Chocolatier takes timeless values to the Web

It's a case of Old World meets New World....

It’s a case of Old World meets New World.

With 115 years of heritage behind it, Victoria, B.C.-based confectioner Rogers’ Chocolates boasts a brand image grounded in quality, history and tradition. So when the company went online five years ago, one of the challenges was figuring out how to translate timeless values to a medium so new that the rules haven’t even been written yet.

So far, anyway, this is a challenge that Rogers’ appears to be meeting. Since the company began retailing its product on the Web in 1996, online orders have increased from approximately 1,000 in the first year, to 10,000 in 1999. And, as Rogers’ prepares to launch the newest version of its site, president Jim Ralph projects another 40%-50% increase in orders over the coming year.

Rogers’ Chocolates has six retail stores in B.C. and Alberta, plus affiliate stores (Chocolathé & cies) in Quebec. It also sells its product through approximately 700 other retail outlets across Canada. According to Ralph, annual revenues hover between $5 million and $10 million.

The company image is one of Old World charm – spiced by tales of the founder’s son, who committed suicide at age 16 and whose ghost is said to roam the upper floors of the flagship store in Victoria, strewing candy wrappers. Popular brand names such as Victoria Creams and Empress Squares offer a nod to the company’s B.C. heritage, and call up images of an earlier and more gracious era.

Rogers’ caters primarily to the gift-giving market, focusing on the middle-to-high-end niche. The company’s own stores are located in major tourist centres. (There are four in Victoria; one in Whistler, B.C. and one in Banff, Alta.) Other retailers that carry its products include specialty food emporia and gift-store chains such as Crabtree & Evelyn, along with duty-free shops and The Bay.

The company’s positioning is reflected in the rich look of its stores – particularly the flagship location on Government Street in Victoria, which boasts stained glass and a lot of dark burgundy tones – as well as its ornate packaging. And it was clear, from the outset, that this would have to be reflected in Rogers’ online presence as well.

‘You can’t have a flashy modern site and a Victorian product,’ says Rogers’ marketing manager Kate Phoenix, who has overseen www.rogerschocolates.com through all three of its incarnations – including the latest, which is slated to be unwrapped this month.

Accordingly, Rogers’ has taken care to ensure that the simple, elegant look of the site echoes the imagery and colour scheme of its bricks-and-mortar locations. Keeping the site uncomplicated and user-friendly has also been key.

The company’s foray onto the Web began in 1995, when a group of University of Victoria students offered to help the company set up a site for free, as a course project.

That initial version was little more than ‘brochure-ware,’ Phoenix says. But the following year saw the introduction of a second-generation site – developed by Victoria-based Agrapha Design – that could accommodate online ordering. Internet and mail-order sales combined now account for approximately 9% of the company’s income, and Ralph expects to see that contribution increase to 20% in 2001.

The newest round of improvements to the site will play a large part in bringing about this growth. Customers will now be able to call up their order history, and access personalized Christmas lists and address books to facilitate quick ordering. The new setup will also allow them to check the status of their order, via links to such distribution suppliers as Canada Post, Purolator, UPS and Federal Express.

Enhanced graphics will include a three-dimensional chocolate box that opens to reveal various products, and a 360-degree ‘virtual tour’ of the company’s factory and flagship store. (Victoria-based CSP Internet is responsible for developing this third incarnation of www.rogerschocolates.com, with technical assistance from CVC Productions West.)

Retailers who are serious about the Web have to be prepared to make a significant resource investment. According to Ralph, Rogers’ pours $50,000 to $60,000 worth of money and time into the site every year.

Online customers tend to be more demanding than those who walk into the company’s stores. But they’re worth accommodating, Ralph says: As a rule, their orders average $50 or more, which puts them approximately 20% higher than the typical individual store purchase.

Does online retailing cannibalize store sales? That’s a concern, but not a serious one. As Phoenix explains, the Rogers’ stores stock a wider variety of products, and offer a degree of order customization not available on the Web – all of which keeps customers coming back to the bricks-and-mortar locations.

The company’s strategy for driving traffic to the site is to hit customers with the Web address at every turn. According to Ralph, it’s on just about every piece of material that’s produced, from brochures and print ads to collectible tins.

Rogers’ advertising budget of $100,000 is modest compared to that of competitors such as Godiva and Laura Secord. The company runs print ads in lifestyle and travel magazines, as well as some trade publications, and airs radio and TV spots in the Victoria market. (Rogers’ ad agency is Victoria-based Trapeze Designs, which also produces its catalogues and brochures.)

Looking forward, Ralph says Rogers’ plans to make more active use of its 50,000-strong customer database to incite further sales growth.

E-commerce and mail-order sales will be central to the company’s expansion plans. Increasing the customer base in the U.S., where Rogers’ currently sells through some 30 West Coast retailers, will also be a major goal.

At present, the company receives orders from 58 different countries, and is looking toward further growth of its international sales. Europe is a tough market to crack, Ralph says (‘They feel they’re the chocolate kings of the world’), but the Far East holds considerable promise.

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