The Local Search Marketing industry is in its infancy. The following interview covers the good, the bad and the reality of SMB Marketing and how far there is still yet to go for SMB’s to take advantage of its power.
Chuck Bruce of Bruce’s Sew Handy, caught my attention when he gave a testimonial for Merchant Circle in the November email newsletter that MC sent out. I was curious if he was for real or just another Merchant Circle marketing fabrication so I gave him a call. In the third week of November, we had an extensive conversation about his market, marketing strategies, his relationship with online local listing services and the tough economic times that he is suddenly confronting. To use one of Chuck’s phrases, he is a stand up guy.
Tell us about your business:
We are located in the foothills of Yosemite. A small scattered area. Coursegold is the most populous town in the foothills with a population of 17,000. The total market size is 35,000 people within a 40 mile radius. It is a bedroom community to Fresno which is the major city in Centeral CA.
We only carry dealer exclusive products and focus primarily on sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. Most of the busineses in Coursegold are tourism based but we have only a few gifty items and we don’t look for tourist traffic.
We are the Pfaff sewing machine dealer for Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties. We are their only option and a lot of traffic comes from Pfaff loyalists.
In the vacuum market we sell the Simplicity & Lindhuas brands. We are dropping Miele as they are selling directly from their website.
Describe the the history of your business & where it is now
Why am I in Coarsgold? I live here. About 6 years ago I worked for a previous competitor and I was terminated there. This is what I knew how to do. He was a Pfaff dealer in Oakhurst, 7 miles away. When he terminted me, he had a young son who he wanted to have working in the business. He thought he could replace an adult with his 16 year old son. Customers were more loyal to a salemsan than to the store. Pfaff approached me and asked to carry product line.
I opened this store looking for employment and I didn’t want to move out of Coursegold. I am finding out that it isn’t the ideal town to have a business. That being said, we have done well. I consider ourselves to be very successful in pulling $500,000 per year out of this size community Given the market, I have a number of other ways to earn money on the side including public speaking and selling websites for the company that developed mine.
We’ve consistently have had 30-35% annual increases over our first 6 years in business. This last quarter has crushed our hopes of an overall increase for 2008. This year, we were up 30% through September and now we are off substantially for October and November. We will likely finish our year even with last year. Usually the last quarter is the best. I don’t see December picking up. I am not overly optimistic right now unless the next week picks up and then I’ll know for sure.
What are your short term plans?
We are planning to relocate to 7 miles outside of Fresno in January. The new store will still be in Madera County so we will retain our exclusive lines but we will have access to a market of 1.2 million. Our display area will go from 1600 square feet to 4800 square feet.
I have not been able to find financing but the reality is rents are down for new tenants and I am able to get much larger facility for the same price I am now paying. I won’t increase inventory but everything will now be on display on the showroom floor.
Tell us about your marketing efforts
I advertise based on the times. If it is slow, I advertise more. Our average customer count is 15 per day so traffic is very important to us.
I always use coupons in my advertising and I never repeat the same coupon in more than one source. I always know exactly where it comes from. I have run newspaper ads on in-store promos and never had coupons redeemed. We rarely saw a coupon, there was amost zero redemption so we cut back newspaper adverts substantially.
We gather email addresses very aggressively. We try to get emails from everyone coming into the store. I email our customer base 1-2 times per week (click to see a sample email). I am always running a promotion. For example if I have overstock I will put the item on sale. We also do a lot of classes so once per week, I send out links to our web site calendar.
We change the website daily and use Google Analytics to track visits.
What is your opinion of Merchant Circle?
They are a stand up company. I have not done anything besides setting up the account with them and I have used their coupons for my business. They are one of the few online companies where we have experienced success. They have interviewed me several times and they suggested some of what I should say in the November newsletter.
I have not done anything with them besides setting up and coupons. If I can’t get it free I don’t do it.
Our “Buy One-Get One Free” coupon that we have posted with them is always redeemed. I first put it up there almost 2 years ago and drove people to it. We had 47 redeemed in the first week, with the email to our customer base. We have only driven customners to it once on Merchant Circle but we still see redemptions…we get a coupon or two per month.
Have you used Google Maps to drive Traffic?
I went there quite a while ago and created a listing. I added a coupon but was never able to get back to it. I couldn’t find the coupon or our listing again. I am surprised that you were able to see my coupon, I didn’t realize it was still up there and I will have to take it down. I didn’t realize that we had three listings.
What about the print YellowPages?
We do have some Yellow Page expenditures. We carry a small display ad that is probably $100. I am a tightwad, reality is dollars are slim so I have to be very careful. When we move to our new location in Fresno, we will take out an ad. It seems like we have to.
What about the Superpages?
I am going to cut Superpages off immediately. I have been spendging $15/mo with them online with their pay per click prgram. They give me statistics which are not factual. I tracked probably 5 clicks in the last year. $180 for those 5 clicks is a lot per visit.
My Take Aways
Chuck is a survivor and a retail animal that has taken a hands on approach to marketing in the internet age. That being said he has missed some obvious opportunities starting with optimizing his website and his failure to use Google AdWords.
Time, accessible technology and education seem to be the primary barriers to his improving the return from his online marketing efforts. That being said, online is the only place that he has seen returns.
Google Maps has failed him. Due to the perceived complexity and the lack of coupon response, Google has managed to turn him away from its use. Rather than using Maps as a way of converting a potential customer to adwords use, the complexity of their local offering has essentially kept Chuck away. Google’s self provisioning has failed to provide Bruce’s Sew Handy with the deserved exposure and has not led to the obvious upsell to Adwords.
Merchant Circle has managed to engage him by providing an easy to use & set up environment AND offering ongoing perceived value. They have not managed to convert him to a paying customer but he finds them to be a useful and trustworthy resource. He only uses them for one thing and that is coupon creation but he does perceive benefit from his relationship with them and he trusts them.
Merchant Circle has though, once again managed to over promote and under deliver, by misusing his quotes in their promotional materials. Even when they have a loyal, happy customer that they could leverage in their marketing, they manage to move into shady territory by writing his quotes for him and about a service he doesen’t use (the American Express Coupons). Obviously, the repeat coupon benefit was due to their optimizing on his key local phrases better than he had and outranking him in search.
SuperPages, the one online company that did manage to engage him enough to pay, blew their opportunity by not delivering web visitors and providing what he perceives as deceitful tracking. It shows the power of a sales force and the failure when the product doesn’t live up to the promise.
The print Yellow Pages are still a mainstay of his perceived need and have managed to retain their role as the only company that Chuck is willing to pay although he was unable to quantify its value in customers. With his new move to his new location near Fresno, he won’t be in this year’s book but is planning on being in next years.
As part of the move to Fresno, Chuck is renaming his business from Bruce’s Sew Handy to Central Valley Vacuum and Sewing Center, a name that will provide search value even without additional optimizing of his site.
Life in a small business is difficult, only the hardy and the brave, like Chuck, will survive. His move to a new location is a strong response to declining sales but one that he feels will provide significant long term benefits by serving the larger market. He has yet to confront the aggravation of changing his old address out on the internet.
The Local Search industry has not made Chuck’s marketing any easier. While a single case study can not be extrapolated industry wide, I believe that there are some insights to be gained here. There is a long way to go before businesses like Chuck’s feel comfortable with the technology and have enough knowledge to both navigate the many pitfalls and benefit from its capabilities.
The products and processes are not useful enough. Self provisioning may never result in income to those companies striving to get SMB’s into local marketing and if that is the case Google will have to rethink its strategy. Those that have sales teams will have to rethink their value proposition carefully as well.