collaring volume orders

Apr 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

Calling all cars: Gall’s, the cataloger for public safety uniforms and equipment, is looking to make some big collars on its Website (www.galls.com). Since December, the company has been pursuing agency buyers – the purchasing officers who authorize departmental equipment orders for police, fire, and emergency medical services agencies – with new Website features that simplify volume ordering and reinforce a sense of community.

Business-to-business agency sales account for 60% of Gall’s overall revenue, which is about $130 million a year. Not only do agency buyers tend to place volume orders, but they also buy the higher-end products, such as vehicle accessories, SWAT-team and riot gear, and evidence collection kits. Individual police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who tend to buy single quantities of lower-priced items like uniforms, boots, flashlights, and duty belts, account for the remainder of sales.

“Individuals move around, but the agency is always going to be there,” explains Tim O’Malley, vice president of marketing and advertising for the Lexington, KY-based company. “Agencies have 20 guys, whereas individuals are making only single purchases.”

But the more lucrative agency sales accounted for only about 10% of sales generated by the company’s original e-commerce site, launched in 1998. And according to O’Malley, the average Web order size was about 25%-40% less than the average order size from the print book. Indeed, the original version of the site seemed to actually discourage volume purchases: If an agency wanted to buy, say, 10 pairs of boots in different sizes, each pair had to be placed as a separate transaction. So Gall’s has invested an additional $500,000-plus toward rounding up those volume buyers on its site.

A major feature of the site’s latest iteration is Agency OPS (Online Purchasing System), an area where agency buyers can create and store authorized online purchasing lists to manage and track large orders. Members of their departments can then tap into the list to select and order merchandise. And for agency buyers who opt to place departmental uniform orders themselves, a new QuickOrder application streamlines the pointing and clicking required when selecting multiple sizes of the same pants, shoes, or shirts. Customers can now simply enter the item number and fill out a group-order form, explains Scott Featherston, vice president of information systems, who is cochairman, with O’Malley, of Internet strategy, design, and implementation.

The Website relaunch also introduced community-oriented areas to foster camaraderie among each of the company’s three customer constituencies (police, firefighter, and EMS), featuring bulletin boards, screensaver downloads, events calendars, an advice department, and a column entitled “In the Line of Duty” featuring humorous first-person on-the-job stories. Having already published the column in its print catalog, Gall’s knew that type of content had broad appeal.

“What’s terrific about our marketplace is that for our customers, their profession is not just a 9-to-5 job; it’s 24-7, it’s a lifestyle,” says Gall’s president Tom Vozzo. “So they are interested in reading more about their profession, and we have an opportunity to put more content online.”

So far, so good. Online sales to agencies have increased roughly 10% since the relaunch, Vozzo says. The site has also attracted new buyers – about 50% of its sales come from customers who have never ordered from Gall’s before, according to Featherston. And while total Web sales are a mere 5% of overall revenue, the site was profitable in its first year. Vozzo reckons that if the Web generates 10% of total sales by the end of this year, “we will have done a good job. And if sales continue at the pace we saw in late December and early January,” he adds, “we’ll quickly get to see an ROI on the second phase.”

Fiscal conservatism

Gall’s was able to see an ROI within a year of launching its site partly because the company has been relatively conservative in its spending. As O’Malley says, “The site is profitable because we have chosen to run it that way. But would we expand even faster if we chose not to run it like a traditional business? Should we address this like other dot-coms, where profits don’t seem to matter? Should we view this as a totally different metric? We’re still wrestling with that.”

Right now, by outsourcing much of the development work, Gall’s manages the site with only two full-time dedicated Web developers on its IT staff of 11. It has also added the new features without drastically altering its IT infrastructure. The cataloger partnered with Internet consulting and design firm Proxicom of Reston, VA, to develop the Web applications and tool sets that enable individual inhouse departments such as advertising and merchandising to update content on the site.

