follow us

Suncoast Turns To Retail Ecommerce

June 13, 2013
When Marlin gets depressed in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” Dory encourages him by singing, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” I wish she were here now.  I am feeling pretty blue because another outdoor furniture manufacturer has decided to sell at retail on its web site.

Suncoast’s newly designed website went live this morning and has everything retailers dread - - - a shopping cart, bulk order discounts, sales and clearance sections, retail prices which have been lined through to indicate cheaper sale prices, and free freight. In fact, with the exception of the “Dealer Locator” section, it looks like a web site that any retailer would be proud to own. But, that’s the problem, Suncoast isn’t a retailer; they are a manufacturer.

When I spoke to Paul and Rajiv Varshney, Suncoast’s owners, concerning this, they said their intent was to drive consumers to retailers. They thought that once consumers saw their site’s pricing was higher than their local retailers’, the retailer would get the sale. Of course this assumes a three things. First, the consumer would go to the local retailer after going to Suncoast’s site. Second, the local retailer’s prices would be lower than Suncoast’s. Finally, consumers would be more impressed by the local retailer’s service than by Suncoast’s web site and decide to “buy local.”

Let’s take this point by point. In this day and age of “convenience over everything,” we can’t assume a consumer will take the time to go to a retail store after going to the web. Not all, but some, are going to assume that if they are buying direct from the manufacturer, the pricing will be competitive. Then they will order from the manufacturer without even bothering to shop locally. Even more consumers are going to be convinced that Suncoast’s “free shipping” offer and the fact that they don’t collect local sales taxes will make Suncoast’s prices lower than mine. So, instead of driving consumer to me, their local retailer, they are taking some (not all) of my business.

But let’s assume the consumer does come into my store. Now that they have seen pricing on Suncoast’s web site, I am required to prove my prices are lower. Immediately the dynamics between the consumer and I have changed. We are now in an adversarial relationship and I have to prove something to them before I can gain their trust. This adds an extra step to the sale process. As an aside, after taking in all of the discounts the web site offers (10% on everything, an additional bulk discount, free freight, and no sales tax) my prices my not be lower than Suncoast’s.

Finally, my sales staff has to impress the consumer sufficiently that they won’t want to order from an impersonal web site. This is the easy part. If my sales staff isn’t more helpful and professional than a web site, there is something wrong with my training program. Something I need to change and change quickly.

If Paul and Rajiv really want to drive consumers to their retailers, I believe it is ill conceived to think selling on the Internet will do it. There are better ways. One that comes to mind is to create a compelling site that convinces the consumer they don’t want anyone else’s patio furniture but Suncoast’s. Once they decide that, it is easy to get them to go to a local retailer.

Here is what I imagine the ideal manufacturer’s web to be. There should be videos, not static pictures, showing how the furniture is manufactured. For example, if they do full circumferential welds, there should be a video of a welder doing that and then showing how much stronger that type of weld is compared to the competition. Another could show how furniture is powder coated. The voice over would describe why that process is better than wet painting. If your product is made in America, the site should emphasize it. The web site should have a design section which allows consumers to select frame finish and fabric and then have an image showing the made up combination.

If you would like to see what I consider an ideal web site, go to Capital Stove’s site. Once there, you can watch their videos by clicking on their pull down menu, “Experience Capital,” and clicking on “Capital Video.” If you aren’t convinced that Capital makes the best stove in the world after viewing them, I would be surprised.

After talking to Paul and Rajiv, they said they understood my concerns and I fully expect some changes will be made to their site. Until then, they join the ever lengthening list of manufacturers who have turned to web commerce in the belief that it will drive consumers to brick and mortar retailers. Brown Jordan sells their closeouts on their website. However, now that they have opened a retail outlet in California, I can’t help but wonder when they will start offering their whole catalog direct to consumers on their site. Summer Classics doesn’t sell direct to consumer on their web site; but, have entered into a relationship with Frontgate  who now offers Summer Classics’ whole line at 25% discounts on their site. Gloster tried this last year, but pulled back and returned to being an informational site this year.

It would be naive of any retailer to think that other vendors aren’t watching the efforts of Suncoast, Brown Jordan, and Summer Classics before going “retail” themselves. In the twentieth century, it was taken for granted that manufacturers only sold wholesale and depended on retailers to reach their customer. In the twenty-first, we can’t take that for granted anymore. The vendor you partnered with for years may be the very one who becomes your competition tomorrow.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce