Please note: This older article by our former faculty member remains available on our site for archival purposes. Some information contained in it may be outdated.
Retail lumber dealers are increasingly turning to the Web to enhance sales. Helpful tips for website use and design are presented.
Our industry and our customers are rapidly adopting the internet and using the world wide web (WWW) as another communications tool for everyday use. Businesses and associations are using web sites for traditional marketing functions such as: providing product information, spelling out customer services, advertising pricing, and posting hours of operation. What do we need to do to maximize our chances for success with a retail lumber web site? Generating profits from a web site is a rare thing today, yet many see web site marketing as an essential part of their advertising and promotional mix. Here are a number of tips that will help you get the most out of your internet marketing efforts.
Be Clear About Your Internet Marketing Goals
You are in business to make a profit. Before investing in your web site you need to be convinced that it will help your organization make more money. One way your web site can help is by getting people into your store. Your should give web site visitors a reason to make the trip to the store. Advertise promotions, specials, seminars and truckload sales. Consider using your web site to promote as you would with newspaper, radio or TV. It is a tool for increasing the number of “advertising impressions” you make on your customers.
What Are Building Materials Retailers Providing On Their Web sites?
Almost all retail web sites provide some form of product information. Some popular “content” categories for retail lumber web sites are: information on company services, contacts and business hours. The important message here is that your web site needs to provide answers to the most common questions that you are asked. If one-third of your phone callers ask how late you are open, or what your Sunday hours are, you better be sure that these facts are easy to find on your Web page. See the sidebar for more ideas on what kinds of “content” retailers are putting up on their web sites.
Retail Web site Content
(Percentage of building material retailers responding that they provide this information on their web site.)
- Product information_______94%
- Company services________83%
- Who to contact__________71%
- Hours of operation________63%
- New products or services___54%
- Technical data___________51%
- Company news items______44%
(Source: D. T. Damery, UMass, May, 1997 Survey of 300 Building Materials Websites)
An overwhelming majority, 88% of on-line retailers, indicate they are using their web sites to develop sales leads. Only 39% state that they are using the web for direct sales and order placement. As businesses and the general public, become more familiar with the internet and security concerns will lessen. Both the dollar volume and number of actual business transactions will continue to increase. A quick note on security. Many believe that the safety of business transactions over the internet is as risky as using the telephone. How many of us take that risk of placing orders over the phone?
What About Costs? Am I Going To Be Able To Make Money With This Thing?
It’s probably no surprise, but few businesses are actually profiting from their internet web sites. However, almost all businesses will agree that including a web site is essential to their future marketing efforts. In the good old days of the early internet it wasn’t uncommon for some large multinational companies to spend five or six figures on setting up their web site. Today, a computer savvy youngster can design web pages with the word processor that comes loaded on their PC. Most building material retailers are now spending less than $1,000 to set up their web sites. However, don’t forget to include your training and labor costs in this marketing effort. With any new technology, the out-of-pocket hardware costs are usually dwarfed by the training, and labor costs involved in startup.
Monthly internet service provider access charges can be as low as $9.95. Depending on the size of your business your ongoing out-of pocket charges for internet connections should be less than $100.
Are MY Customers Using The Internet?
First off, who is out there? The answer is, almost everyone or at least almost everyone has the potential to surf the web. From schools, to public libraries, to the office, to homes PCs have opened the way for most U.S. citizens to use the internet. They are using it in huge numbers to both gather information and as another method of communication. Your customers, including homeowners, do-it-yourselfers and contractors, suppliers (manufacturers, and wholesalers) and competitors are, ever more frequently, using the WWW to conduct business. About a year ago I surveyed 300 building materials retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers all of whom had some internet marketing presence. Sixty percent of retailer web sites were less than one year old. My guess is that the pace of lumber businesses making use of the internet has accelerated since then.
Every successful marketing effort begins with knowing who your customer is. Successful web site content provides answers to your customer’s questions. What do they want to know? DIYers might like to know your hours of operation, or directions to the store. You might increase traffic by informing them of seasonal specials. Contractors might like to submit material lists for estimating via e-mail. If you are willing to perform this service you should advertise this on your web site. Many sites provide current pricing of common items. After all, isn’t this one of the more frequent questions that you now answer by telephone? How about providing span tables or information on some new labor saving product?
The Need To Respond Via E-Mail
Do you have computer literate sales staff who are capable of answering homeowner questions by e-mail? This feature will be an attraction to most customers who are surfing the web. They would like helpful answers to their specific questions. Web visitors are not too different from store visitors. They want to be able to get answers to their questions in a timely fashion. You should provide appropriate e-mail addresses and training for your staff, and be prepared to have them answer their e-mail more frequently than once a day.
How to Promote Your Site
Some gurus believe that the internet is becoming as universal as the telephone. If that’s the case then you better print your web site address everywhere you print your phone number! That means reprinting business cards, stationery and invoice forms. To promote visits to your web site, include your web address in print, radio and TV ads. Print it on flyers, and announce your web site on statement stuffers.
People navigate the web using search engines. The traffic on your web site will increase if you register with them. Your web page developer, and/or your computer savvy employee will need to design your pages to include appropriate Titles, and Meta Tags that make it easier for search engines to find and classify your web pages. Some of the more popular search engines are Altavista, Yahoo, Lycos, Infoseek, Webcrawler, and Excite. There are literally hundreds however, and each one has a slightly different technique for searching, and for registering your site. One helpful site is http://www.addme.com which claims to register your site with 34 different search engines for free. Another is http://www.submit-it.com which charges $60 for registering 2 pages with over 400 different search engines. By registering you get a better opportunity of rising to the top of the search list. With millions upon millions of web pages out there you want to do all you can to get your web site in front of your customers.
With Whom Shall We Link?
The confusion that reigns today on the internet will sort itself out over time. In the meantime you should try to link your web site with anyplace that your customers are likely to visit. Examples of useful links include: community web sites, chambers of commerce, builders associations, local internet service providers, community development centers, small business associations, and regional web “yellow pages”. Think of who your “connections” are in and around town.
You might also consider links to your customers who have web sites. Complementary businesses such as: plumbers, electricians, real estate agents, banks, and landlord associations are all good candidates. Don’t forget your suppliers! Manufacturers like to let their web site visitors know where their nearest available store is. Co-ops (www.acelbm.com) and associations (www.nrla.org) have links pages.
A word of caution with links pages. Links can provide a useful service to your customer, by making helpful information only a click away. The downside of this is that you lose them to another site. One solution to this problem is to design your web site using “frames”. This, however, comes with its own set of problems. Not all web browsers (especially older software) support frames technology.
Helpful Web site Tips
Provide Easy Links To Your Staff
Answer E-Mail Promptly
Make The Viewer’s Visit Interesting
Post Information That Answers Customer Questions
Choose An Easily Recognizable Domain Name
Keeping It Simple Promotes Quick Load Times
Make Your Site Easy To Navigate
Promote your site, Register with Search Engines
The new communications tools enabled by the internet will be integral to future marketing efforts in the Building Materials industry. The number of customers, competitors, and suppliers using the internet will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. Successful web sites depend upon a firm commitment on the part of management to train their workforce in its use. Web site features should be tailored to your customer’s needs. Don’t be shy about applying conventional marketing wisdom to internet based marketing . Have fun and enjoy the ride!