Halley Silver from King Arthur Flour – Podcast Transcript

Shaun Ryan: [00:12] Hi I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI-systems and this is E-comers podcast, Today I’m taking to Halley Silver, director of online services for King Arthur’s flour. Welcome Halley.

Halley Silver: [00:22] Thanks Shaun.

Shaun Ryan: [00:24] Traditional question to get us going, what was the first thing you ever bought online?

Halley Silver: [00:29] You know, I have been thinking and thinking and I’m not actually sure. It might have been airline tickets, or maybe a book from Amazon.com but I really can’t recall the first thing I bought online.

Shaun Ryan: [00:41] It’s too long ago.

Halley Silver: [00:43] [laughter] Yeah seems like ages.

Shaun Ryan: [00:45] How about your most recent purchase, what was the most recent thing you bought?

Halley Silver: [00:49] So, that’s ones easy. A few days ago I bought a t-shirt on Fab.com.

Shaun Ryan: [00:54] Ok cool and how was the buying experience?

Halley Silver: [00:58] It was a little too easy. [laughter] They make it really simple to buy from their site.

Shaun Ryan: [01:04] So can you give me a little bit of a, a little bit of background about yourself? How did you get to be in this position?

Halley Silver: [01:10] Sure. So I started with website development way back in 1994 right as sort of the web as we know it was emerging.

Shaun Ryan: [01:22] Yup.

Halley Silver: [01:22] And spent years, about 11 years out in Silicon Valley as Engineering Manager and relocated with my husband and family to Vermont about eight years ago.

Shaun Ryan: [01:34] Yep.

Halley Silver: [01:36] And ended up at King Arthur Flour and I’ve been here for just over five years now.

Shaun Ryan: [01:40] Five years, wow. So tell us a little bit about King Arthur Flour. It’s, it’s been around for a long time, I believe.

Halley Silver: [01:47] Yes, it’s been around for, for over 200 years. We were founded in 1790. So we’re America’s oldest flour company. We’re probably one of the oldest companies in the country. We were founded when George Washington was president.

Shaun Ryan: [02:00] [laughter]

Halley Silver: [02:03] So, the main part of our business is selling flower in supermarkets across the country. We have the number 1 whole wheat flour in the country, the number 2 all-purpose flour in the country. And then the second-largest part of our business is a catalog dedicated to baking everything and anything baking. So, we sell over, I think over 140 mixes.

Shaun Ryan: [02:29] Yep.

Halley Silver: [02:31] Scones, cookies, cakes, breads, many specialty baking ingredients, and of course, many, many specialty flours.

Shaun Ryan: [02:41] Right. And so I was looking at the history before we started this interview. I believe the catalog started about 1990. Is that right?

Halley Silver: [02:50] Yup. Yup it did start in the 90’s, yup.

Shaun Ryan: [02:53] So that Pre-data the web. But I presume a lot of the website that you are responsible for are the products that are sold through that catalog.

Halley Silver: [03:00] Absolutely, about eighty percent of our catalog sales now come in through our website through our e-commerce site.

Shaun Ryan: [03:05] Great.

Halley Silver: [03:07] And the e-commerce site launched in 1999. I actually have an email posted to my wall announcing the launch of the e-commerce site so that part of our business has been in place for just about fifteen years now.

Shaun Ryan: [03:23] Wow. And, and so you still have the paper catalog as well?

Halley Silver: [03:26] We do, we do, we do publish a paper catalog. We mail 14 I believe, I believe 14 catalogs a year.

Shaun Ryan: [03:33] Excellent, so tell me a little bit about the on-line store it started in I think you said ’99 right?

Halley Silver: [03:41] ’99. Yup.

Shaun Ryan: [03:42] And it’s now doing 80% of the business

Halley Silver: [03:46] Yup.

Shaun Ryan: [03:46] And is it still growing strongly?

Halley Silver: [03:48] It is still growing, absolutely. You know, we – year over year, see significant increases in traffic and in sales and have, when I started here five years ago I believe about 65% of our orders were coming in through the website and now we’re at about 80. So yes, it is growing.

Shaun Ryan: [04:09] And are you able to share how much revenue you do for the store online?

