Telescopes.com Hits New Heights

Jan 19, 2006 7:40 PM  By

Quick: What’s an 8-inch Dobsonian? A Newtonian with erect image? How does a Schmidt-Cassegrain compare to a Makstuov-Cassegrain, or a reticle to a Super Plossl? Okay, then, an easy one: Which is bigger, 254 millimeters or seven inches? (See below to check your metrics.)

If you can’t answer those questions, you’re not ready to work at Telescopes.com, a Web-only retailer of astronomical equipment that has staked out a niche as the place to go for all things optical on the Internet. That’s not easy in a field where many people need a lot of expert assistance and a mid-priced item can run $600 to $700.

In fact, Telescopes.com is only one of a family of 22 Web sites run by the same parent, Duluth MN-based Thralow Inc.. Other sites include Peepers.com (selling sunglasses), Pans.com (cookware), Binoculars.com, Optics4Hunting.com and even Operaglasses.com. All the companies use the same back-office systems and ship out of the same warehouse. In sales terms, Telescopes.com is the star of this galaxy: while the company saw overall sales growth of about 115% in 2004, Telescopes.com increased sales by 250%.

The company did even better in the year just ended, boosting revenue to $20 million—57% above last year’s $12.9 million. Holiday sales hit a record $5 million, compared to $3.3 million in 2004.

Key to that growth has been making the Web site as easy to use and as informative as possible for astronomy hobbyists. “We have a few thousand products at Telescopes.com,” says Jon Thralow, director of marketing and technology for the company. “There are a lot of different eyepieces and other accessories that go with those telescopes. That makes the search function on the Web site very critical, and we’ve spent a lot of time developing that. Luckily, we’ve got a few very high-ability programmers here, so we were able to do that in-house.” Pull-down menus let users browse the site by price, brand, telescope type or accessories.

The Telescopes.com Web site has a number of other features that make buying simpler, notably a large quantity of advice on how to buy and then use a telescope in a page called “Telescopes 101.” That’s where novice stargazers can go to find answers to questions ranging from how to get started in astrophotography to whether you can see the flag left on the Moon by the American astronauts. (Answer: Nope. You’d need a telescope 200 meters in diameter to spot it from Earth; even the Hubble Space Telescope is only 2.4 meters wide.)

In fact, because so many parents showed up at the site to buy telescopic gifts for their children, Thralow found it worthwhile last year to spin off an entirely separate domain targeting them. Telescopes4Kids.com focuses on beginner equipment and pitches it largely in terms a parent can understand.

To stay in touch with current customers, Telescopes.com sends out e-mail once a month and twice at the holidays, usually highlighting reduced prices and specials. Thralow says it’s vital to stay in touch with these past buyers because their lifetime spending is much higher than with purchasers of binoculars—or, one presumes, opera glasses—due to the array of accessories and add-ons.

In-house expertise also lets Telescopes.com handle other elements of its Web marketing. For example, the company uses first-person cookies to track customers who may click on ads but not convert to a sale on the first Web visit. Thralow does its own search engine optimization and administers its own search engine marketing program. For all the sites, Thralow says, he administers about 5,000 keywords in Google AdWords alone, as well as other search channels. He says the company used to run its own conversion tracking tool, treating each keyword as an affiliate; but he’s found that Google’s tracking tools give him the level of visibility he needs.

As for handing search—either bid management or optimization– over to an agency, Thralow doesn’t see that happening. “I would rather manage the product than manage an outside agency,” he says. “This way, when we need something done, we know that it can get done that day. If it’s Christmas Eve and we want to adjust something, we don’t have to call and then wait around to see it happen.”

Right now Thralow says he’s spending about 50% of his marketing budget on search engine marketing for all the sites. That’s about par with what he spent last year, but the percentage might decrease in the coming year. He says he’s looking at other ways to promote some of the company’s sites offline, including the first mail-order catalog for Telescopes.com, an increase in magazine advertising, and even some highly specific television buys for Optics4Hunting.com on hunting shows and outdoor channels.

“The Internet only grows at a set rate of about 30% a year,” Thralow says. “If we want to keep growing faster than that, we need to look to other offline methods of driving individuals to our sites.”

Since most cable systems don’t have a channel reserved for astronomy, Thralow says Telescopes.com may benefit most from adding more community-building features to its Web site, including perhaps a Weblog feature. “We’d like to let amateur astronomers blog on our site,” he says. “It’s kind of heavy lifting to set that up, but once it’s up and running, I think it would be a great way to get people coming back to the site.”

(By the way, 254 millimeters equals about ten inches. For the Super Plossl, see the folks at Telescopes.com.)