Deciding to take on the online parts sales market is a huge commitment that requires careful planning. When done right, dealers can see a year-round increase in sales. When done wrong, you could have a large group of angry customers on your hands.
Choo Choo Parts came on the scene in September 2006. They saw a few big challenges in the beginning, but have since mastered the online parts sales market. Maintaining a strong online presence and filling orders in a timely manner have helped them to grow an impressive online return customer base.
Being visible in the online marketplace
Online parts sales is a very competitive market for a dealer to get into. Search results alone for the words "Lawn Equipment Parts" brings up about 116,000,000 links in 30 seconds. It can take either a lot of time or a lot of money to build a strong web presence and grow your visibility online.
"With the strong competition that is in this field, it’s hard to succeed on a shoestring budget," explains Tim Larose of choochooparts.com. "Many dealers aren’t willing to invest five years to build their presence—and when they do, it is tough work."
Larose owns choochooparts.com and works in partnership with Danny Schofield, owner of Choo Choo Lawn Equipment in Plant City, FL. Larose manages the online sales that are fulfilled through the in-store inventory.
"We made some changes on our site to become more visible online," explains Larose. "Unless you have a budget of $5,000 to $10,000 a month, you have to take the long road and just build the site up with lots of content and repeat customers."
Meeting online demand
A vital factor in online parts sales success is inventory. Many dealers don’t realize that a considerable investment in increased inventory is necessary in order to meet the demand of their new online customers.
"You need a lot of money to be able to fulfill these orders," warns Larose. "Otherwise, you will be out within the first season. We have had weeks where we have done three orders, and weeks where we did 300. You have to be able to treat all of them the same."
The relationship with the customer online is very different from the one in-store. They demand a quick turnaround and rarely accept excuses.
"The online customer is relying solely on your online marketing presence and they don’t know you, your store, or your employees," says Larose. "You will go from knowing a customer for 10 years to an unknown person who is taking a chance ordering with you. They have a lot less tolerance than the customer who comes into the store."
If you are unable to fulfill an order quickly, Larose says you better be ready to refund it—and fast. Early in their endeavor, they faced that reality.
"Early on we couldn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” says Larose. “There were many times in our startup that we had to shut the website down and refund everyone their money.”
Taking baby steps
Larose decided to take a step back and slow down their transition. Trying to offer too much too fast had prevented them from providing the quality of service that online customers demanded.
“We decided to take the long way around,” says Larose. “If you’re brand new to online parts sales it’s going to take five years to get anywhere successfully.”
A slow transition into the online parts sales business was the answer to avoiding the dangers of unsatisfied customers. While investing more in your inventory right at the start would be ideal, it is often not a possibility for dealers on a budget.
Larose started with mastering one section of parts and then slowly added on more products to offer customers. It allowed him to get a handle on the workflow and slowly grow the inventory to meet demand.
“We started out with just offering protective equipment for chainsaws,” he explains. “We picked a category and stuck to it for 90 days until we became good at it, and then added another category.”
Slowly over time, new sections were added every 90 days. Orders were easier to fill, having a limited offering and a better control on inventory.
They started by offering products through an eBay store, and once it grew large enough created their own website. Choochooparts.com is for the customer who knows exactly what they are after, while choochoolawnequipment is for parts lookup. Today, choochooparts.com has a repeat customer base of 18%. Products are mailed for a flat-rate shipping price of $8.95 for everything under $100. Anything over that is shipped free with some limitations on heavy items.
Now, all the parts found in the store are also offered online. As a Florida dealer, they are also tapping into markets they can’t reach through the store, like snowthrower parts. Parts sales online make up 50% of their overall parts business in the non-summer months and 15-20% in the summer season, successfully supplementing sales and growing their customer base.