Selling large, seasonal stock online has its challenges but in the downtime Alto Sports uses its webstores – Snow2Water and Auski – to support the bricks and mortar stores and grow their community.
Alto Sports is deeply rooted in the snow’n’surf retail business, with four long-standing bricks and mortar stores: Wayne Ritchie’s in Shepparton and Albury, Auski in Melbourne and WolfnCo in Albury. In the last few years they’ve added a new online store to the business – Snow2Water – and upgraded the nine-year-old Auski webstore, using the eCommerce platform Magento.
We chat to Alex Roberts, head of marketing and web operations, about how the webstores are faring, whether an online store is tricky when you’re selling seasonal, specialised and rather large items, and how they compare to the bricks and mortar.
Selling large, seasonal stock online
It may seem like a big, bulky responsibility, boxing up a snowboard to send to far north Queensland but for Alex, it’s just another day in the office. “We just put our large items in the right-sized box and find the cheapest shipping option for where it’s going,” says Alex. “However, the bigger items do sell better in the stores; people are more likely to buy clothes and accessories online unless they live somewhere they can’t get to a store.”
In terms of the challenges of seasonal stock, Alex says that while the stores just decrease floor staff in the quieter months, the web team stays the same. “There is always work to be done, once a season ends we start gearing up for the next.”
Webstore versus bricks and mortar
According to Alex, Alto Sports’ stores still perform significantly better than the online stores. “They’re still the cornerstones of the business,” he says.
“Having said that, the two sides of the business complement each other. We treat both bricks and mortar and online as one unit working together to reach the targets and we are there to help the customer and give options, information and great service, whether online or in person.”
Alex finds that one of the frustrations in the online area is the ‘uneven playing field’. “We are happy to compete against overseas competitors but they get better treatment from the government and the shipping companies than we do,” he says. “They don’t have to pay GST on items, no landing costs to go through customs and often pay less than we do to ship to certain areas in our own country. We just have to work harder to offer better service.”
Despite the constraints of selling online in Australia, Alex feels that the impact and value of the online stores goes beyond sales and the benefits far outweigh the problems.
“The online store allows customers from all over Australia to browse and plan their purchases in advance, some customers may come back to the site in the future to make their purchase or others will decide online and then go instore to purchase. Also, our customers love information and scroll through multiple pages learning about the products. The brand awareness that the website provides is an enormous benefit and creates loyalties that translate into years of online and in-store purchases.”
In addition to the online stores enhancing brand recognition and helping to draw in a community, Alex has been trialling a new online marketing strategy to do the same.
“We’ve been exploring new ways to engage and create a dialogue with people. Like most businesses, Facebook is obviously a big part of our strategy, but what we’ve been focusing on is trying to create a community and conversations rather than just push our products,” explains Alex.
“We might post up a cool video or something good to read… that’s been a big focus since December and it’s been really, really good – we’ve got a lot of traction and a lot of people are starting to follow us and enjoy our stuff.”
In terms of whether it’s translated into sales, Alex says that, like the impact of the webstores, it’s difficult to measure.
Creating the best online space
If you’re going to create a large community, your online space needs to be ready to welcome your growing tribe and Alex says the Facebook page, user-friendly webstores and the web team are ready for any browsing, research, comments, questions and, of course, sales.
“We include our phone number and we get a load of calls about our products, as well as the many Facebook comments and questions we now receive,” says Alex.
“In terms of making people feel safe and happy to shop online we have SecurePay as our payment gateway, which gives the option of paying with PayPal, so check out is quick and easy. We also offer free shipping on higher value orders, and free returns.”
Tips for starting an online store
Alex has been in the business for a while so we check out what he’s learnt along the way.
- Be aware that online stores still have overheads – space to work and store the goods, website hosting, developers, staff. Make sure you budget for this.
- Get your strategies in place before you launch an online store.
- Don’t worry about becoming a massive store – start slow, small and cost effective because everything is scalable nowadays and you can grow the business when you’re ready.
- Your marketing strategy should be about growing a community, not just pushing your products.
- Work out what is right for the business now and not in five years. Technology is changing so quickly who knows what the business will need in five years’ time.