When I meet other lumberyard operators who know that I do a significant amount of my retail business over the internet, one of the first things they ask is how they can best hire the staff to get themselves set up for a similar operation. My answer is almost always the same: it depends. I don’t say this to be crass, but rather because the dealer’s level of knowledge and investment in online sales is going to determine whether he hires any additional staff at all.
In our case here at The Deck Store, the first person heavily involved in our online operations was myself. I created our first website with the help of a web developer. Even though we had an early version of our site created, we soon learned it didn’t do us a lot of good if no one could find it. Soon, we learned we needed to get into search engine optimization (SEO) so that customers could find our website through online searches. I didn’t know much about that, so I had to hire someone who was more skilled with SEO.
Not long into our SEO process, I learned about SEM, which is search engine marketing. Those are two different things altogether, and my SEO guy didn’t know much about it, so we had to hire someone for that. I made the decision early on that I was only going to hire my own people for these services, even if they were part time staff, so that I wasn’t held hostage by some service that claimed to run all of my SEO and SEM, yet wouldn’t even let me have my own passwords and see my actual data. For me, it doesn’t work unless I’ve got someone working in our own offices who can share information with me when I need it. Some online service with a funny name and an outrageous fee that will only send a monthly report (that, by the way, only ever shows the highlights) isn’t the kind of service I can trust. What I’ve found in my research is that when a company like that goes away, so does all their work.
So back to my original answer to the question of how to staff for online sales. From a digital standpoint, that answer is going to be “it depends.” Maybe you’ve got someone on your staff who can already do these things. Maybe you’re going to need to hire just one person, maybe two or three. I recommend starting small. Bring on as few staff hours as possible as you learn to set up a site, list a couple items, make sure they’re able to be found online and shipped efficiently. Once you’ve done that with something simple like deck rail lights, then you’re ready to move on to more items. As you do, you’ll likely need to staff up more for web designers and developers and even people who can write good product description content for your site. Many of these skills relate back to SEO and SEM, but often times they work hand-in-hand with the search engine folks and are best staffed by separate individuals who are really good at each task.
As for our shipping department, we started out with yard staff who already picked and loaded orders from our brick and mortar lumberyard. But once the orders started coming in online, we needed to make sure we had the lumberyard staff at the ready to package and ship items. No longer were we just loading them onto our own trucks. Now we were learning to package them as safely and efficiently as possible and we were quickly learning about FedEx, UPS, and USPS charges and schedules.
Along with logistics, include customer service help to handle phone calls, emails, online chat options, and of course, product returns. I’d say product returns are likely one of the things that took us most by surprise as we got into online retail. So many people would call with questions, or they would order something knowing they would just return it if it didn’t work out for them. We had to spend some time on our terms and conditions on product returns as well as spend time and resources preparing ourselves for online fraud, but those are both topics for future columns.
As for now, I go back to suggesting that you start small. Grow into your online operations. Practicing on something small that isn’t going to break the bank if you mis-ship it or price it incorrectly will do more for you in the long run as it allows for you to experiment and learn and bolster your online presence as you go.
Bob Heidenreich, owner of The Deck Store and thedeckstoreonline.com in Apple Valley, Minn., has been selling decking and home improvement projects for nearly 40 years. Follow Bob on Twitter: @TheDeckStore.