Live from Retail Systems 2006: Gardener’s Supply’s E-commerce Platform Transition

Chicago—Though it started as a print cataloger, America’s Gardening Resource, the parent company of Gardener’s Supply Co. and Dutch Gardens, now reaps more than 40% of its revenue from the Web. E-mail alone accounts for $10 million of its roughly $60 million in annual sales.

So several years ago, with its site server “significantly past its end of life,” according to e-commerce director Max Harris, the Burlington, VT-based merchant decided to migrate its e-commerce platform. As of 2004, the platform “was on life support,” Harris said. The company no longer had a relationship with provider Microsoft nor with the local company that had installed it. No new patches were available to protect the company’s two e-commerce sites from hackers.

Harris kicked off the transition project in September 2004 by creating a site overhaul task force made up of 25 members from divisions throughout the company. They zeroed in on five areas of emphasis: merchandising, internal search (the homegrown on-site search solution was “good but not great,” he said), membership capabilities, customer service, and navigation and usability.

The team “competitively shopped” more than 150 Websites, Harris said. In addition to studying the sites of its competitors in the gardening supplies and live plants markets, they also shopped best-of-breed Websites such as LLBean.com and LandsEnd.com. From there they identified a wish list of features.

The chief technology officer led the request for proposal (RFP) process. With its server now hosted by Fry, America’s Gardening Resource was attracted to the software as a service (SaaS) model: The company wouldn’t have to purchase any hardware or software but could nonetheless benefit from continuous software upgrades, Harris said.

Eight RFPs later, it chose Demandware as its vendor. In addition to gauging which suppliers could best fulfill its requirements for specific features, “we looked a lot at cultural fit,” Harris said. “Some of [the prospective vendors] wouldn’t allow us the level of control we wanted.”

America’s Gardening Resource and Demandware signed the contract in April 2005. The Gardener’s Supply site went live on the new platform in January 2006; Dutch Gardens went live this past April.

“Boy, did I feel the pain of not having documented our business logic for the past seven years,” Harris said of the transitioning process. Because none of the internal rules were documented, he and his team had to create documentation from scratch for the Demandware engineers. “If you’re not doing good documentation today, start tomorrow, or it’ll come back to bite you.”

Harris also emphasized the importance of having a thorough linking map to minimize the number of broken links resulting from the migration. No matter how great your linking map is, however, “make sure you have a great 404 [Not Found error] page, since it’ll be your most visited page for a while.” The company went so far as to merchandise its 404 page.

Now that the migration is completed, Harris said, “we have excellent speed and control; we’re really self-sufficient now.” Conversion metrics remain flat, but on 20% more site visits than expected. Some of that increase in traffic is due to a rise in catalog and e-mail circulation, but he added that some is also due to the enhanced search engine optimization (SEO) inherent in the sites’ new structure.

Harris is also pleased with the scalability of the new platform, especially as the company is “incubating” a third brand, Gardener’s Living. Currently the brand appears only as an insert in the Gardener’s Supply print catalogs; it’s not yet ready for a stand-alone Website or catalog. But the company hopes to eventually have five or six brands under its umbrella, the result of acquisitions as well as internal growth.

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