertinent. It’s easy to flood the worldwide community with information; but if it isn’t pertinent to what someone seeks, he points out, then it’s a waste of time, money and credibility for a company to put it out there.
Within the last year, the company—which entered the “www” about eight years ago—added a place on its site for customers to schedule appointments. Although the site is run in-house, it was created by an outside consultant. “It cost certainly several grand, if not more,” Weingartner says. However, he notes, there has been an increase over the last two years of customers referring to having seen Queen City’s Web site before calling on the company.
Reap the benefits of online presence
What you won’t find on Queen City’s site are links. “If they find our Web site, we want to keep them on it and promote that they contact us,” Weingartner says. His next challenge is finding the most cost-effective method for mining customers, instead of waiting for them to discover the Web site.
Rudy Smith, president of A. Smith & Son Inc. of Burlington, N.J.—a custom textile fabricator—is something of a Thomas Register evangelist. The company, which for more than 95 years has served as a directory of U.S. and Canadian manufacturers, set up his Web site (www.asmith.biz) in 2001.
“I really haven’t changed it,” Smith says. “There’s not much you can do with it if you do custom work…A little history of the company and pretty much telling people, ‘You can contact me.’ My goal with having that Web site is to get them in the door. That’s all. Thereafter, it’s up to me on the phone.”
Smith thinks his history and statement of quality are his selling points, and that’s what he aims to convey on his Web site, not specific products. He says he gets 400 to 500 Web site visitors a month and anywhere from five to 10 calls a week.
“I do thousands of different products made to customers’ specifications,” Smith says. “How do you represent that? Offer too many pictures or descriptions, and suddenly you box yourself in, I think. The potential customer says, ‘I don’t see my product. Therefore, they don’t make that.’ So it’s trying to strike that balance and communicate to the customer, ‘Whatever you want, I make.’”
Regardless of the drawbacks and pitfalls of doing business on the World Wide Web, the benefits speak for themselves. “It’s crazy not to have a Web site,” Sibbald says. “It makes you look like you’re in business, even if you just have a basic, generic site. It tells who you are and what you do. We probably sell over $1 million a year on the Internet.”