Jason Marrone from Jelly Belly – Podcast Transcript

Back to EcommercePodcast.com

Shaun Ryan: [0:02] Hi, I’m Shaun Ryan for the Ecommerce podcast. Today I am talking to Jason Marrone from Jelly Belly. Hi, Jason.

Jason Marrone: [0:07] Hi, Shaun.

Shaun: [0:09] So, Jason, the traditional first question. What is the first thing you bought online?

Jason: [0:15] I believe the first thing I bought was probably in 1995. I actually had my father buy a book for me. He had more experience with the Internet than I did. We did it together, but his fingers were the ones walking on the keyboard.

Shaun: [0:30] OK, that was on Amazon.

Jason: [0:31] I have no idea what book it was, but I do recall that was probably the first thing I bought around then.

Shaun: [0:37] And that would have been on Amazon?

Jason: [0:39] That would have been on Amazon.

Shaun: [0:41] For people that answer Amazon, I ask them: what is the most recent purchase you made?

Jason: [0:49] Ah, gee. You want to know what I just bought? This is funny. We have a terrible ant problem in our backyard, so I came across a do-it-yourself exterminator site. I just bought a $65 bottle. It’s 21 ounces of some sort of ant spray to get rid of my ants in the backyard. You can see that I am buying nearly everything online that I can.

Shaun: [1:15] I imagine a person in your position would be. I think that is the first ant extermination liquid answer we’ve had today.

Jason: [1:25] Thanks, I’m honored.

[1:27] [laughter]

Shaun: [1:28] Well done. Now, can you give me some background on yourself? How did you get to be where you are today?

Jason: [1:37] Well, let’s see. Around 1996 I started a company called MahJong Gear, which was an online mountain bike gear accessories business. I ran it out of our garage, the fulfillment side of it. It was an incredibly steep learning curve because, as I just said, in 1995 I had to have my dad purchase something for me on the Internet.

[2:05] When we launched this site, I designed the site and built it. For the HTML I think we used a program called “Hot Dog”; I think that’s what it was called. I learned Photoshop, learned the whole everything.

[2:17] A Shopping Cart system back then was about 50 grand, so we were stuck for a while and then came across a company out of Canada that was willing to host our catalog which, of course, that is a common thing today. Back then, it was unheard of. It took me days to even understand technically what was happening. We ran that for a couple of years, had a lot of fun; mostly an education. I can’t say I made a lot of money, but it was a lot of fun.

[2:47] Around ’97 or so I was recruited by McClatchy Publishing who had just launched SacBee.com which is the Sacramento Bee newspaper’s website. I was hired into the New Media Department, and we spent the next two years or so trying to figure out how to sell advertising online.

[3:06] I was there about two and a half years and then was recruited again by a DOT.com in that whole DOT.com boom start-up. I got the stock shares, you know. I was going to be a millionaire. That company was called Ike Invention, and we built a hosted solution to allow trade show managers to manage their trade shows online. Basically, it was a web interface. I was there for about five years.

[3:32] After the whole bubble burst and our funding started drying up, I then joined an ad agency in Sacramento. I started there as Director of Business Development. About a year later I became Head of Operations. I stayed with them for about five years. We grew from about three million to 12 million when I left. I decided I wanted to get back into web which is where my passion is.

[3:57] I answered an ad with Jelly Belly, and I have been here for about two and a half years now.

Shaun: [4:01] Fantastic. And your role with Jelly Belly is?

Jason: [4:04] I am Ecommerce Marketing Manager, yeah, Ecommerce marketing. I oversee a small team of programmers and content producers. We just straddle two business domains here. One, of course, is the Ecommerce side. The other is supporting our Marketing Division in executing their marketing needs online.

Shaun: [4:28] OK.

Jason: [4:29] My primary objective is to grow the Ecommerce revenue, but in supporting the branding side we do things like we launched–actually, we just concluded it– but it was called the Dream Bean Contest. It allowed users to build and create the next jelly bean flavor. You could log on to this interactive tool, select from a pallet of colors–the outside color and the inside color–name it, write a little essay about why you think it is going to be the best flavor and then submit it. We got about 200,000 jelly bean submissions.

Shaun: [5:11] Wow!

Jason: [5:12] Yeah, it was pretty amazing. We just finished that up so we had a committee narrow it down to about five flavors, and we just selected the winner.

Shaun: [5:20] Who won and what was the flavor?

Jason: [5:23] Well, the five finalists were Sublime Chili Lime, sort of a Mexican flavor. Honey was another one; Mojito and Chai Iced Tea and Acai Berry. Do you know that one? Do you have that there?

