Book Details Local Web Successes

March 28, 2003
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS —The rules of Web site development have changed and local companies are beginning to incorporate the new rules into business practices in order to stay savvy in a world that changes as fast as Michigan weather.

Many of these companies have either learned how to incorporate the Internet into their business plans or have recently reinvented themselves to become more Web-functional.

Bargainandhaggle.com, Quixtar, Steelcase, Yamaha Band & Orchestral Division and American Blind & Wallpaper Factory are the Michigan companies profiled in a new book, “Marketing Convergence,” by co-authors Susan Jones and Ted Spiegel, which looks at how these businesses worked through the dot-com collapse and the downturn in the e-commerce economy.

Both authors are veterans in the marketing world and speak the language of the industry. Jones is a professor of marketing at Ferris State University and a consultant for The Callahan Group LLC.

Spiegel is a member of the Spiegel catalog family and was initially involved in the Spiegel turnaround in the mid-1980s. He began his second career in academics at Northwestern University where he is a leader in the university’s master’s degree program in Integrated Marketing Communications.

The authors set out to contact a variety of businesses, including the ones in Michigan as well as Omaha Steaks, Carnival Cruise Lines, Spiegel, Pea Pod and several others.

“We wanted to look at the rules of marketing and some of the best and the worst examples of what companies did during the good and bad times,” said Jones. “Many of the older companies said they weren’t going to go what we called ‘Internet dippy,’ but that they understood they needed to keep the old but integrate the new.”

Other companies, Jones said, had some ideas that didn’t work, including the idea that eliminating print was the solution and moving completely to Internet media would work. The problem with that, she said, was that it was passive action, sitting and waiting for customers to find the businesses.

“Sometimes you need print to spur consumers on,” said Jones. “Consumers often need a catalog to look at but then want to go online to shop. A proper partnership is important.”

Another common idea was that moving customer service to e-mail would make the communication system much cheaper. The problem with that, Jones said, was the constant bounce back of questions — whereas with an 800 number, all questions can be answered in one phone call.

In addition, e-mail responses require a person who is able to explain the topic, spell, emphasize and be able to respond in a rapid manner.

On the flip side many of the Michigan companies made smart choices and were able to survive during the tough times.

Quixtar implemented “ditto delivery,” combining the Web site with the independent business owner. The program enables independent business owners to set up delivery of products from Quixtar and makes the entire shipping and distribution process much more efficient.

Yamaha Band and Orchestral Division created a Web site independent of its counterpart Yamaha. The site, www.yamahaadvantage.com, helps bridge the gap between dealers and consumers. It also offers special sections for students and parents and is broken down for each specific audience so it is easier to navigate.

Steelcase formed ensync.com as an extranet for customers and dealers. The site provides password-protected access to complete inventory.

“If they need to set up five new stations for five new people, all they have to do is check and see if all of the pieces are in stock and they can get started,” said Jones. “It also works well for designers because the site offers every material on the site and enables a much easier design and planning session.”

Jones added that sample books, which designers use to choose materials for each product they design, are usually large and bulky, and a designer has to pick through them to find the appropriate choices.

With the new site, designers can go online and see which samples they may want to use, request them to be sent and then show them to the client.

Bargainandhaggle.com survived, although changing management hands along the way, because it really sold the human touch, Jones said. Although it lists its top competitor as eBay, the site is quite different, allowing one buyer and one seller to bargain and haggle until reaching an agreeable price for an item.

The site offers an avatar for sellers and buyers to serve as a symbol of status. All beginners start with the symbol of a chick, and as they sell more or buy more they can change the symbol to reflect their own personality.

American Blind & Wallpaper Factory worked to eliminate the dreaded wallpaper books and the daunting task of going to a wallpaper store to choose the perfect paper.

The site, decoratetoday.com, allows those who desire a beautifully decorated home but dread walking into a wallpaper store with little kids running around and poring over uncounted wallpaper books, to instead design their entire room on the Web.

Customers are able to search online and study wallpaper selections with the simple click of a mouse, Jones said.

“The site allows you to type in a topic or description of what you are basically looking for,” said Jones. “Then you can look for paper or borders. In addition, there is a scrapbook section which allows customers to pick a room, put paint on the walls and add wallpaper to see what the room will really look like.”

For the blind section of the site, Jones said, even the most novice customers can find, measure and put up blinds. The site makes it easy to get help during the process by requesting that someone call you and then walk you through it.

Jones noted that there is no longer a Web site just for the sake of having a Web site. Now, the Web site actually has to do something and give a sufficient return on investment.

“The point is on convergence and integration. The Internet now says wherever and whenever the customer wants to buy is great,” said Jones. “What we found in our book is that with all of the companies around the world, the West Michigan companies still shine and can hold their own with anyone else.”   

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