Many years ago, not too long after e-commerce took off, someone built the first online company store. A simple affair, it offered a few shirts, hats and mugs branded with the company’s logo. The goods were ordered in quantity and kept in a warehouse somewhere, then fulfilled one by one as the orders came in. It was a quaint, uncomplicated time.
Soon, the merchandise ideas expanded, and the distributors providing the stores realized that it might not make sense to keep everything in stock; after all, someone had to pay for all that stuff sitting in the warehouse, and it didn’t always sell, even with a captive audience. Thus the drop-ship company store was born, with lower quantities and on-demand decoration. High-demand items could still be held in inventory and shipped out immediately. Everyone was happy.
Along the way, all sorts of other interesting things happened. Different ways of paying were introduced, along with lots of corporate-friendly features like departmental budgets and approval routing. If John wanted to buy twenty shirts for the trade show, he had to have the money in his budget, and Julie, his boss, had to approve it.
At some point, we packed just about all the technology that we could into company stores, but the basic concept hasn’t really changed much – you’re buying a limited set of branded goods, either because you work for a company or because you’re a fan. Endless bells and whistles can be added to this process, but ultimately, is there anything else to it?
Well, yes. In fact, having watched all this occur over fifteen years in the business, I can tell you that there are some fundamental changes to the company store model that you should keep in mind if you sell and manage these programs. Best to stay ahead of the curve, right? Here are some of the changes we’re seeing in the world of company store programs:
They’re Becoming Multipurpose
Company stores are rapidly becoming jacks-of-many-trades; from handling reward programs (more on that in a minute) and marketing collateral to incentive products, a company store may need to do more than just serve up a standard platter of promotional items to justify its existence.
Company stores often become “branding hubs” for many corporations, a place where anything company-related can be purchased or fulfilled. Be prepared to deal with products you may not be familiar with, like custom-printed business cards or postcards. Many company stores offer plug-ins or other tools to handle these processes.
They’re Learning to Talk (more)
For many larger corporations, the “punch-out” company store has become mandatory. What does that mean? Big companies like to manage all their purchases through procurement systems like Ariba or Coupa. So when someone in the marketing department goes to buy a carton of paper, a new laser printer or a box of custom t-shirts, they have to use this software or web site. The procurement system serves up a list of approved vendors and handles the purchasing approval, invoicing and other details of the transaction.
In order to make your company store work with Huge Mega-Corporation Inc., you’ll need a company store platform that is compatible with these systems. Look for “punch-out” compatibility or compatibility with the specific system that the company uses. You’ll see this on the RFQ or RFP that the company issues.
If your big client isn’t using one of these now, you might not want to rest easy; these systems are growing in popularity, and there’s a good chance that a major corporation will implement a procurement system sooner or later. Stay in the loop with your contacts there and be prepared to offer a compatible solution.
They’re Expanding their Reach
By far the biggest growth we’ve seen in company store-style programs in the last couple years is the “performance” program. These are similar to incentive and rewards programs that you already know well, like your credit card reward program or airline awards.
The primary difference is that these are often purpose-built for specific needs. Safety award programs have been around for years, and these continue to be popular uses for company store platforms. But many companies are crafting programs for specific purposes and building their own metrics; a healthcare company may have specific goals, such as assisting other employees, that they offer rewards for. There is no limit to the measurable metrics that can fuel a reward program.
Often, these programs offer a mix of branded and incentive products. At the lower tiers, you might get a hat or a nice travel mug for your performance. At the higher levels, once you’re collected a lot of points (or chips, or dollars, or whatever you’d like to call them) you could get a flat screen TV or a vacation to the Bahamas.
It’s important to note that more and more of these programs are using the technology of the store itself to handle all the moving parts. In other words, years ago you might have handed out printed certificates for a good safety record or assisting someone else. Increasingly, the issuing of awards and the redemption process is all handled online, through email and online stores.