Shaun: [5:41] No.

Jason: [5:44] It’s acai, a-c-a-i. It is a very healthy fruit here that is gaining in popularity in the States and actually worldwide. Of course, that was the overwhelming winner. Acai Berry will be our next flavor.

Shaun: [6:01] Fantastic. How did you possibly sort through 200,000 entries?

Jason: [6:08] It was not easy. We did it as the contest went on. We got these submissions probably over a six month period, so we tried to continue to pare it down week by week so we didn’t have to go through 200,000 at the very end.

[6:26] Then, at the very end we had a few thousand that we had already narrowed it down to because we got a lot that were Slime or Booger. Booger is actually a jelly bean flavor. I shouldn’t have said that. Believe it or not, that’s an actual flavor. We had it pared down a little bit so it was a little more manageable.

Shaun: [6:49] I mean, that’s fantastic. Now, everyone knows Jelly Belly. I love the product. The company does just the jelly beans or are there other candies out there that you do as well? Can you tell me a little bit about the company?

Jason: [7:05] Jelly Belly manufactures and produces well over 100 different confections. Of course, as you just said, we are primarily known for our jelly beans which come in–oh my gosh–probably approaching a hundred flavors now.

[7:20] I think we operate six retail stores now, and we have two visitors’ centers. I know the Fairfield Visitor Center has about a million visitors per year and then, of course, tens of thousands of retailers sell our candy around the world.

Shaun: [7:40] Yeah, which is the primary way that you sell your product, right?

Jason: [7:45] Absolutely.

Shaun: [7:46] Tell me about online. How’s that as a portion of your overall business and how’s it growing?

Jason: [7:56] We are doing really well. We offer about 850 items online right now. We don’t typically disclose revenue figures, but I can tell you that the online piece makes up only about three percent of Jelly Belly’s overall revenue.

[8:14] While it’s, obviously, a really important channel for us and it’s got phenomenal growth as many Ecommerce companies do, it is really a drop in the bucket as compared to our bean-to-bean manufacturing side.

Shaun: [8:26] That’s kind of to be expected because you’ve got so many retailers selling your product.

Jason: [8:32] That’s right, but online we’ve done really well. We had about a 19 percent growth last year, and that was, in part, due to an outlet store that we launched out of that website selling belly flops and hodge podge. Seconds is what we call them.

[8:52] We also launched a one pound tub program last year that we actually hand pack in our Pleasant Prairie facility, every flavor of jelly bean which prior to that were only available -every flavor was only available in a 10-pound bulk box; not a very consumer friendly size. That has also contributed to our growth and, of course, we just re-launched our site in August.

[9:21] September is our first month where we got things stabilized. So, we are a little over three weeks into the month, and so far for the month of September we’re tracking at about a 45 percent increase in revenue as compared to the year prior.

Shaun: [9:40] Oh, that’s fantastic!

Jason: [9:41] Yeah, it appears that we’ve done a few things correctly, fortunately. The site’s doing very well.

Shaun: [9:47] What have you changed? What’s new when you reload each site?

Jason: [9:55] Of course, you always want to have a consumer friendly site. Well, our prior site was not very friendly; we had really bad search, very poor navigation, a fairly small resolution, so we weren’t maximizing the real estate of a typical 19″ monitor, not very good SEO, the optimization of the pages were poor.

[10:19] So, we improved our merchandising by working with a partner called “Fluid,” which has some great tools to show various scales and being able to zoom in to an image, scrollers, and all kinds of great stuff; that’s really helped merchandise. Our apparel has increased 300 percent since we launched, because now you can actually zoom in and look at fabric and get real close to it.

[10:52] On the navigation side, we completely revamped the way we handle navigation, and Search goes right in with that. Of course, we’re working with SLI on Search, and having the guided search really helps.

[11:10] We don’t sell 100,000 SKUs like a lot of stores do, but with 900 SKUs that are all focused on candy; everybody comes in with a different mindset.

[11:20] Some people are looking for a particular brand like “Jelly Belly” or “Sunkist” candy; others are looking for a type, a flavor of candy like “Chocolate,” or “Very Cherry” or anything having to do with cherry. A lot of wedding planners, or event planners who are coming in, really don’t care what the flavor is, they’re looking for a color; like white, or pink, or a green color.

Shaun: [11:42] Right, it’s got to go with whatever they’re planning.

