May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Hometown heroes

(Page 2 of 3)

Like Day’s, Norman Camera sells items that consumers carefully research-cameras and video equipment. But its focus is more on selling through the web site than on bringing customers into the company’s two stores in Michigan.

Selling online helps the stores in that it allows Norman Camera to stock a deeper selection of products. For instance, the retailer may carry an $8,000 camera lens in the stores, knowing it will offer that lens online as well.

“Someone can walk into the store and see that $8,000 lens,” says Chris Norman, a company vice president who is no relation to the brothers who started the business in 1957. “If we were just retail, we probably couldn’t justify keeping that lens in stock.” Norman, whose e-commerce and POS technology is supplied by CoreSense Inc., says nearly 30% of the company’s sales are made online.

Norman says the retailer gets better discounts from manufacturers because of the additional volume sold online. And there’s a big benefit from being in business a long time: Norman Camera is usually among the first to get new products and may have a 30- or 60-day window to sell an item at full price before web discounters obtain the item through wholesalers and cut prices. “With photo specialty stores, there’s a little bit of a lead time in getting those products,” Norman says.

The price is right

C&W; Shoes is another retailer seeking to take advantage of the extensive inventory in its five warehouse-type Shoe Gallery stores in Georgia, Mississippi and Oklahoma to build a profitable e-commerce business.

The company, which has been operating Shoe Gallery stores since 1992 and whose owners had been in the shoe business for decades before that, went online in September 2008.

C&W; would have sold online earlier but it first had to install a modern point-of-sale system in its stores so it would have an accurate count of store inventory. That’s because its strategy for the web site is to sell store inventory, which is shipped from each store, says Will Brooks, the company controller and son-in-law of company founders Jim and Medora Ware.

Brooks says that allows the company to turn inventory more quickly and to offer online shoppers a wide selection without over-ordering. “The beauty for us is that across the five stores we have a pretty good size run,” Brooks says. “In any one store we may be missing a size 8 or 11, but across all the stores hopefully we’re going to have the size in that style.”

Shoe Gallery aims to compete on price online, feeding products it has in stock to comparison-shopping web sites. Brooks says he can undersell a major online shoe retailer like Zappos.com by not attempting to match perks like free overnight shipping. “If the shopper is interested in the same product, at perhaps a lower price, and is willing to wait for it to come ground shipping, we hope they’ll give us a look,” he says.

Brooks says the e-commerce site, which like the store POS system is supplied by Celerant Technology, is generating good results and should pay for itself in less than a year, although he wouldn’t disclose sales.

But he has encountered an unanticipated customer service issue: because shoes are sold from store stock, they may appear less than pristine to a web buyer, even if it’s only the tissue paper in the box being rumpled. Brooks says he is trying to figure out how to set customer expectations. One idea under consideration is to state on the site that shoes are sold from store inventory, and ask customers to check a box to make sure they see the disclaimer.

Call first

Another e-commerce newcomer feeling its way is Leiberts Royal Green Appliance Center, a 20,000-square-foot appliance store in the New York City suburb of White Plains, which began selling online late last year.

Leiberts, which opened in 1955, is trying to build its web business by allying with kitchen designers around the country who may not have ready access to stores with a wide range of appliances. The retailer’s affiliate program gives a participating designer its own branded microsite within the Leiberts domain, each with a customized selection of appliances and a 2% discount for customers, says Rob Satran, director of business development. About 20 kitchen dealers have signed up in the first six months.

Leiberts has done no paid search advertising for the e-commerce site, preferring to let business grow gradually so that it can learn the intricacies of selling online before having to handle large volumes of orders.

One thing Satran has learned is that it’s important to call each customer who makes a purchase online to make sure the buyer understands what she is getting and how long it will take for the item to arrive. Depending on where the customer is located, an item may not arrive for 10 days or two weeks.

“We’re selling high-priced items and we want to make sure they’re comfortable with what they’re buying and that their expectations are in line with our ability to fulfill them,” he says.

And in an effort to drive local customers to the web site-and ultimately to the store-Leiberts for the first time last month began running radio ads in the New York area that mention the store’s web site address, rather than its street address and phone number.

Personal touch

It is personal attention, such as a call with each order, that most distinguishes these local retailers, and many of them play up this aspect on their e-commerce sites.

For instance, Nebraska Furniture Mart, which operates two large stores in Omaha and Kansas City and a smaller one in Des Moines, and which began selling online in 2006, displays at the bottom of each page a photo of its founder, Rose Blumkin, along with her motto: “Sell cheap and tell the truth.”

The company history includes a page devoted to the story of Mrs. B, as she was universally known, a Russian immigrant who founded the company in 1937 and worked there until she was 103. The company is now run by her son Louie and three grandsons.

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