When you have a client whose company store program has grown stale, it’s worth pitching these types of programs to them. Because the results are measurable (e.g. less accidents; better reported employee satisfaction), these programs offer something that goes far beyond the basic branding reinforcement that the traditional company store provides. They satisfy more departments, as the human resources folks and the bean counters love them too.
They Will Always Need your Creativity
We see company stores go away sometimes simply because the distributor never got past the “this is just a place for people to place orders” mentality. While there are certainly many company stores that can happily sit and fulfill products for a healthy demand, others require some creativity. Many (if not most) of your clients are not merchandisers; that’s your job. You need to stay abreast of interesting new products and pitch them regularly.
Just because a company store starts as a quaint selection of a dozen products doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. If you see traffic declining or other warning signs (product activity reports are a great way to get a better understanding of what’s going on), start talking to your client about options for expanding or changing the focus of the program. You’ve got the relationship and the store is there. The solution may not be the same one you sold them a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean it (and you) can’t still be the solution.
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.
If you’ve tried to market your promotional products website, you’ve probably learned a few ugly truths about selling online. First of all, it’s expensive! Unless you’re marketing solely to a limited geographical area, competing nationally for clicks is often prohibitive. Why? Because the top five or so promotional products websites collectively spend tens of millions of dollars (really!) per year on pay per click advertising alone. One major distributor spends over six million dollars every year, and that doesn’t even include the money spent on organic SEO (to boost their search ranking) techniques like content generation.
Second, spending money is no guarantee of sales (conversions). Many visitors to your site are often cross-shopping you against other distributors to get the best deal; countless others are researching ideas and leave without purchasing. In an environment where popular terms (think “custom pens”) can fetch anywhere from $8–13 per click, you can throw an awful lot of money around before you land a completed sale. If you’ve got the money and the cost works within your margins, then good for you. But most distributors don’t have that kind of scratch.
What to do? I’ve preached before about using your uniqueness as a web marketing strategy, and now I think it’s safe to say that for most distributors trying to carve out a healthy online sales channel, narrowing your focus is the only realistic strategy. The big online distributors are spending so much money that they have become de facto Amazons or Wal-Marts – almost unassailable for basic, inexpensive promotional products.
The lesson of Amazon/Wal-Mart is important, because in the face of their domination, millions of smaller businesses continue to thrive. Consumers love variety and tend to shy away from buying every little thing from monolithic vendors, even when it’s more convenient – we want to support local businesses or just get out of the house for a while. In addition, the movement toward local, “artisanal” products and luxury goods ensures that there will always be room for alternatives to the big guys, even when they’ve figured out how to get a drone to deliver your toilet paper in 15 minutes.
Does that mean you should change your name to “Pete’s Olde Tyme Artisanal Promotional Drinkware and Mustache Wax Shoppe”? Of course not. But it’s worth considering the realities here – while countless book store chains and music stores have shut down during Amazon’s rise to prominence, thousands of other businesses have thrived by offering things Amazon either can’t or won’t offer – highly personalized service, unique products, specialized luxury goods and a variety of other goods and services that consumers like to touch or customize.
A Different Approach
There’s an old term to describe this approach: a boutique. A boutique typically caters to a specific audience with a narrow selection of products. It’s the opposite of general stores; in fact it thrives in spite of them. Boutiques focus on product selection and service rather than low prices and volume. To be successful selling promotional products and apparel online, you need to start thinking like a boutique.
This doesn’t mean dropping everything except one category from your site, although slimming down your product offerings is always a good idea, as I’ve mentioned before; a catalog of 100,000 products is not only bad for SEO; it’s disservice to your visitors – after all, who wants to sort through 25 nearly identical mugs?
What it does mean is adopting a more careful approach to merchandising. Focus on a few categories for the purposes of your general web marketing. Showcase your strengths – you’re the expert, and you can express that through the choice of products that you sell. We have clients who market primarily to certain industries or segments – insurance agencies, oil field services, the military – but also sell effectively to other customers.