Jason: [11:45] Exactly. So with the new search we have, users can filter their results and pick from color swatches, and pick flavors such as “Chocolaty” or we even have “Icky.” As I had mentioned, we have “Booger” and other flavors that we sell to our Bean Boozled line.

Shaun: [11:59] [laughs]

Jason: [12:04] So Search has really contributed significantly I think to our growth, in allowing people to get to where they need to get to.

Shaun: [12:12] Great!

Jason: [12:12] I think those were the biggest pieces. Then on the SEO side, we just did best practices on our title pages and tags, and making sure we have keywords built-in there. We’re also using the Site Champion by SLI, and that seems to be working really well, too. It has gotten us up to a first stage rank, and even the top three, and the first position on key terms that we would never have really focused our efforts on.

Shaun: [12:40] That’s great to hear. Now, for your SEO changes that you made, did you get advice or did you just learn about that through what you could online? How do you go about finding out about what you need to do there?

Jason: [12:52] We did not bring in any third parties to help us with our SEO. We have a pretty reasonably, intelligent staff here, and we all keep up on the science on that. So we just put our collective brains together, and came up with a game plan, and it’s definitely working really well.

Shaun: [13:12] Yeah, and often if things are broken, just doing those simple things can make a huge difference.

Jason: [13:17] A huge difference, yeah!

Shaun: [13:18] How do you keep up with the industry, be it ECO or other ecommerce-based practices?

Jason: [13:27] Yeah, well it’s not easy, I’m sure you can agree to that.

Shaun: [13:30] Yeah.

Jason: [13:31] It just moves so fast. I try to read as many magazines and articles, and I’ve got my Google home page with my tabs all set to various ecommerce related websites, and marketing websites, and I’m hopefully pulling the latest, greatest articles and tidbits. I think we all sort of do that here, and share our thoughts and ideas on where things are headed, the correct technology.

Shaun: [13:58] I’m sure our listener’s would love to know; what are the magazines that you get, and what are the online sites that you follow?

Jason: [14:06] Wow! OK.

Shaun: [14:11] Well, just do your favorite ones.

Jason: [14:12] My favorite is “Retailer,” the “Internet Retailer,” “GRADE Magazine.” There’s another one, I think it’s just called, “Website,” but I’m sorry, I don’t have that in front of me. That’s been a really good magazine, too.

[14:27] On online I follow Andy Beal’s “Marketing Pilgrim,” it’s called.

Shaun: [14:33] Yep, I know Andy.

Jason: [14:35] There’s another site called “Search Engine Land” and it gives really good information about what’s going on with the search engines.

Shaun: [14:41] It’s Danny Sullivan’s site.

Jason: [14:43] Yeah, “Techdirt” is really good, “E-Commerce Times.” There’s a site called “SEO News,” “Search Engine Roundtable,” just to name a few.

Shaun: [14:55] Yep, that’s Barry Schwartz.

Jason: [14:56] Yeah, those are all really helpful ones.

Shaun: [14:58] OK, and that’s great! Thank you for that.

Jason: [15:00] Yeah!

Shaun: [15:01] Now, to attract customers to the site, we’ve talked about search engine optimization, what other techniques do you use to attract customers to your site?

Jason: [15:13] So, SEA, SEO, and email campaigns, is our three heavy hitters for us. We have a defense member base, so the emails pull relatively well for us. We also constantly have a flow of new products to taut, so that keeps things interesting.

[15:35] We have an affiliate network that we launched last year through a company called “Pepperjam,” and that’s working really well for us. I mean that was sort of just a beta test to see how it would do and test the waters, and it did much better than we expected. So we’ll continue to focus our efforts, and may launch a second network, into a second network this year.

[16:02] What else? I think a shopping comparison site would probably be the other thing we’re going to go into this year, and get into some of the shopping comparison sites, which we’ve not done yet.

Shaun: [16:11] Yeah, I imagine people are searching for everything on those sites, I just never thought of comparing jelly beans or other candy.

Jason: [16:22] Well, JellyBelly.com does not compete on price typically, since we don’t want to compete against our own retailers.

Shaun: [16:32] Yeah.

Jason: [16:35] We do offer way more SKUs than any retailer is going to typically offer, especially on the bulk side.

Shaun: [16:42] Yep.

Jason: [16:43] So if somebody is searching for say, “Very Cherry Jelly Beans,” while we may not have the cheapest price or the lowest price on a typical consumer size, I would hope that our bulk sizes would show up, and it might help sell there.

Shaun: [16:59] Right.

Jason: [17:00] That’s kind of the goal there. Then we have different products like the tubs I said, and other items that differentiate us from our retailers.

