Performance Products

To cater to every form of four-wheeled transport, the cataloger built a new high-performance product database

With more than 200,000 SKUs and growing, Performance Products could have ended up with a Website ( as difficult to navigate as the tangle of highways, interchanges, and exits that surround the auto accessories cataloger’s Van Nuys, CA, headquarters. To keep buyers from developing a case of online road rage, the marketer had to make the products on its site easy to find while still providing the in-depth descriptions and expertise found in its print catalogs.

The solution: Overhaul the product database, fine-tune it to exacting specifications, boost the torque, and polish until it shines.

Playing to its strengths

Performance’s strength in the offline world is matching its products to specific makes and models of automobiles; the company even publishes distinct catalogs for the Porsche, Ford Jeep, Mercedes, Chevy/GM, and Toyota/Lexus markets. So when it launched its e-commerce effort in January 1998, Performance determined that “it would be very frustrating to the users if we showed them a product line that was ultimately not available for their car. They’d feel we’d wasted their time,” says Mel Kay, chairman of the board and a partner, with Ron Rowan, in the 25-year-old company. “So we decided it was best to show which products were available for specific years, makes, and models.” While he won’t reveal the exact budget for the site, Kay says that, including design, development, hardware, hosting, and salaries, the cost so far is between $300,000 and $1 million.

The key to navigating the ever-growing number of SKUs is a vehicle identification menu that, from a customer’s first clicks, narrows the merchandise down to gear for a specific car. Just about every form of four-wheeled transportation – from a 1917 Ford Model T to a 1999 Lamborghini – is listed in the menu-driven user interface. In turn, the products in the database, which range from car covers to fuel-injection kits, are cross-referenced by the auto models for which they are appropriate.

The complexity of designing such a database convinced Kay and his project manager, Neil Levitt, to keep development inhouse. Since product pages are dynamically generated from the customer’s input, the job requires significant automotive knowledge to correctly identify which SKUs should appear for each possible combination of make and model and year, says Levitt, who took five staffers from the marketing, IS, and R&D departments for the database team.

A work in progress

The database remains a work in progress. For example, if you’re browsing the products available for a 1917 Ford Model T, right now you’ll find a refrigerated ice chest that plugs into a 12-volt cigarette lighter. But the Model T did not have a 12-volt battery, or in fact, a battery at all, much less a cigarette lighter.

“It’s one of the kinks still to be worked out by next year,” Levitt concedes. “There are certain generic products that we put in the database and labeled [as being applicable to] all vehicles; we haven’t yet defined them by year, make, and model because of the database’s development constraints.” That’s one reason a customer service representative reviews all the online orders before they are fulfilled and shipped – a practice that will continue even after all the kinks are worked out, Levitt says.

In fact, even as the company works out the kinks, it continues to add to the product lineup. In September, for instance, it added 37 categories of Jeep Wrangler products to the site. The goal is to add new categories every two weeks.

To determine what to add to the site next, the product database team confers with the marketing and R&D team members regarding what is selling well in the print catalogs. The database team members then evaluate the complexities of the task. “If we have a really good seller but it will take quite a bit of time to create a database for it, and we have three medium sellers that we can get online faster, we may take the three medium sellers first over the one stellar product if we think sales and profits will benefit,” Levitt says.

As if that’s not enough, at the same time it is adding to and refining the online database, Performance is developing a new iteration of the site, which Levitt says will launch in the first quarter of 2000. It will feature merchandising on the home page (now only the vehicle selection menu and a catalog request area appear on the home page); a photo database that will show the products; a keyword-based search engine; and real-time help features. If a customer is browsing and has a question that goes beyond the details presented online, he won’t have to stop and call the company; he’ll be able to send an e-mail to a CSR, who will answer immediately.

Kay won’t discuss the specifics of this latest investment, nor how much revenue the Website brings in. “The payoff is that the person who comes to our site will find the muffler, the filter, all the products for his specific car,” Kay says. “We’ve already seen the success of that concept.”

According to chairman/partner Mel Kay, the size of the average order from the Performance Products Website is in line with that of the average print catalog order: $130-$150. About half of the Web-based purchases are from brand-new customers, and in a given week, some 150,000 unique visitors hit the home page and drill beyond it.

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