Therein lies one of the boutique’s secrets: When you walk into a well-merchandised boutique, you’ll often find that the product mix is actually wider-ranging than the expressed focus of the store. For instance, if they’re selling mostly expensive designer clothing, there are plenty of unrelated products for those customers who can’t afford the $400 dress – a table of scented candles here, a display of less-expensive jewelry over there. The shop owner knows that not everyone can afford the designer dresses, but customers love walking out with a bargain from the same shop. They make sure that there are opportunities at a variety of price points and related categories. Think about it: there are far more Ferrari t-shirts than there are Ferraris.
Of course, with a promotional products website, the model isn’t quite as simple. Even with a sane (read: less than 10K) product selection, you’re still selling a ton of products, and it’s unlikely that they all “fit in” with each other in any kind of theme. That’s fine, because we’re using the boutique model as a traffic generation strategy. Once they get to your site and start poking around, you can show them the candles and the jewelry.
Merchandising like a Pro
How does this work? In many different ways. If you are able to develop a focus through merchandising, then you should by all means do so. In two of the examples I mentioned above – insurance agencies and oil field services – there are specific categories of products (card holders and calendars in the first example, workwear and outdoor products in the second) that are popular with their clients and prospects. While each company focuses their merchandising and marketing on promoting these products, both also sell a wide variety of other products.
And you know what? Those other products sell too! They build a relationship with a prospective customer by showing them what they asked for, and then those customers come back and buy other things.
A product-centered marketing strategy is particularly effective online because it dovetails with what users are searching for. You have a concentration of products within a few particular categories or usages, and you’ll perform much better in organic search. True, you won’t get as many visitors coming in for “promotional products” searches. But the hard reality is that you wouldn’t have gotten them anyway, because you couldn’t afford them in the first place!
Beyond merchandising, there are other ways to specialize and drive more quality traffic to your site. A local focus is an obvious approach, and is the simplest method of maximizing your ad spend. Industry-specific approaches are also very effective – you might already have colleagues in industries that you can help you with tailoring an advertising and content approach to their segments. You can also focus on service, expertise or a “high-touch” experience.
The important thing to remember is that you have to be disciplined and willing to reexamine your own assumptions. Your past sales may indicate that inexpensive pens are your sweet spot, but online, “cheap pens” ads might cost you $16 per click. Is that worth it for an inexpensive pen order? Don’t assume that what’s worked offline will work online. Be ready to experiment – set up some specialized catalogs and blog posts and see where they get you. A tight focus may not bring you high volume, but it will bring you higher quality leads, with whom you can build a long-term relationship.
If you’re reading this, I can only assume that the world did not come to an end. Predictions of imminent doom have been circulating around as a result of Google’s algorithm change this spring, which has promised to upend search engine ranking as we know it. Hopefully you’ve escaped the destruction, but if your site is scattered amongst the ruins of the “mobilepocalypse”, I may have a rope to pull you out of the debris.
OK, I’m probably taking a few dramatic liberties here. If you’re not a nerd like me and don’t keep up with search engine news, the biggest story of 2015 has been the change that Google has made to its search engine ranking “signals” (basically, the various factors that are fed into their formula to determine ranking). That update is a simple one, but it’s unfortunately a change that many web site owners are unprepared for.
What is it? Essentially, Google has added “mobile-friendliness” as a substantial ranking signal to its search algorithm. At a very basic level, that means that if your site is “friendly” to mobile users, you may see a ranking boost; conversely, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, you might see your ranking decline.
I use the terms “may” and “might” because Google doesn’t really explicitly state when and where the mobile-friendly assessment will directly impact ranking. Google has made it clear that mobile-friendliness should affect mobile rankings (in other words, a search from your phone or tablet), because they want to make sure that a mobile user gets to a page that is friendly. But Google has also made it clear that mobile-friendliness won’t trump good content – in the words of a Google spokesperson, “if a page with high-quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query.”
What all that means is that you might see a ranking drop if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, and that you’re probably more likely to see a ranking drop for mobile searches, assuming your content isn’t otherwise more compelling than your competitors’. For any given business, it’s hard to tell whether this will have much impact, but you shouldn’t ignore it. It might even affect you more than you think it could.
