Case Study: West Marine

By James Maguire | Posted September 09, 2003

When West Marine bought its biggest competitor, BoatUS, earlier this year, it faced a logistical dilemma. West Marine already sold some 50,000 boating products on its site, and with the acquisition of BoatUS, an additional 20,000 SKUs needed to be incorporated. The site wanted to maintain the two lines' distinct brand identity, yet needed to combine the tens of thousands of boating accessories into one seamless offering.

"Managing two separate product assortments on one Web site is the biggest challenge we have today," says Tony Gasparich, West Marine's direct sales VP.

The company's software platform made all the difference in this effort, Gasparich says. West Marine had started using IBM's WebSphere e-commerce software as part of a major site revamp in 2001, upgrading from Net.commerce. The Watsonville, Calif.-based company used WebSphere to integrate its site into a multi-channel retail offering that includes 338 stores, a catalog, three warehouses, two call centers, and a wholesale business.

To combine the BoatUS line with the West Marine line, WebSphere "took all the BoatUS products and attributes and pumped them into the system, set up a separate store, and — voila — now we're running two retail Web sites on one platform," Gasparich says. "We would not have had the ability to do that on the Net.commerce platform." The new site was up in 30 days, he says.

"I don't want this to sound like an IBM commercial, but the WebSphere application is really well designed to handle multiple level pricing, multiple attributes for products, that type of thing," Gasparch says.

Websphere, says Forrester analyst Andrew Bartels, is well featured and well positioned for midsize companies like West Marine. To handle a larger volume of business, the software requires more customization out of the box than do competing e-commerce server products by ATG and BroadVision, he said, particularly for its customer relationship management (CRM) features. It tends to be too pricey for smaller companies, which more typically opt for Microsoft's e-commerce products. But for a company the size of West Marine, Websphere is "more than adequate," Bartels said.

Integrated E-Commerce
If anything, West Marine's approach to e-tailing points to the fact that e-commerce is no longer the gee-whiz retail experiment it once was. The company's e-commerce goal is not to revolutionize its sales chain. Instead, it uses its site to complement and integrate its existing sales outlets.

"Our goal is to offer seamless shopping," Gaspirich says. "We don't want any separation in the customer's mind between these different channels." Online shoppers, for example, can view past purchases from stores and catalogs, or check "loyalty points" earned at any of the company's outlets. Items bought online or in the catalog are exchangeable at stores. Coming soon will be the ability to order online and pick up your purchases at a local store on your way to the boat.

Achieving seamless integration between the site and retail outlets "requires hooking up a lot of stuff together on the back end," Gasparich says, noting that WebSphere supports this well. Seven employees maintain the site full time, but because it's so tied into the overall business it gets scads of additional support from the distribution center, call center, and customer service.

Auctions for Advertising
Most businesses view eBay as a sales channel, but for West Marine it's a sales and marketing tool.

West Marine uses a service called Connection To eBay (CTE), which was developed by Accenture in cooperation with eBay. Using CTE, West Marine keeps 50 to 100 clearance items up for sale on the auction site. West Marine rarely puts its full-price items up for auction because — like most retailers — it needs to maintain a retail cost structure.

"We pick the items and push them through with a product feed electronically to CTE. They show up on eBay just like they normally would," Gaparich says. The highest bidder is directed to West Marine's checkout page.

West Marine uses auction helper CTE because it's too costly to commit company personnel to administering auctions. "We dabbled with it ourselves and decided it was not cost effective," Gasparich says.

Yet West Marine wants a presence on eBay because it helps drive traffic to the site. "We track the customers who make these purchases on eBay and originally we thought 'they're only going to be attracted to clearance items,'" Gasparich says. "But we found that over half of them transact with us at regular price. It's a real gold mine in terms of finding new customers."

Navigating Traffic Patterns
Another traffic-building technique West Marine uses is building its top-level category pages with static hyper-text markup language (HTML) — even though most of the pages on its database-driven site are created dynamically. Search engine spiders don't fully record dynamic pages, Gasparich notes, making it harder to maintain search placement.

West Marine created about 20 static high-level category pages. "Our traffic from search engines as a percent of our total traffic has doubled," he says.

The site also drives traffic by using numerous contests to persuade boaters to opt-in to its 500,000-member e-mail list, to which it sends out a newsletter once every two weeks. These contests are very effective list builders, Gasprich says. Of all its traffic building methods — including search engine buys and an affiliate program — e-mail and direct mail have been the most effective.

Raising Sales
Once customers get to the site, West Marine uses a number of techniques to boost conversion. It publishes three to four boating-related articles a week that tie back to products. The site is a big believer in customer product ratings: "Customers really like them, and they're used extensively," Gasparich says. (However, West Marine closed its forums and chat rooms. Shoppers didn't access them enough to justify the maintenance, he says.)

The site has its own product recommendation engine called the West Advisor, which is its own proprietary recommendation and assortment guide that started in its catalog back in the 80s.

A step up from this, the site has an advanced search tool — enabled by WebSphere — called Product Advisor. As shoppers search for the specific life jacket they're looking from among West Marine's dozens, Product Advisor asks them a series of questions to narrow search results.

"Product Advisor generates the next question based on how they answer the prior question," Gasparich says. "'Do you want an inflatable life jacket, a fixed jacket, a full jacket with sleeves?' After they answer two or three questions, we refine a broad assortment to the ones that are good for them."

He adds that while this type of search tool is common in online electronics retailing, nobody is doing this in the marine industry today. "We feel it gives us a strategic advantage."

Adapted from Ecommerce-Guide.com.

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