In the Trenches: the reality of SMB Marketing- Bruce’s Sew Handy Interview

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.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
In the Trenches: the reality of SMB Marketing- Bruce's Sew Handy Interview by

27 thoughts on “In the Trenches: the reality of SMB Marketing- Bruce’s Sew Handy Interview”

  1. Hi David

    Yes it is amazing to me that each in their own way has failed to deliver what he really needs. Given that he is is so busy, they may never succeed.

    Mike

  2. Wow great interview Mike. I appreciate this real perspective directly from a small business owner. It seems like the email list has been very successful for him. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Hi Don

    Yes his email list is really the only process pulling its weight. And it is something that he can do every week to stay in touch with his customers. He noted to me, that despite the success of his emailing a 2 for 1 coupon, he had not had time to do it again.

    Mike

  4. Curious – is he using an e-mail marketing service like Constant Contact or just cutting and pasting a long list of addresses? Is he doing HTML e-mails, or strictly text?

    Sorry, I’m nosy.

    Jim

  5. Nice interview Mike. Nice to see the perspective from a small business in a very small market place. Local search does not often scale down very well to small population bases, depending on the type of product or service that business provides. But for some it can still be quite effective. Chuck’s move to Fresno should help in that regard.

  6. @Jim

    Here is a sample of his emails. It is basic HTML but I am not sure how he handles his list management.

    @Stever
    I agree with you in general but the fact that he is getting 1 to 2 coupons a month via MC means that folks are searching in ways that he benefits from and that a properly executed search marketing campaign could be useful to him.

    Mike

  7. I declare this the most utterly enjoyable Mike Blumenthal post of 2008. I read every word, Mike. Marvelous.

    I agreed, point for point, regarding the impression made on him by Google, SuperPages, Yellow Pages and Merchant Circle. How awful is it that MC comes out on top, despite their shady behavior? And yet, they are managing to staff the situation in a way that small business owners feel good about. I’d prefer to see Google or MapQuest get the business, because I trust them a bit more, but if they aren’t making the connections, they can’t really deserve it. YP continues to hang in there.

    Chuck’s efforts are really praiseworthy and I admire his business sense, but I’d love to get my hands on his website. A local SEO and usability overhaul, as well as some design changes to brighten up the visuals, could do a lot for this worthy local business. I sew, and it was my mother who bought me my first sewing machine. She is an extremely savvy customer and knew exactly what she wanted. The business that could provide her with the product and services she needed when she bought me my sewing machine was the business that got her custom.

    With the big move ahead in this company’s life, the time to start optimizing for local search and speaking directly to the lady who sews is at hand, I believe.

    Terrific article, Mike. A joy to read.

    Miriam

  8. I love reading Q&A and articles like this with people out in the trenches. Good stuff, Mike.

  9. @Miriam

    I will proudly display the Miriam Award Badge next to the article. Thank You!

    Yes, it is amazing to me the MC becomes a trusted partner but as you point out his choices are pretty limited. There is certainly alot that he could do, some of it very inexpensively. I wonder if his use of the printed YP is more out of habit than anything and if that money wouldn’t better diverted to a combination of site optimization, a bit of local and some PPC.

    @Matt
    Thanks. I appreciate that.

    Mike

  10. @Local User

    No doubt there is MC traffic as it generates 2 coupon redemptions a month. But that is because MC has optimized for his business name, location and products while the owner’s site is not. It is certainly, in my opinion, worth listing with MC but as Miriam points out some on site optimization could do wonders as well.

    Mike

  11. I came across your story via a Greg Sterling post. Great writing, thanks for providing an interview of substance with a real live business owner.

    I wonder how adventurous Chuck is willing to be with respect to paying for site optimization, etc, etc. After all, the yellow pages are not a free service.

  12. Joe
    Thanks for stopping by and thanks even more for the nice compliment!

    Thats a great question but as you can see from the interview there are barriers of familiarity, knowledge, expense etc to his adoption of Search Marketing. I think that the right search marketer, presenting the right program could entice him but I don’t really know. I will see if I can engage him to come visit and share his point of view.

    Mike

  13. Warning Some of the above comments have been posted surreptitiously by Merchant Circle. Caveat Emptor.

    The management

  14. First of all, Mike, you did a great job on the interview with me.

    I also much appreciate the questions and potential advise for future marketing. The reality of being a SBO is I am accounts payable, accounts receivable, secretary, salesman, customer service, service technician, webmaster…etc! I think you get the point. It is true that I could use help but haven’t really even had the time to seek that. You will find my business not to be the exception. It is difficult to determine who is just trying to get you to “subscribe” to another agency. That is why I have mostly done things that I could do at little or no cost as I see no real benefit to the provider to try and squeeze another dollar out of a small business. I have been reluctant to add additional services as I have seen little results that would motivate me to move forward. Example, superpages which claimed numbers that they charged me for when in reality google analytics has shown only 2 visits directly related to superpages in almost a year. I realize customers may have seen me at superpages and not gone the next step to visit my site…but where is the benefit to me in this?
    As far as my emails, I use my stores point of sale software from JMM Software to handle all of my bulk emailing. It is basic html that I can design and send to complete database or I can be selective and send to only sewing customers or only customers that have taken classes or bought a specific brand of product…or maybe that haven’t been in since ???.
    Mike thanks for sharing my “story” and I look forward to following your blog and learning.

    Chuck Bruce
    Bruce’s Sew Handy
    Central Valley Vacuum & Sewing Center

  15. Mike: I’m so behind in reading your valuable pieces. I came across this by running through Miriam’s blog referencing this article. It is a great interview with many interesting comments by readers.

    I’ve got to reference this to a long term friend of mine, who I unfortunately don’t see as much as I should. He has operated a “suck and sew” / vacuum and sewing shop business for decades. Extremely successful. In the past one of his sewing machine suppliers had him speak to store owners around the nation. Way, way way before the web he had this killer business in what I considered one of the worst retail spots one could imagine. A high energy guy, for sure.

    I’ve got to look into that industry and what if anything my friend is doing on the web (assuming he still owns the business). I can only imagine the long tail is extraordinarily rich for this business type.

    Chuck: Get help on your site. Do some basic optimizing. You can sooooo pick up traffic. I made some basic suggestions here concerning optimization in maps and organic.

    I so believe in what Bill Slawski exposed back in 2005. It still applies in organic google for extraordinary reasons that still apply. They take a topic that might compete with all sorts of authority sites and give it authority for a location that supercedes the authority sites.

    Optimize for maps and optimize for organic. Move ones own site above the venders such as YP’s and MC, etc. Drive the traffic directly to you. Go man go.

    I’m going to forward this thread to my old friend.

    Chuck: If you are the webmaster and in charge of your site, do a little writing and rewriting at night. You know who is a great wordsmith….Miriam, referenced above. Study the heck out of keyword research for your industry. Once you’ve got the phrases/products/etc down…work on off page optimizing. Good luck, man.

    Great article Mike. I’ll reference it to the guy who had to be one of the great “suck and sew”merchants in the country. I wonder how he is doing?

    Dave

  16. Hmmm…..I looked up my old friend’s store. He still owns it. We became friends through a 3rd person and are not always in touch.

    With some relevant searches he was at top in the 10 pac and with others he wasn’t. In one search where not at the top in the ten pac he was #1 in G maps. On some of those searches his organic listing sat below some other sites.

    I’m sure he still maintains one of the highest volume stores in this large metro region, and possibly nationwide. I sent him an email copying this article
    Hope you are able to help Chuck.

    Dave

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