On the back end, Gall’s has played it safe, sticking with its Smith-Gardner MACS (Mailorder and Cataloging System) platform for order-entry and fulfillment and the vendor’s WebOrder software (customized by Proxicom) as the interface between MACS and the Website. But the MACS-WebOrder platform presented limitations when it came to site speed and performance, as well as for creating the underlying database for the new Agency OPS features. To circumvent the limitations, Featherston’s team created an Oracle 8I database. The Agency OPS application plus item numbers, merchandise descriptions, and pricing are stored in the Oracle database, which in turn communicates with the MACS database to verify inventory availability in real time. But while that improves performance, it also creates extra steps in maintaining and managing the data in both locations.

Overhauling the IT infrastructure with an enterprise-wide planning (ERP) system, such as SAP or PeopleSoft, would provide a more flexible, comprehensive solution, but it would also require customization, Featherston notes. “We’re pretty entrenched with MACS, and it’s the best software for the catalog industry,” he says. “It is very specific to our business and doesn’t require a lot of IT resources to maintain and grow it. To go to an ERP type of package is a huge financial commitment and would require so many modifications to make it work for us that we may as well develop it ourselves.” Although he hasn’t done a precise cost analysis of an ERP implementation, he estimates it would run in the millions of dollars. What’s more, it would require a larger IT staff to manage it.

While the company continues weighing the pros and cons of changing its IT infrastructure, Gall’s is also considering investing in a 24-hour call center, O’Malley says. For now, customer service center hours are 7 a.m.-midnight (Eastern time) weekdays and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekends. But not all of the call center reps are even on PCs, so they can’t necessarily assist online users who have questions. Making matters worse, the Internet help desk is open only 9 a.m-5 p.m., even though the Website is, of course, open round the clock.

O’Malley cites a report by Forrester Research that estimates 80% of online shoppers get lost in the transaction and abandon their shopping carts. That’s reason enough to expand the call center’s hours and capabilities, he feels. “Customers need hand-holding so that they don’t get frustrated and click off,” he says. “We were closed on Christmas Day, and we had 100 online orders – and we usually get only about 200 a day. That made me wonder how many more orders there would have been if we’d had CSRs on duty to help walk users through an order.”

Fortunately for Gall’s, Vozzo feels that the key to long-term online success is in not shying away from the big questions. “To build it right takes a lot of work and effort, and it’s a deeper challenge than many consultants would try to convince you,” he says. “Clearly you can get online easily, but if you want to get on in a way that supports all the high-level expertise you’ve established as a cataloger, then it’s a lot of work.”

While Gall’s wants to move as much product as possible on its Website, it also wants to keep certain merchandise – such as official badges – from falling into the wrong hands.

The cataloger opted for the simplest solution: It doesn’t post “restricted” items online. That includes anything that says “Police Department,” for example, says Gall’s president Tom Vozzo. “We have products in the print catalog that are restricted to authorized users, and buyers have to send us identification, and then we call them back to verify their legitimacy,” he explains. But the print catalog audience is, by and large, self-selecting. A Gall’s catalog is not likely to land in the mailbox of your average public citizen.

The Web is another story: Anyone can find and browse a Website. So only 17,000 of the company’s roughly 22,000 SKUs are available online. And Gall’s limits site advertising and publicity to its catalog and certain niche publications, such as Law and Order and Firehouse magazines. It also uses carefully constructed metatags so that the site is not easy to find via Web search engines.

“Sure, anyone could order the blue shirts and pants of a uniform,” Vozzo says, “but [without the badge] they’re not going to look very good.”

Tom Vozzo, president of Gall’s, says that as the only national cataloger in its niche, his company has a unique opportunity to establish a significant lead online. Most of its competition, he says, is local and regional. But online, any company can appear to have national coverage. Here’s a sampler of the cataloger’s Web competition.

Law Enforcement Equipment Co.

Kansas City, MO

www.leeco.com

Online catalog of guns, restraints, uniforms, sirens, and other supplies for police officers.

The Roberts Co.

Framingham, MA

www.policecatalog.com (police uniforms)

www.emtcatalog.com (EMT uniforms)

www.firecatalog.com (firefighter uniforms)

www.safebuys.com (public safety equipment)

Sites feature mainly uniforms and “lifestyle” merchandise such as T-shirts, jewelry, belts, and mugs that promote the professions.

W.S. Darley & Co.

Melrose Park, IL

www.edarley.com (site is going through an upgrade, and later will be www.wsdarley.com)

Sells firefighter equipment and uniforms.