Shaun: [17:08] Oh, you’re making me hungry!

Jason: [17:10] [laughs] I’m sorry. I’ll have to send you some jelly beans.

Shaun: [17:16] Do you have a knocking campaign that you’re particularly proud of?

Jason: [17:22] Let’s see. I mentioned that we launched an outlet store last year.

Shaun: [17:25] Right, yep.

[17:28] Jason It took a lot of convincing to get upper management to agree to allow us to sell our “Belly Flops” online. It was typically only ever sold in the Visitor’s Center. You actually had to physically come to the Visitor Center to buy “Belly Flops.”

Shaun: [17:43] Right.

Jason: [17:44] We mad an argument here, that we felt selling “Belly Flops” online would not only pull traffic, but would result in higher sales-would not eat away at our premium product. That was the concern; that people would buy only by the “Flops” and not the regular jelly beans. Fortunately, that did prove true.

[18:06] When we launched the “Belly Flop” idea, we again wanted to test the water to see how it did. So we hid the “Flops” in our online site, meaning that there were no links to it. There was really no way to get to it, unless you knew the link.

Shaun: [18:24] Right.

Jason: [18:25] So we sent out a “Secret email” to our members asking them to not share this valuable information with anybody knowing full well, that of course nothing is a secret on the Internet.

Shaun: [18:38] Yeah.

Jason: [18:39] That worked wonderfully well! It was a secret sale, it had a link; it explained how to get there. It begged everybody not to share this, and of course it was posted to FatWallet, and SlickDeals, and all those bargain sites.

[18:53] It resulted in so much traffic. It took down our servers for a few hours, and was by far the biggest two days that JellyBelly.com has ever had. So we were proud of that one!

Shaun: [19:04] That’s very cunning. So the best way to get traffic to your site, is ask people to not tell their friends about it?

Jason: [19:09] Yes.

Shaun: [19:12] [laughs] Yeah, that’s ingenious. Well done!

Jason: [19:15] Thanks.

Shaun: [19:18] What is the biggest opportunity that you have online?

Jason: [19:23] As I have mentioned, since we do not compete with other retailers, we have to look for ways to differentiate our online presence from our retailers. We do things like: launching the one-pound tub. We have gift baskets that are not sold in stores. We have a whole line of Sunkist Fresh Fruit Baskets that are paired with our line of Sunkist Candy, as well as our line of Jelly Beans – you can get beautiful oranges, lemons and limes with some nice Jelly Beans and other candy.

[20:00] Within the next six months, we will be launching a major program that, I think, will be one of our biggest differentiators and it should have a positive effect on revenue, but, of course, I cannot say what it is.

Shaun: [20:12] [laughing]

Jason: [20:13] So in the next six months that will launch.

Shaun: [20:17] Watch the space.

Jason: [20:19] What’s the space?

Shaun: [20:20] Yeah.

Jason: [20:24] [pausing] I do not know how to even describe it without somewhat giving it away. I guess it does not matter too much. I will allude to it: it will allow customers to come on site and essentially build what they would like to eat.

Shaun: [20:39] Fantastic.

Jason: [20:40] I will leave it at that.

Shaun: [20:42] I will not push you. Just out of interest: do many of your retailers sell the Jelly Belly online as well?

Jason: [20:51] Yes, absolutely. A lot of them do.

Shaun: [20:54] OK. Do you have an ecommerce site, apart from yours, that you particularly admire, and why?

Jason: [21:07] [pausing] Amazon.com, in my opinion, has some shortcomings and no offence to Amazon – it is a great site. I really admire a site that they have launched, not under the Amazon brand. It is called MList, which is their shoe site.

Shaun: [21:21] I have looked at that as well.

Jason: [21:24] To me, it is just a wonderful site and we looked at that when we were building our own navigation and trying to do it faster searching. Their site is just so easy to navigate. You are going through what seems to be well over 100,000 different types shoes – and you really have to see it to appreciate it. They also allow you to search by color, shoe size, and brand, and they do it in a way that uses a lot of Ajax, so it is just instant and very dynamic. It is wonderfully executed.

[22:03] Another site I really love is Gap, who also utilizes Ajax in a very appropriate way.

Shaun: [22:12] Is that the direction that you look to move into?

Jason: [22:16] Yes, over time. We will put more Ajax. We built this site as far as hardware and software is concerned in about six months, which was a pretty short and aggressive time-line. We launched with a much-improved user experience, but still relatively basic, compared to the two sites I have just mentioned. Over time we will build in additional technology.

