GDA Staff -- Casual Living, November 22, 2012
The internet has Emerged as a viable retail source over the past several years, with flash sale sites, online boutiques and virtual megastores drawing consumers to the Web, and brick-and mortar stores increasing their online presence via their own websites and social media channels.
Though e-commerce is still a relatively new avenue, one San Antonio retailer is already an online veteran.
Jim Glasgow, owner of Patiostore.com, has worked in online retail for about 15 years, and his business continues to grow as the Internet does.
"It's interesting, it's constantly a challenge and I liken it to running retail stores without customers walking through the door," Glasgow said. "Being online only is a major undertaking."
Patiostore.com carries a multitude of outdoor products from above ground pools and spas to shade products and outdoor accessories. The store's outdoor furniture lines include Telescope Casual, Alfresco Home, Poly-Wood, NorthCape International, Meadow Décor and Oxford Garden, among other popular brands.
FROM PHYSICAL TO VIRTUAL
The store's vast assortment of products has grown substantially since the site's early days. In 1987, Glasgow founded Horizon Building Systems Inc., which manufactured portable storage buildings. Soon afterward, he launched a retail arm that sold the storage units as well as pools and spas.
"As the years went by, people kept saying, ‘I need some patio furniture to go with my pool,'" Glasgow said. "The next thing you know we were opening a patio furniture store, and the next thing you know we had three."
Though the store had expanded its inventory and increased its number of locations, Glasgow said the business' growth became overwhelming. By the mid-1990s, business was declining at one of the stores, and Glasgow decided to scale back his operations from three stores to one.
Then, he saw a television advertisement for a then-new e-tail venture called Amazon. com, and it changed his whole business plan.
"Amazon came along and I said, ‘wait a minute.' One of the big problems we have is the cost of advertising. If you have an Internet presence, you can run a smaller ad directing people to your website," Glasgow said. "It was also the latest technology, and I'd always had this dream of getting in on the ground floor of something. Business would be a lot easier if you could get in at the beginning instead of always chasing the ball."
Glasgow immediately bought a PC and began transitioning the business from a brick-and-mortar store to what would become Patiostore.com. He rented office space and hired a small staff to bring his vision to life. Shifting the business online would allow the store to offer a broader product range than would fit in a physical store along with more customization options and a far-reaching consumer base.
In the days before content management systems that enable users to create websites with the click of a mouse, Glasgow said website building required extensive coding. His team of code writers used their technical prowess to build the website from scratch. Photos of products had to be scanned since images weren't digitized as regularly as they are today.
After about a year of preparation, the site was live. Within a couple of years, Glasgow closed his brick-and-mortar stores and sold the manufacturing division, and the business became the online-only venture Patiostore.com.
"We got started that way, and the next thing you know we were doing a quarter million dollars in sales," he said.
Patiostore.com launched in the late 1990s, before e-commerce became widespread. Today, it has several specialized sister sites and a growing social media presence.
Patiostore.com carries outdoor furniture from a host of popular brands, such as the Cancun sectional by NorthCape International.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
Glasgow said Patiostore.com didn't face much competition for about the first five years of its existence until the perception of e-commerce as a viable business model shifted. But in its early years, the store's innovative online platform attracted a different set of challenges.
Though customers were embracing the Internet, some brick-and-mortar stores were wary of online-only competitors. But Glasgow said he doesn't think Patiostore.com detracted from other outdoor living retailers in San Antonio - while some local customers may have shopped the site, its primary consumer base stretched nationwide.
And though business was thriving, some manufacturers were hesitant about working with a business without a physical location.
"We had manufacturers who didn't like the idea that I was going to be closing down the stores and go Internet-only," Glasgow said. "They wanted me to be brick and mortar and Internet, but I couldn't afford to do both."
Overall, Glasgow said e-tail presents many of the same challenges as operating a traditional brick and mortar store - the setup, delivery, pricing and customer satisfaction are all critical to success. In transitioning from a traditional store to Patiostore.com, customer service remained a priority.
Glasgow estimates about 90% of orders actually involve telephone communication between the consumer and Patiostore. com staff . Rather than having a customer service department, the salespeople who write the orders fill that need. With a purchase as substantial as outdoor furniture or pool and spa equipment, Glasgow said it's the store's responsibility to ensure customers' needs are met.
"You avoid the bad customer experience by making sure the customer knows what they're buying," he said. "Once you're sure that they know what they're doing and you've answered all their questions, you talk to them about delivery. They have a phone number so they can call back should they have any problems. I've found that well-trained staff , just like you have in a store, solves most of your problems."
His approach appears to be working - on average, Glasgow said Patiostore.com has a return rate of just a fraction of 1%, meaning the vast majority of customers keep what they purchase.
As time has passed, perceptions of online business have changed. Technological advances have made it easier for businesses to operate online than when Patiostore.com launched in the late 1990s, and e-commerce has become a more widespread practice throughout the industry.
"Most issues have gone away with time," Glasgow said. "It just takes time for everyone to adjust."
When Patiostore.com fi rst launched, owner Jim Glasgow said some manufacturers were hesitant to work with online-only retailers. Today, the company’s product line includes brands such as Poly-Wood, which manufactures the Chippendale dining set.
A defi ning characteristic of Patiostore.com is its substantial amount of customization options. The store offers Telescope Casual’s Leeward Sling armchair in four frame fi nishes and more than 70 sling fabric options.
As the Internet continues to evolve, Patiostore.com continues to adapt. A key to e-commerce, Glasgow said, is search engine optimization, or keeping the business toward the top of search engine results. One way Patiostore.com is achieving that now is through an increased social media presence.
Glasgow said he resisted social media at first because it can be time-consuming to engage customers on those platforms. The staff first tried to divide social media responsibilities among themselves, but sales and customer service were their top priorities. This year, Glasgow hired an additional staff member to manage the site's social media presence and search engine optimization. Patiostore.com has since garnered more than 1,500 followers on Facebook, which features tips for maintaining outdoor furniture, featured products and special discounts.
"It's difficult to do it, but you've got to do it, and you've got to do it every day," Glasgow said of maintaining a social media presence. "If you do, your search engine positioning goes up a little bit, you get a little more activity, you get a few more people interested."
Patiostore.com has also expanded its presence over the years by launching several specialized sister sites, such as 4seasongreenhouse.com, Coversandcushions.com and Homeimprovementkits.com.
After so many years in e-commerce, Glasgow and his staff have their online-only business strategy down to a science. But as the Internet continues to evolve, they're ready to embrace the next wave of technological change.
"I'm in the patio business because it's what I do," Glasgow said. "I enjoy it. If I lose money for a month, I don't like the idea, but I'm not going out of business. I'll just keep on moving. It never hurts to try new things."