March 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

An e-retailer buys the e-commerce foundation, but builds his own front door

Full Source uses NetSuite to manage most aspects of its five sites that sell safety gear and janitorial supplies. But when it needed flexibility, it added new customer-facing sites and a content management system that boosted its search engine rankings.

Katie Evans

Managing Editor, International Research

Jim Graham likens his company, Full Source LLC, to a speedboat that can quickly change direction. But his primary e-commerce technology provider, NetSuite Inc., has grown to be more of a cruise ship than a speedboat, generating $166.5 million in revenue last year by serving more than 6,600 small and midsized companies like Graham’s.

Graham, who says his privately held company registered between $5 million and $10 million in sales last year, is a big fan of NetSuite, which allows him to process orders and record sales-from shopping cart to general ledger-without reentering data and to run his entire business selling safety gear and janitorial supplies with 18 employees. But when Graham has an idea, he can’t always wait for NetSuite to provide the technology that will make it work.

That’s what happened a few years ago when Graham, which launched his business in late 2001 with UtilitySafeguard.com, bought the URL SafetyVests.com and set out to develop his second e-commerce site. He initially had to create a second NetSuite account for the new site, but the following year NetSuite added a multisite capability that allowed him to run both sites off of a single NetSuite account.

The company gradually added new sites-mySafetyGear.com, myHardHats.com and WorkGloves.net-and began to run into problems with natural search results because there was duplication of content from one site to another, as many of the 12,000 products Full Source sells are available on several of its sites. Search engines view duplicate content as site operators trying to move up in search results unfairly, and penalize them, resulting in lower search rankings.

That can be addressed with canonical tags that tell the search engines which of the duplicate pages to view as the primary page that should be displayed in search results. But NetSuite at the time did not support canonical tags, Graham says. (The newest version of NetSuite does include canonical URLs, the company says.)

To address the issue of search engine rankings, Graham directed his five-person web development team to create new customer-facing front ends for the five sites, with canonical tags and other features, such as the ability to create page title tags and metadata suited to a particular site, that can improve a site’s position in search engine results. They also built a content management system to feed data to the new sites, writing the code in the widely used web development language PHP.

The result was a significant improvement in search results, which helped the company boost its revenue by 12% last year, despite the recession, Graham says. The arrangement adds a small amount of complexity. Now new products must be added first to the NetSuite content management system, then uploaded to Full Source’s home-grown content manager. The data transfers don’t take long, and Graham says he normally uploads data once a week.

Meanwhile, he continues to enjoy the considerable advantages of the integrated NetSuite system, which handles everything from order management through accounting in an automated way. “When an order is submitted it pops up on a screen for an approval clerk to verify,” Graham says. “They will review it and ensure it meets a check list of criteria and then approve the order for shipping and billing. If the item is in stock, the order then pops up on the screen in the warehouse for shipping. The warehouse employees pick the order, enter the weight of the box and print out a UPS label. NetSuite automatically sends an e-mail to the customer with the tracking information. Nobody has to retype any of the information.”

NetSuite hosts all its applications, and Graham and other clients access them via the web in a software-as-a-service model. When he used NetSuite’s front end for his web sites, NetSuite hosted the sites. But now that he has created his own web sites, Graham has to host those himself.

He first tried a $99 per month service from a web hosting company, but found the shared server they offered was too slow. “When you share a server, you have no control of who else is on that server,” Graham says. He subsequently moved to a dedicated server that costs him less than $500 per month. He says he saves more than that amount each month by switching from five NetSuite shopping carts to one that supports sales from all five of his retail sites. And he gets the benefit that a customer can move around to the five sites, put items from each site into a single shopping cart, then check out once.

Graham says he pays less than $50,000 a year for about 15 licenses to NetSuite’s software. Graham says he looks around at other e-commerce platforms every year, “but we keep coming back to NetSuite.”

He appreciates that a company the size of NetSuite can’t instantly adopt every new technology that comes along, but he likes having the flexibility to come up with ideas and to implement them on his own, even if it means developing some new technology in-house. When it came to improving his natural search rankings, he couldn’t wait for a vendor to meet his needs because generating sales from web traffic is his entire business. “We’re an e-commerce company. We don’t have outside sales people and we don’t have a storefront,” Graham says. “We’re connected to the Internet. It’s 2010, and that’s how we do business.”

 

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