Halley Silver: [04:13] Well I can’t share those numbers. I can say that we’ll process between ten thousand and over sixty thousand orders every month and it’s a very seasonal business. We do significantly larger business in November and December for the holiday baking season.

Shaun Ryan: [04:34] Right and do the people buy ingredients for themselves rather than gifts?

Halley Silver: [04:40] Yeah, both. [laughter] So, right now actually our team is, really focused on sort of ‘holidayizing’ our site, making sure all of our gift galleries are in order, but in a scratch baking is a huge part of our business. So, people are buying ingredients to make their bread and their pies and their cookies and their cakes and everything else that they’re baking for the holidays.

Shaun Ryan: [05:03] Well you’re just making me hungry now. [laughter] So the growth that you’re getting, where is that coming from?

Halley Silver: [05:13] Wow. Where is that coming from? So many different sources. Certainly we’re mailing more catalogs. That’s, that’s one place where our growth comes from.

Shaun Ryan: [05:22] Yep.

Halley Silver: [05:22] We’re seeing growth in our, our, in our email list size and our email marketing. We’re seeing growth through organic search, we see growth through, through traffic from socials spaces. So many, many different areas.

Shaun Ryan: [05:40] It’s across the board.

Halley Silver: [05:41] Yes.

Shaun Ryan: [05:41] So, out of interest, I know you, a lot of the, the fashion retailers are getting a lot of traffic from Pinterest, are you getting that as well?

Halley Silver: [05:49] Yes [LAUGHTER] we’re seeing a ton of traffic from Pinterest, it’s a, other than Google, the number one referring source of traffic to our site.

Shaun Ryan: [05:58] Wow and I suppose people are putting up images of the baking right? [chuckle]

Halley Silver: [06:01] Exactly or pinning images of recipes that we’ve posted. I’d say, we have an equivalent amount of traffic to our site for recipes as we do for our e-commerce site. So, we put a lot of effort in to our content marketing and that’s mainly focused around great, inspiring, delicious looking recipes.

Shaun Ryan: [06:23] Oh, interesting that’s smart. So, so when you go to the site you are able to find obviously all the products but you also have- how many recipes do you have on there?

Halley Silver: [06:33] Wow. I think it’s well over two thousand at this point.

Shaun Ryan: [06:39] And are these recipes that are – you, you, I presume you’re continuously adding to that list. Is that right?

Halley Silver: [06:46] We are continually adding to that list and we’re re-purposing some of our older recipes. But yes, we, we have a test kitchen actually just a few steps away from my office, and there’s recipe development going on year round.

Shaun Ryan: [07:02] And, is that part of the social strategy too, do you get your customers submitting recipes?

Halley Silver: [07:08] We do have customers submitting recipes on, on our community. It’s called the Baking Circle and it’s an onsite community. There is a section there where users can submit their own recipes. The ones that we publish on our main recipe site are all tested and developed in our test kitchen.

Shaun Ryan: [07:25] Very interesting. So, can you tell me a little bit about the technologies you’re using on your site. What e-commerce platform are you using?

Halley Silver: [07:34] So, we have a home grown, home built e-commerce system that’s java based.

Shaun Ryan: [07:39] Yup.

Halley Silver: [07:39] We, we do use a few technologies for different areas of our site, obviously we use a SLI for search, we use Druple for our community and we use WordPress for our blog, but other than that our system is completely home grown.

Shaun Ryan: [07:56] Wow, and, and I believe there’s a growing, like my sites, you’re getting a growing portion of your traffic from mobile. Can you tell us a little bit about mobile and what you’re doing there?

Halley Silver: [08:10] So mobile is where we’re mainly focused actually at this point. We see a huge amount of traffic from both phones and tablets. Obviously people are looking up recipes on their phones, and supermarkets, or checking their e-mails from their phones. They use their tablets in the kitchen, and their phones as well. Having a tablet in the kitchen is like having the ultimate recipe book.

Shaun Ryan: [08:35] Yeah.

Halley Silver: [08:35] There’s just millions of recipes right at your fingertips. So we began the process of making our, our online services mobile friendly about a year and a half ago and we took the route of building a responsive website so we’re applying principles of responsive design on our site. We began with our recipe site and we’ve slowly been turning through the rest of our site over the past year, year and a half.

