How We Lost Our Way with E-Commerce at RIGHTSLEEVE


Originally posted on the commonsku blog.

In 2006, we built a custom state of the art e-commerce platform at RIGHTSLEEVE. It cost several hundred thousand dollars to get it off the ground and plenty more in invested time (we built it in-house and required a ton of project management time not to mention costly developer resources).

The logic at the time was it would allow us to compete in the fast-growing e-commerce side of the promotional products world. Our customers were young, modern and hip – the Amazon generation so to speak. Social media was also capturing our imaginations, so legions of customers were starting to spend more of their time online. We “needed” e-commerce to be relevant, and so we could stay ahead of our competitors.

We thought we were brilliant.

But it was a costly failure.

We ended up attracting the wrong kind of customer, a customer that wanted products at good prices without having to speak to us.

There were bad omens at the outset.

I recall us launching the site, and one of our partners said to me on day one:

“Nice site, but doesn’t this strip away all of the creativity and magic RIGHTSLEEVE brings to the table? You’re now selling widgets to people.”

I remember feeling defensive (who wouldn’t be after pouring a fortune and a load of emotional energy into something?) and sloughed off the comment as someone who didn’t get where the world was headed.

In the three years we had our site live, we won many accolades from the promotional industry and the tech community for being a tech-forward company within an old school and mature industry. We even won a PPAI Gold Pyramid Award for the best distributor web site.

But here was the dirty secret: we were losing a fortune on this website.

We taught existing customers that they had to do their own work by surfing for ideas and transacting for themselves. Some liked this; however many bristled at having to do the work themselves, so they hit Google and started price shopping. We were now being price matched by the bigger websites and conversations began to shift towards products and transactions vs. projects and solving marketing problems.

We attracted price shoppers who found us after a “promotional products” internet search. Now we were dealing with the family reunion mug orders with crappy artwork and nonstop sample requests.

We attracted a good amount of quote requests that came in from corporate groups that trolled for pricing and were unwilling to engage with us at the creative and strategic level to which we were accustomed.

We had now entered a hyper-competitive arena where deep-pocketed and e-commerce focused companies like 4imprint, Branders, and Discount Mugs were dominant. Shortly after that, white labeled industry sites started flooding the market which further commoditized our offering online. How was our site different? We had the same suppliers, we had the same “great service” so the key differentiator was – you guessed it – price.

Ultimately, our company became divided between transactional shoppers and the creative business we were known for. It was a mess, and we were faced with a tough decision on where to focus.

Three years after launching our e-commerce site, we decided to shut it down in favor of a site that invited customers to engage with us and to share their problems and marketing objectives. We also created a site that put our culture, people and values first as we knew that was ultimately what the “right fit” clients were buying: our ideas and our opinions about their marketing challenges. Case studies replaced the product catalog. The “buy now” button was replaced with a “start a project” button.

The makeup of our business changed almost overnight. Sure, some good clients liked browsing through our catalog, but even they rarely transacted. Most customers could have cared less about the ability to buy online as their needs were more complicated and required a higher level of service. We felt like we had put out an ATM for customers that needed a full-service financial planner.

In my next post, I will share with you what the e-commerce journey taught us about how customers wanted to interact with us. They definitely did not want a return to paper catalogs, cumbersome product presentations, and inefficient paperwork trails. Amazon had already trained them to expect a superb digital experience, and if we didn’t have a digital solution for them, we were done.