NEBS gets it right this time

It may have taken a while to get going, but now that NEBS Business Products has its small business-focused e-commerce Web site (www.NEBS.ca) operating at full capacity, the company is confident that its online sales will keep rolling in....

It may have taken a while to get going, but now that NEBS Business Products has its small business-focused e-commerce Web site (www.NEBS.ca) operating at full capacity, the company is confident that its online sales will keep rolling in.

Midland, Ont.-based NEBS, the Canadian subsidiary of Massachusetts-based New England Business Services, which distributes more than four million product catalogues a year in Canada, is well-known for its traditional direct mail practices. But, while the company has had a presence on the Internet for the last couple of years, its first Web site attempt wasn’t serving NEBS’ customers all that well, according to Alison Durtnall, the company’s group director of marketing.

‘It wasn’t what we wanted to have up there,’ she says, explaining that like so many other companies, NEBS had felt the pressure to get something up on the Web, even though the end result fell well short of fulfilling customers’ online needs. For instance, while the site featured a product order form, customers couldn’t actually view the catalogue or order products online.

‘We had all this traffic going to this online order form on our Web site, but people had to print it out and send it in by fax or mail,’ she says.

Yet, even with its extremely limited scope, the original site still managed to attract a large number of NEBS customers online.

‘That’s what was really interesting,’ Durtnall recalls. Given the amount of traffic the site was already receiving, she says, ‘we knew that a live Web site with online ordering and all kinds of other functionality would be pretty successful.’

So, hastened by a push from NEBS’ U.S. head office, planning got underway about a year ago to have a full-blown e-commerce site in place by the spring. Though the work, which was done entirely in-house, took considerably longer than anticipated, the site did eventually go live a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Since that time, NEBS’ Web sales have been growing every week, says Durtnall, a circumstance she chalks up to the fact that customers appreciate the convenience of online ordering.

‘These are really small businesses,’ she explains, ‘and they’re busy with customers coming and going all day. Now, they can go and order from us whenever it’s convenient for them, which, for a lot of them, is early in the morning or after their business closes for the day.’

So, while NEBS’ first attempt at developing a Web presence may have come up a little short, Durtnall says its latest effort is likely to exceed the expectations of many customers. Not only can customers order any product or service offered by NEBS, including printed forms and stationery, office supplies and business software, the site features a number of free online tools for small businesses, including a business plan template, a loan amortization calculator, and a direct mail response analysis tool. Dozens of business-related articles and resource links are also posted on the site.

As an incentive, NEBS offers customers a 20% discount on their first online order, which is backed up with a satisfaction guarantee and the promise of 24-hour delivery on most in-stock items and three-day delivery on most imprinted products.

While the bulk of the site development work for NEBS.ca was done in the U.S., Durtnall says many of its elements have already been Canadianized – pricing structure and resource links, for example – and others will follow.

‘It’s an ongoing process. Now that we have the site built, we still plan to make enhancements,’ she says, stressing that the nature of many of those enhancements will be determined by customers’ online behaviour, particularly since NEBS’ Canadian customer segmentation model is markedly different than it is in the States.

‘We need to get a few months’ data on who’s ordering and what they look like as customers,’ she says, ‘and then we’ll be able to redo our [segmentation] model and see how it looks.’

Durtnall says that because a good portion of the orders placed during the first couple of weeks were from new customers, the company fully expects its online sales revenue to keep growing. In fact, she anticipates many straightforward product orders will eventually shift to the Web, leaving more complicated matters to be dealt with over the phone or in face-to-face meetings with field sales personnel.

‘The customer now has all these channels to choose from,’ she says, ‘but the important thing is that we still have a single view of who they are.’