Shaun Ryan: [09:03] Great. So, so responsive design that’s, it’s one of the hot topics in mobile now.

Halley Silver: [09:09] Yeah. [Laughter]

Shaun Ryan: [09:10] And a lot of people are arguing, “Should I …” or debating, “Should I have a responsive design or a separate mobile site?”

Halley Silver: [09:17] Yep.

Shaun Ryan: [09:18] Obviously one of the advantages of responsive design is it works across a broad range of screen sizes and there just seems to be more and more coming out.

Halley Silver: [09:25] Exactly, exactly and I believe it’s more efficient. You know, we have so many different pieces of our site. And to build a mobile version and a desktop version and then possibly a tablet version for all of those pieces of our site would become completely unmanageable

Shaun Ryan: [09:41] Yep.

Halley Silver: [09:42] Very quickly. So, we have taken the responsive approach. There’s absolutely trade offs, there’s trade offs in performance, there’s trade off in development time, it’s difficult to program. It’s not an easy task for our team.

Shaun Ryan: [09:54] So what are some of those challenges?

Halley Silver: [09:57] So for example, well one, Internet Explorer doesn’t, doesn’t behave as nicely as we’d liked with our responsive template.

Shaun Ryan: [10:11] Yup.

Halley Silver: [10:12] So there’s a lot of debugging that goes on for Internet Explorer and that can get pretty tricky. There are issues with how to lay out a page when you want things in one order on a desktop screen and then you might want elements of a page in a different order on a phone or a tablet. So, you know, lots of little logistical issues when it comes to, ‘Okay, how is this same set of elements of a page or, or these same pieces of content going to look across three devices but with one piece of code or one block of code?’

Shaun Ryan: [10:51] Yeah, I can, and, and, and, [chuckles] and so that’s all done essentially with JavaScript right?

Halley Silver: [10:58] It’s done with CSS and JavaScript, yes, and HTML.

Shaun Ryan: [11:04] So tell me, do you have like different image sizes on your mobile? When you’re viewing the, the page on the mobile is it the same size images that you see on your desktop or are they…?

Halley Silver: [11:15] Sometimes. In some cases they are and we just scale them depending on the screen size. In some cases we are actually dynamically serving up images so it depends on the page and what we feel is the right approach but, but you know there are definitely different ways to tackle that when we do serve this full-size images to a mobile device that’s where you’re seeing some trade-offs in performance. But we make sure were testing, out on a regular phone network, turning off our wifi, and making sure, sure that our site performs adequately.

Shaun Ryan: [11:50] Yeah, because that’s one of the trade offs with responsive design is that the page is heavier…

Halley Silver: [11:55] Absolutely.

Shaun Ryan: [11:56] and so takes longer to load on a mobile device.

Halley Silver: [12:00] Absolutely, but I believe that connectivity is only gonna get faster so…

Shaun Ryan: [12:04] And it absolutely is. I see people with..

Halley Silver: [12:07] Yeah.

Shaun Ryan: [12:07] with, their 4G phones, you know the LTE networks it’s the fastest connection they have to the internet. It’s faster than their work connection, faster than their home connection so.

Halley Silver: [12:17] Absolutely and it’s more than just the size of the HTML, the CSS and the graphics. It’s also how the page loads.

Shaun Ryan: [12:23] Yep.

Halley Silver: [12:23] So, we spend a lot of time looking at that as well.

Shaun Ryan: [12:26] Exactly so if that has the illusion of loading quickly or the core elements…

Halley Silver: [12:29] Exactly.

Shaun Ryan: [12:31] Load quickly then doesn’t matter if things below the fold or bits of some tracking code takes a bit longer to load.

Halley Silver: [12:37] Exactly.

Shaun Ryan: [12:39] How very interesting. So when did you start with the responsive design?

Halley Silver: [12:42] So we launched, we launch the recipes say last summer. I think it was August of 2011. We then launch some other smaller sections of our site and we just launched our e-commerce site this summer as well. Again we’re just turning through the remainder of our site at this point.

Shaun Ryan: [13:00] So there don’t seem to be lots of e-commerce companies doing this yet, but there’s a lot of talk about it.

Halley Silver: [13:07] Yup.

Shaun Ryan: [13:08] Do you find that you’re experiences, there are a lot of other e-commerce sites that are interested in your experience?

Halley Silver: [13:16] I think so, yes. [chuckle] Absolutely I do get a lot of questions about it. I think people are a little scared to take the step. I think, it’s fairly easy to work with a third-party vendor to sort of scrape or proxy your site and deliver mobile site. It’s certainly- probably a quicker and easier process although I’ve never been through the process. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s. Yeah, I think there’s definitely a little bit of fear or hesitation and so a lot of curiosity and how we’ve gone through the process.

Shaun Ryan: [13:50] Right, and so if it… for those of you listening to the podcast this is, this is obviously delayed but today is Halloween, the 31st of October and the Ipad mini is about to come out, in a couple of days but you’ll be fairly confident that your site is going to render well on that device.

Halley Silver: [14:08] Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know, on the larger screen when the iPad came out, now with the iPad mini coming out we feel like we really well positioned for that, for those changes.

Shaun Ryan: [14:18] Yeah. There’s always gonna be another screen size just around the corner too.

Halley Silver: [14:22] Exactly. [laughter]

Shaun Ryan: [14:23] Next on the Halloween thing, do you, do you have a bump for Halloween and for people looking for Halloween recipes?

Halley Silver: [14:31] Absolutely. We have a number of sections across our site. So around Halloween we have a lot of service decorating kits for your cookies, or your cupcakes or whatever you’re making for Halloween. We have some Halloween products, decorations, that sort of thing. So yeah we, we had Halloween sale going on this last week so there’s, there’s definitely a lot of Halloween content and product on our site right now. Tomorrow we’ll be quickly switching from Halloween to Thanksgiving. [Laughter] So we’re actually getting everything ready today for that.

Shaun Ryan: [15:05] Yeah, of course. Obviously you’ve got your holiday season coming up. But what this your biggest headaches or the… the, one of the biggest problems you have at the moment that your trying to get your head around?

Halley Silver: [15:18] That’s a good question, we have an on sight community that’s run off of Druple that has, Druple’s been difficult for us to work with and as we’re looking to roll our community into our new responsive design that something just sort of looming out there that is giving me a headache even though we haven’t started. [Laughter] That’s, that’s one I think, especially as we’re rolling out this responsive design and at the same time trying to enhance our site with new features or sort of some more sophisticated scripting or, or actions on the site. Testing, testing is a real challenge for us right now and trying to wrap our heads around all the different platforms and devices and making sure the site’s really bulletproof.

Shaun Ryan: [16:09] Yeah. Especially like for the number of different browsers and the number of different mobile devices as it just keeps increasing?

Halley Silver: [16:17] Yeah. Absolutely.

Shaun Ryan: [16:18] So, can you let us know of any other changes you’re planning over the next twelve months or so?

Halley Silver: [16:26] We’re really still focused on making sure, the usability of our site is enhanced that its working across all devices and that will definitely take us well into the next year. A lot of smaller projects obviously. Our IT team, actually, extended our e-commerce site so that it’s now being used to power the point of sales at our retail store here in Vermont.

Shaun Ryan: [16:51] Yup.

Halley Silver: [16:51] And also be extending our e-commerce site so that it can be used by our call center for phone orders that come in. So, the e commerce site will actually be helping to drive other areas of the business. So, that’ll be a continued focus for us in the next year as well.

Shaun Ryan: [17:06] Interesting. And, and, in your store you, you don’t have a kiosk for people to sort of self-serve in there?

Halley Silver: [17:13] We don’t have any self-serve kiosks for checking out, no we don’t. They still go up to the registers. We did actually just install a few tablets throughout the store for people to get different information or watch videos about the farmers that grow our wheat for our flours, things like that.

Shaun Ryan: [17:31] Okay excellent. Well it sounds like you’ve got a very interesting roll and you’re doing, you’re kind of ahead of the curve with what you’re doing there, particularly with your responsive design. That’s a fascinating story. So, I’d just like to really thank you for time today and for sharing your experience, it’s been great.

Halley Silver: [17:47] Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Shaun Ryan: [17:50] That was Halley Silver from King Arthur Flour and I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems and that was the E-commerce Podcast. Tune in next time.