Shaun: [22:45] Right. While we are talking about technology: what are other technologies that you use to run the store?

Jason: [22:53] It is pretty basic. The site is IIS7 on Windows Server 2008. We are using components of Microsoft Commerce Server, but just pieces of it. We ended up writing about 200,000 lines of code for our ecommerce system.

Shaun: [23:18] Wow!

Jason: [23:19] There is not a whole lot of Microsoft left in that. Back-end is coded in C++ and, as I mentioned, we use Fluid for image merchandising, SLI on search, and that is about it. Otherwise, everything else is home-cooked.

Shaun: [23:36] Home-cooked. What size team do you have working on that?

Jason: [23:42] It is a team that stretches over lots of departments. We do not have a true department. We have a team-matrix. In my immediate team we have an online support person, a couple of web designers, a copy-writer who does catalogue and the content side of the site.

[24:10] In IT, there are two senior programmers that have been solely focused on our re-design and any management changes on the site. Then we have a fulfillment center in Pleasant Prairie, who is fulfilling both the B site and fulfilling the B2C site.

Shaun: [24:27] Great.

Jason: [24:28] In total there are probably 15 staff members that work on JellyBelly.com.

Shaun: [24:35] Yes. What is your biggest headache at the moment? What is keeping you awake at night?

Jason: [24:42] Biggest headache. [pausing] We are running it pretty smoothly right now. I don’t have many stresses about our immediate business. Honestly, my biggest stress right now is what is happening in the economy – I know I am not alone there.

Shaun: [24:56] Yes.

Jason: [24:57] That is truly what is keeping me up at night; just the fear of what might happen and whether we get through this period, and what it means for our busy Christmas season, and hoping that the government can settle things down on our economic woes.

Shaun: [25:17] What is the feeling? How does bad economy affect candy sales?

Jason: [25:22] Candy sales are autonomously protected, but they are typically – at least historically, not as impacted as, let’s say, technology.

Shaun: [25:33] Yes.

Jason: [25:34] During the Depression, candy did relatively well. It is a fairly small purchase that makes you feel really good and just does not cost a lot of money. We will probably be OK, assuming there is not some major crash. I think if it is just a down economy, it will be a struggle to hit our numbers, but everybody will be facing the same thing there.

Shaun: [25:59] Yes. If the trend is anything to go by, online it is still going to be increasing at a faster rate.

Jason: [26:09] Yes.

Shaun: [26:10] It should be increasing, in any case it will be outperforming the rest of business, in any case.

Jason: [26:15] Most definitely. No question about that.

Shaun: [26:18] Just one question: is Halloween a big time for you?

Jason: [26:23] Contrary to what most people would think, it is not our biggest holiday. It is probably our third or fourth busiest holiday season. Jelly Belly is not the cheap candy that you find on the isle of a big grocery outlet store. Halloween is typically a lower-end candy holiday. For us our biggest season, by far, is Christmas and probably Valentine’s Day or Easter; Easter would be our second biggest if not our largest.

Shaun: [27:00] Right. What other things would you like to hear on the eCommerce Podcast when you are listening to other retailers talking about their experiences?

Jason: [27:12] I’m really interested in continuing to improve our merchandising and user interface is just huge. Without a good user interface and a site that is easy to get around, your bounce-rate is tremendous. So what I love hearing about is what other businesses are doing to improve that, as well as how you get your consumers to come back for more. If I could get more information on that, it would be great to find out.

Shaun: [27:44] And what are your key techniques for getting your customers to come back for more?

Jason: [27:50] We have some programs, like the Bean of the Month Club, which are subscription programs. You can sign somebody for 12 months of jelly beans and each month they get a new flavor. We look for coming up with new products.

[28:07] For various seasonal stuff, we come up with baskets that are appropriate for Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter, or Mother’s Day. We try to find different ways to package more or less the same candy, in a way that is going to be appealing – hopefully they will buy it and give it to somebody as a gift.

Shaun: [28:27] Right. And you mainly tell people about that via their email?

Jason: [28:31] Through email, primarily.

Shaun: [28:34] Excellent. Thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate you taking time to share your experience. I am sure it is going to be very valuable to our listeners.

Jason: [28:45] All right. Thanks for having me, Shaun. I enjoyed it.

Shaun: [28:48] You are welcome. Take care.

Jason: [28:49] You, too. Bye, bye.

[28:51] [music]

Shaun: [28:51] That was Jason Marrone from Jelly Belly. I am Shaun Ryan for the Ecommerce Podcast. Thank you.