Why? Because, whether you’re aware or not, a big chunk of searches for your site are likely coming from a mobile device. Worldwide, mobile web usage averages anywhere from 40–50 percent, depending on whom you ask. For our clients, mobile usage isn’t quite that high, but it’s getting there – 35–45 percent mobile traffic is not unusual for a promotional products web site.
That means that a third or more of your users are likely coming from mobile devices, and if those users are doing their searches on those devices, your ranking for 30–40 percent of your prospective customers could suffer as the result of this change. So while I recommend against a full-blown freakout, you should absolutely be aware of what’s happening, and assume that this will become even more important in the future.
What is Mobile-Friendly and How do I get it?
Of course, regular readers know that I’ve been pushing mobile-friendliness for quite a while. Just two columns ago, I noted “mobile-friendliness” as one of the four most important improvements to your website going forward, and that article includes a good primer on what you should consider for mobile-friendly design.
Since you might be in panic mode, though, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how to achieve mobile-friendliness. You might want to attack this with a “quick-and-dirty” retrofit to your site, or you might want to upgrade to a platform that has mobile layouts built-in. Either way, here are some tips for getting back in the good mobile graces of Google’s search engine:
- Find a provider that includes mobile-friendly layout(s) in their package – Many web and e-commerce providers now include mobile-friendly design in their packages. Your provider might include this as well; make sure you ask. If they don’t, ask them when they’re going to have it. Nearly every web provider worth their salt will soon have a mobile-friendly option, because, well, that’s the way the world is heading. Yours should too.
- Retrofit your site – For a stopgap solution, you can probably find a web designer or developer that can “bolt on” a mobile version to your existing site. Sometimes this strategy can actually be a beneficial first step because it forces you to work with a designer or developer to define exactly what you want to show to mobile users. For example, you might want to just show product information and pricing on the mobile version of your site and disable or hide features that are unlikely to be used by someone on a smartphone.
- Start simple – Mobile-friendliness, as mentioned above, doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to be right there for smartphone users. Remember, Google isn’t checking to see if you kept everything but the kitchen sink in your layout; it just wants to make sure that a mobile user can get around easily. Don’t hesitate to keep the mobile version simple.
- Cut out the fat – I also mentioned a couple months ago that speed is becoming more and more important in ranking. This is part of mobile-friendliness as well; often, smartphone users are on slower connections than a desktop computer or laptop on wifi. All of which points to the gradual slimming down of web sites – removing Flash, big images, animations and so on. It’s time to trim out those little darlings that you’ve held on to for so long.
- Think touch – Speaking of little darlings, many websites have menus and navigation that do certain things when a user “hovers” their mouse over links, image or menus. You know the feature – you move your mouse over an “Apparel” link and it expands to show you all the subcategories underneath apparel, without ever even clicking on the link. There’s only one problem with that – mobile devices don’t use a mouse, and a smartphone or tablet can’t tell when your finger is hovering over something. So, you’ll need to get rid of those hovering actions, along with any other animations or interactions that don’t work in a touch interface.
- Prepare for fat fingers – Fingers are unfortunately a much less precise pointing device than a mouse. Therefore, your tiny text links and buttons may be infuriatingly difficult to tap successfully on a smartphone or tablet. Make your buttons and links bigger overall, or at least increase the size and spacing between them when your site is on a mobile device.
Finally, don’t forget the most important piece of advice – Google will help you with this! That’s right – if your site is set up with Webmaster Tools (something I recommend everyone does), Google will actually let you know how you’re doing. For instance, if your buttons are too small, Google will send you an email letting you know that you need to make them bigger. Google ultimately wants a great mobile experience, because it sees that the world is heading rapidly in that direction. So, whether you retrofit your existing site or build an awesome new responsive one, make sure you take advantage of the tools Google offers to make sure that your mobile experience is as smooth as possible.
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.