Blog: merchandising

Think Boutique

Boutique shop

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.

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr