Elizabeth Gross from Steiner Tractor – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan: [0:03] Hi. I am Shaun Ryan with SLI Systems and this is the E-commerce Podcast. Today I am talking to Elizabeth Gross from Steiner Tractor, director of e-commerce. Hi Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Gross: [0:12] Hi Shaun.

Shaun: [0:13] Now, Elizabeth, traditional first question: what is the first thing you ever bought online?

Elizabeth: [0:18] The first thing I ever bought online was textbooks when I was in college. I don’t remember which website it was through, but I needed books and they didn’t have them at a very good price at the bookstore.

Shaun: [0:29] And online was cheaper?

Elizabeth: [0:30] Yes.

Shaun: [0:31] And that continues to this day, doesn’t it? How about your most recent purchase? What was that?

Elizabeth: [0:39] Well, I buy a lot of stuff online. The most recent thing I bought online was some clothing from jcpenny.com.

Shaun: [0:46] Very good. Was it a good experience?

Elizabeth: [0:49] Oh yeah. I have bought stuff through them both through the catalogue and the website and I have always been pleased.

Shaun: [0:55] Very good.

Elizabeth: [0:56] I buy a lot of music downloads on Amazon.com also, the MP3 downloads. So, I pretty much do that on a weekly basis. And basically I do all of my shopping now online, except for grocery shopping.

Shaun: [1:12] So, can you give me a little bit of background about yourself?

Elizabeth: [1:17] Sure. I live in Michigan in the United States. I am really into a lot of things that happen here in Michigan. We are surrounded by water so we do boating and snowshoeing and skiing in the wintertime. I watch birds. I have worked here at Steiner Tractor for just over eight years now. I spend a lot of time here at work. I do a lot of stuff online both for work and for my personal business. I spend a lot of time on the computer, but I try to get outside and enjoy Michigan.

Shaun: [1:56] Fantastic. So, can you tell me a little bit about Steiner Tractor? What do you guys do? What is your history?

Elizabeth: [2:04] Well, we sell new parts for antique tractors. Guys kind of collect these tractors just like they collect old cars. They fix them up. They want them to look like they looked when they came off the line. They take them to tractor shows and to parades, your 4th of July parades, your Labor Day parades, and your Memorial Day parades; that type of thing.

[2:25] And so we are an aftermarket parts supplier. Most of the parts that we produce are obsolete, as in they are not available from the dealer any longer. So we started out as a catalogue company, and that is still our primary business, from a print catalogue. We publish over 100,000 catalogues a year now and distribute them worldwide. And most of our sales come from the catalogue.

Shaun: [2:51] Excellent. That sounds very specialized. How many people are into old tractors?

Elizabeth: [2:58] Well, our customer base is actually pretty big. It is really popular here in the US and in Canada also. We actually ship a lot of parts to Australia. And I have a distributor, like a dealer of our parts, who resells them in New Zealand.

Shaun: [3:14] Oh, fantastic.

Elizabeth: [3:16] I don’t know what percentage of the population it is. It is certainly not as many as collect the old cars or antique cars. But a pretty sizeable amount of the farmers around have some old tractor in their barn.

Shaun: [3:32] Yep, and that can very easily turn into a hobby for them, just restoring and looking after that old tractor.

Elizabeth: [3:40] Right. Or a son or grandson will pick it up and say, “Oh, I want to fix this tractor up.” And that is sort of how we have acquired the younger generation of our customer base is that they have inherited in one way or another this antique tractor and they now are interested in making it look like it looks in the pictures they have from their family history, that type of thing. The younger set of customers, they are the ones that are really focused online and are buying online.

Shaun: [4:12] OK. I don’t know that much about tractors. What is the most popular part that people are looking for? What is the first thing to break down on these tractors that they need to come to you guys to replace?

Elizabeth: [4:27] Well, the reason why we are in business is because of manifolds. Dave Steiner, he started out selling used parts, scrapping out tractors and selling the pieces off of them. And originally he could not find anymore used manifolds. And so he started the new parts part of the business in order to supply manifolds for tractors. And that is still one of our best sellers.

[4:52] We also now are really into selling emblems and finishing touch pieces. We have some licensing agreements with the OEM companies so we can make emblems that are just like the originals.

[5:05] We also have a really good line of steering wheels. We are more about the finishing touch pieces than we are about the engine components and the things to really keep it running.

Shaun: [5:16] Right. OK. And do you manufacture these parts yourself or do you source them from various other places?

Elizabeth: [5:27] Well, where I work here in Lennon is a distribution facility. So, a large percentage of our parts, we own the rights to manufacture them essentially. We own the tooling, the molds, and the dies, and we ship that tooling to whatever factory we choose to contract with, and they produce the parts and ship them to us. We house them, and then when you call Steiner Tractor Parts to place your order, it is shipped form right here at our facility.

[5:56] So, that is our usual mode of business. We also, of course, have items that we are buying in from other people that are doing the same thing as us so we can offer some one stop shopping services. It is such a niche market there is no reason for each of us to make the same exact parts.

Shaun: [6:13] Yeah, I imagine. So, tell me a little bit about the online part of your business. How much do you sell online per month?

Elizabeth: [6:20] Well, we have done nothing but grow. We relaunched our website in December of 2007. We had a website for about 12 years before that, but in 2007 we decided that we really needed to make it work better and re-platform essentially.

[6:37] So, we put a lot of effort into rebuilding the site. And ever since we launched that December we have done nothing but grow. Currently, depending on the season, we are at about $100,000 plus per month. But that is a huge improvement over what we were doing three years ago. So I see it going nowhere but up in the next couple of years.

Shaun: [7:01] And do you see the business moving from the catalogue to online or is the online growing and the catalogue is staying sort of fairly flat?

Elizabeth: [7:08] Both are growing actually. The online growth has been more. We are sort of converting some of our business that would have been phone sales or fax sales to go to the website instead, so it is a little bit difficult to judge the business that we would have had anyway. But I think it is a pretty sizeable amount.

Shaun: [7:31] Right. So people will get the catalogue and then they will go to the website and make the order.

Elizabeth: [7:35] Right. We also have a lot of new visitors that we assume they have never been to our website before, and they haven’t recently received the catalogue. So we assume that they must just be finding us from a web search or from a referring site or something like that. So, all in all it has allowed us to reach a whole new customer base and provide a new way to service our customers that were already doing business with us through the catalogue.

Shaun: [7:59] Fantastic. So, for those new customers, how do they come to your website? Is it mainly through the search engines?

Elizabeth: [8:07] Primarily through organic search. We also use the Site Champion Piece from SLI and that has worked fantastic for us. We are currently in our first real pay per click campaign through like Google or Yahoo. And we have several sites that we do some other advertising on or have some partnerships with. We participate in a lot of tractor forums, so the members of the forums come to know us from our posts in the forum and they find us that way.

Shaun: [8:39] That is a great way of finding the tractor people. Actually, I saw on your email signature that you are on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Elizabeth: [8:47] Yes. Recently, but yes.

Shaun: [8:52] How is that working? First of all, what is your Twitter address?

Elizabeth: [8:57] Steiner Tractors is my Twitter name. And on Facebook we are Facebook.com/steinertractorparts.

Shaun: [9:08] OK. Fantastic.

Elizabeth: [9:11] Facebook has been really valuable to us. Twitter is a little more difficult to gage. But Facebook has definitely allowed us to reach that younger generation of our customers that would like to have a more personal feel and be able to ask some questions. Maybe they don’t know everything that they are doing. Maybe they don’t know the part that they want and they have really found it useful to be able to just chat with us on Facebook. They are already there, so they don’t even have to leave the place where they probably spend most of their time online anyway.

Shaun: [9:42] Right. That is interesting. It is great to hear someone using Facebook. It sounds like it is nice fit for what you are doing there. Tell me, do you have an online marketing campaign that you are particular proud of that you would like to share with our listeners?

Elizabeth: [10:00] Well, not really. We are sort of new. We are sort of babies to the whole online adventure. So, I don’t have anything that I think I have done perfect on. I think that I have a lot of room for improvement and there are a lot of places where I can learn.

[10:16] I have a lot of ideas and we are going to try to do some new things with our marketing. We went with a new email marketing company and we are using the SLI templates to tabulate some products based on the customer’s preference for tractor brand, and I am really excited about that. I think it is something that no one else is doing in our industry right now, and I think we have a big opportunity there. And I can’t wait to see how the first campaign goes, but I haven’t actually finished it yet.

Shaun: [10:48] OK. So that sounds interesting. So you know that a particular customer has a particular type of tractor, and then you will then personalize the emails around that.

Elizabeth: [11:00] Yes. Well, it is either the most popular or… One of the things that we really like to do online is to push our new products, the things that didn’t make it into that print catalogue. The website is really our only outlet for them. So, we can also show them the newest products that we have available for their particular model or brand right in that email and that is going to be really valuable.

Shaun: [11:20] Yeah. That sounds really interesting. You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that you use the website to engage your users in ways that you couldn’t offline. Can you talk a little bit about how you do that? I see you have a blog.

Elizabeth: [11:34] Yes. We have a blog. We have a lot of visitors to the blog, but we really don’t have a lot of comments. People are more likely to comment with us on Facebook than they are on our blog. So, I think that is going to be a big help to us, to be on Facebook.

[11:50] We use the blog more to be able to offer customers directions or information on how to install, how to remove parts; some extra information in addition to what is on the product detail page already. So we link that back to the product detail pages, and then we also offer that information when customers are searching that site.

Shaun: [12:10] OK. Yeah. And that makes sense. I am a big fan of making sure that you can find all your content when you are using search, not just product content. So that is great to see that you are doing that.

[12:20] Now, tell me. Can you tell me a little bit about…? Actually, just before I get onto the technologies you are using, do you have any commerce site that you particularly admire, that you look to for ideas for starting a tractor?

Elizabeth: [12:39] Well, I kind of look at a lot of them and think about what would work for us. But of course I love Amazon.com. Who doesn’t? They have everything. They have everything I want and then some.

[12:51] I like some other smaller sites. I have been checking out [inaudible 12:57]. I met him at eTail and I really like a lot of the things that he does in his emails and also on his website. I also like jcpenny.com. I use them for lots of stuff. And I really like how they use images on their website. They have some really bold banners and they usually just draw me right in. So that is one thing I would like to try to emulate on our site.

Shaun: [13:20] Excellent. Now, tell me a little bit about the technologies you are using on your store. What are you using, what works best, and what doesn’t work so well?

Elizabeth: [13:33] Well, our actual backend is run through storefront.net. It works alright now. It has been heavily customized. If I had it to do over again, I probably would not have gone with that product.

[13:46] The other technologies we are using are pretty slim, really. I mean, we are running your service and we have the regular storefront.net with 100 different customizations. But we are not really using any other third party vendors at this time, and we are not really using any other technologies other than just sort of hard coding things. We are doing a lot of our own code writing and making things happen.

[14:14] It is not the best way or the easiest way to do things. And so probably at some point in the future we are going to have to re-platform again and go with something that is a little bit more robust that we don’t have to customize as much.

Shaun: [14:26] Right. And so you have actually got coders who are doing the coding on your site to do the customizations for the storefront site?

Elizabeth: [14:35] Yes, but we actually job that out. We focus on selling tractor parts. Then we hire people that focus on website design and particularly on coding and database design; those types of things. And we contract out for that.

Shaun: [14:51] OK. So you don’t actually have to employ the coders yourself. That is good.

Elizabeth: [14:55] No. [laughs] For Storefront.net there are also a lot of mods that have been written that will work for anyone that is running a storefront.net site. So you can just sort of buy those off the shelf and implement them on your site.

Shaun: [15:12] Can you tell me a little bit about what you are planning on changing for the coming year? You have mentioned the personalized emails.

Elizabeth: [15:22] Yes. We have a lot of things happening actually. We are going to be doing the personalized emails using the SLI template for the time being. I am also looking at a personalization or recommendation engines for the coming year. It is still in the consideration phase. I also am planning on having our customers record videos of them installing our various parts, and then we are going to try to present those videos on the product detail pages and hopefully incorporate the videos into our site search also.

[15:54] We are also working on a total site redesign. So we want to do a few things that will make the site more cohesive across all of the pages and all of the platforms, sort of have more of a consistent look and feel.

[16:11] Since we launched it in 2007 it sort of has just grown, and grown, and grown. We need to reign it back in and make everything look and feel the same and sort of make it a better seller now. Everything works and everything functions great, and now we look to look at it and think about how can we use this tool and make it sell better. And that is kind of our goal for the upcoming year.

Shaun: [16:35] Wow! That is a lot of work for you.

Elizabeth: [16:37] Yeah! [laughs] We also have a lot of other projects, like smaller projects, in the works with SLI. I try to use your service to the fullest extent. Chris Chantis has been helping me with a project for sending and splitting our replacement part numbers. It has been a big challenge in our industry. These OEM companies change their original part numbers and then we have to sort of adapt the database to fit them. And instead we are going to do some really creative things with the technology to sort of make that happen magically in my mind. Your engineers, they probably hate it when I call, but they have come up with some really amazing solutions for what were really tough problems for me. So I am excited about that.

[17:26] I also am working on a piece with Kim Presser to use the template that I am going to use for my email on my shopping cart checkout pages to present some recommendations in those places without having to pay a third party for recommendation service.

[17:45] So I am really excited about all of these new features that we are sort of making happen. And it has been a lot more economical to build it that way than to try to contract with one of those third parties.

Shaun: [17:57] Excellent. So, it sounds like you have been pretty happy with the service to date.

Elizabeth: [18:01] Oh yeah. I am a big fan.

Shaun: [18:05] Excellent. Now, tell me. You mentioned you went to eTail. How do you keep up with the latest trends in ecommerce? Do you go to many trade shows?

Elizabeth: [18:17] That was the first one we have ever been to actually. We had a good time there. And we learned a lot, and we brought home a lot of things that we can do right away to make our site sell better, and some things that we were doing wrong, some things that we were doing right. We are pretty excited about that part.

[18:36] So I think it was really valuable. Sometimes we sit here in our vacuum, in our tractor world, and we forget to check on other technologies and we forget to see what other people are doing. So, it was really good to get out and go to the trade show.

[18:49] I don’t think that I will ever be in a position where I can go to a lot of them, but Kim keeps telling me I should go to Internet Retailer. So perhaps next year we will try to check that out and get another leg up sort of as far as for things we can do on the site that we are not doing already.

Shaun: [19:07] Excellent. No, they definitely seem worthwhile, those trade shows, because you get to meet other retailers and hear what they are doing and just swap war stories basically.

Elizabeth: [19:19] Right.

Shaun: [19:21] Well, that is excellent. I think we will wrap up there. So, I just want to thank you very much for your time Elizabeth. You have got some great stories there and I am sure everyone has enjoyed listening to them. Thanks very much.

Elizabeth: [19:33] Well, thank you Shaun. Have a great day.

Shaun: [19:35] Excellent. You too. I am Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems and that was the Ecommerce Podcast. Tune in next time.