I can’t let a week go by without another installment of “10 Questions” – my weekly sit-down with an eCommerce store owner to learn more about their businesses, get inside their head to see what they’re doing to rake in sales and hopefully score some swag.
So far, I’m swagless.
In the hot-seat this week is Steve Berg, founder of Patriot Surplus – an eCommerce store specializing in all types of military apparel and accessories. A former US Marine, I’m told that Steve runs a tight organization and as he puts it, he’s “on the front line” making sure his customers walk away satisfied.
I first met Steve a few years ago at one of my eCommerce Boot Camps. Since then I’ve watched his business grow leaps and bounds and figured now would be a good time to check in and see what he’s been up to. So without further ado, here’s “10 Questions” with Steve Berg:
First off, thanks for your service to our country. Tell me a little about your military career and how that turned into an inspiration for an eCommerce store.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1988 on a six year contract. I served as an encrypted communication security technician. In today’s modern world I would be known as a data communication technician. The vast majority of my time was spent in air conditioned data rooms and very little time in the field. Because it was a time of peace, I was spared having to serve in a battle zone unlike today’s modern military personnel. Looking back, I am thankful for that on one hand but on the other feel like I missed some of the action Marines generally charge towards. The Marines gave me the tenacity a person needs to start and run their own business. I owe everything to the Marines in that respect. My time in the Corps also obviously inspired me to get into the military and law enforcement supply business. Having worn the uniform and boots, I know what the folks in the military go through on a daily basis. I believe this gives my business an edge that no big box house can bring to the table.
Before opening Patriot Surplus in 2004, did you have any prior experience with owning or working for an eCommerce store?
I opened Patriot Surplus in 2004 as an Ebay store. I had no experience at all in eCommerce. We grew so fast that we had to learn on the fly. I personally built the first store. If you look at the wayback machine, it was a joke. I used an off the shelf template. Out of necessity, we started to outsource everything to developers to build our site. We learned a lot from the various developers we worked with over the years. When we converted to the Yahoo! Store platform in 2010, I found a ton of support on the Yahoo! Store Forums and made some great friends through our involvement with other owners. Going to our first boot camp at Solid Cactus really opened my eyes to the eCommerce world however. I met some awesome store owners that I still to this day turn to for advice. And that includes you of course Scott!
Who is your typical customer?
Our typical customer is generally either in the military or connected to the military in some way. Obviously, we sell a lot to military personnel. However, quite often, military people leave the service and go into law enforcement. Most of these types of people also have a strong interest in hunting and the great outdoors. So, we get a good mix of sales from these different niches. The quality of the merchandise however keeps our customers coming back. They tend to look back at their military uniforms and remember how well they held up and seek this out for their civilian use. Our trouser lines and military boot lines do very well for us.
You’re pretty active on Facebook. Tell me a little about how you use Social Media to develop a fan base and turn those fans into customers.
I believe that social media is very key to our success. We have focused quite a bit on building a large fan base on Facebook because I believe our customers want to see the social side of our company. The way we manage it lets our customers know that we are very grateful for their business, that we want their input and lastly that this is a company of real people. We are not a huge box house that is simply moving huge volume. We know our lines inside and out. We’ve worn the uniform and boots they are buying, so we have insight that no outsourced call center could ever know. We run a lot of contests and give away a lot of goodies. As part of this, our customers opt into our email marketing program and that over time turns them into customers. Our repeat customers are our strongest source of revenue.
The past several months, Google has changed the rule of SEO quite a bit. What types of SEO activity do you engage in, and out of that activity, which do you feel is the most important that you and other store owners should concentrate on.
This has been and continues to be a constant source of pain for us. Over the last few years, we have written a ton of our own unique content for our top selling items. We write content for our blog regularly about both our products and news related to our demographic. In my opinion however, Google seems to change the rules every time you conform to their requirements. Right now, I believe they are playing unfairly and it is hurting small business around the world. We see more and more search results from the “big boys” of eCommerce even though we have better content. In fact, we see our unique content showing up on their sites and we get pushed further down the search results because we are viewed by Google as having duplicate content. The big boys carry more weight with Google even though the content was scraped from our own site. So, we have to go rewrite content and play the game. I think the answer lies in building your own community by keeping in touch regularly with your existing customers via email and by bringing people who fit our customer profile into the fold via social media.
After a few moments on your website, I was greeted by one of your customer service reps who asked if I needed assistance via live help. I’m a big fan of live help on websites and so many site owners don’t use the feature to its potential. Tell me how you’re using live help and whether or not it’s boosting your sales. Tips for other store owners would be helpful as well.
We actively engage customers on our site. I have always viewed it as an important factor for customer service. When you walk into my brick and mortar store, we walk out and greet you and ask if there is anything we can help them find. We do it the same way on our site. If a customer sits on a page for more than 60 seconds, we proactively engage them in a chat. We use SnapEngage for our chat because it offers this type of engagement. The other reason we use it is because it integrates seamlessly with desk.com which we use to manage our customer service email. Every customer contact is logged and a record created for them. Desk.com in turn integrates with salesforce.com which we use for our CRM solution. All customer contacts are logged in saleforce.com and we can historically look at any contact we have had with a customer or potential customer. It has worked fabulously and we definitely see sales from our chats. Customers have given us high remarks on it as well. If they are having trouble finding what they need or if they have a product question, we are easily able to help them. We can even take control of their browser and help them check out if they like. One awesome feature we also utilize is the click to call button on our chat form. If the customer just wants to talk live, they click on the button and our system calls them and connects them to the agent that was taking their chat. This has been an incredible customer service tool.
In addition to your warehouse, you opened a bricks-and-mortar store. When did that occur, what made you decide to do it and how is it working out for you?
We opened the brick and mortar store about a year after starting the eBay store. It really happened by accident. I needed a larger storage location because we outgrew the basement offices! Walking through my local town one day I saw an available storefront that was rather large but had been empty for years. By chance, the owner was there cleaning. I asked her what the rent was. She wanted $400. I took it on the spot because it was so inexpensive. We moved our entire inventory into the store intending to use it for storage and offices. The funny part was that people started knocking on the door and windows and asked to look around. We let them in on Saturdays and the store took off! In 2007, we purchased our own building and warehouse with a storefront in downtown Carlisle, PA. We renovated the building and moved in late 2007. We’ve been charging forward ever since.
You recently expanded by purchasing shootingthex.com, tell me a little about that store?
Honestly, we stumbled into this business! It is a great story however. One of our local cops in town had a small hunting supply business on the side. In addition, he built a huge indoor archery range which is very popular in our community. On his foot patrols as a police officer, he would stop in and chat with me at my store and over time we became friends. He would hit me up for eCommerce advice all the time. “Hey Steve, what would you do in this instance.” and “Let me ask your advice.” And so on. After about a year of this I finally told him, “Look if you want to succeed in eCommerce, my advice would be to go into business with me.” And he did! We formed a partnership and the rest is history so to speak. We are building the eCommerce presence and he is managing his retail store. Eventually, over time, we will likely merge the two businesses, but for now, we actually run as two separate companies for the sake of simplicity. It is a very exciting venture and we are looking forward to achieving the same success we have enjoyed with Patriot Surplus.
With two very successful eCommerce stores under your belt, you’re a busy guy. What’s the number one item on your priority list as we move into the busy holiday shopping season?
Right now we are completely focused on tuning up the site with good content and making back end changes so we enter the busy season in great shape. We are adding about six new lines to the offering so that is taking up a lot of our focus. We recently deployed Centrifuge from King Webmaster which has tremendously helped us keep our inventory accurate and completely up to date in real time on the site. Implementing this system has virtually eliminated backorders for us, so that has saved us a lot of time and money. Our customers now know in real time if an item is in stock or out of stock. It has allowed us to easily manage our inventory in our warehouse as well as inventory on hand at our suppliers who drop ship for us when needed. It was worth every penny we spent implementing it.
As a seasoned eCommerce pro, what is the number one piece of advice you can give to someone looking to open their own eCommerce store?
Be prepared to work many hard and long hours. The number one piece of advice I can give is to focus most of your efforts on providing excellent, friendly and appreciative customer service. Utilize technology to your advantage. Implement service like live chat and desk.com to manage the large amounts of email you will receive. Get back to customers fast. Our system allows us to do this virtually in real time during business hours. Customers want this. Everything we utilize is cloud based, so we can access our systems anywhere we have an internet connection all the way down to our cell phones. If problems arise after hours, we can respond quickly if needed. I know price is also a factor, but I can tell you that customer service wins every time in my book. People buy from people, not companies. If they like what they see and feel like it is going to be a pleasant experience, they will buy from you. Make them feel like they just walked into your store when they enter the site. Give them a friendly face to associate the business with and ask them what you can do to help them find what they need. It is a relatively basic concept, but I think many stores forget about the customer and what they want. If you don’t get customers and retain them, you have no business.
Name: Steve Berg
Company: Patriot Surplus & ShootingTheX.com
Year Started: 2004
URL: https://www.patriotsurplus.com and https://www.shootingthex.com
Company Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/patriotsurplus and https://www.facebook.com/ShootingTheX
Company Twitter: @patriotsurplus and @shootingthex
Company Blog: https://blog.patriotsurplus.com