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Web-savvy sales

Five years ago, Dan Sabedra, general manager of NBC Truck Equipment in Detroit, started selling parts and accessories for snow- and ice-control equipment on the Internet.

After logging a sales volume of $5,000 the first year, NBC has experienced an increase every year, with a volume of $15,000 in 2005.

Sabedra says the beauty of Internet sales is that there is no geographical limitation on potential customers. NBC has customers as far west as Washington, as far east as Maine, and everywhere in between.

“We've had customers from New England call and say, ‘Holy smokes, I can order that part from you and have it shipped here, and it still costs me less money,’” Sabedra says. “It's good from the standpoint that the whole world is your potential customer.”

That same selling point also can be a detriment.

“It hurts you in some cases,” he says. “Your customers who have bought from you locally for years can do the same thing and come back and say, ‘I can get this out of California or Florida for less money, and still have it shipped for less money.’ That does happen occasionally.

“Anybody who has Internet capability and wants to put snowplow parts online can do it. A lot of people will put it on the Internet and sell it for much less than they'd sell it retail over the counter. Ours are a little less on the Web site than what somebody would pay walking in, because it's a lot less labor intensive. All a distributor has to do is print out the order, pull the parts, and take them to UPS.”

Rick Coolman, director of advertising and communications for Douglas Dynamics — which owns Western, Fisher, and Blizzard — says distributors choose who to sell to and how to sell, and a lot of them are using the Internet. But Western, Fisher, and Blizzard do not really encourage it.

“With snowplows and ice-control equipment, a certain amount of service is required,” he says, “and we'd like to think that the person who buys a snowplow from one of our distributors is in easy access of that distributor should he need service or parts. When a guy buys a snowplow or parts over the Internet, we've lost that touch with a local distributor that can provide him with that service he needs.”

The good news is that virtually all of the Internet sales are parts and accessories — hoses, fittings, couplers, cutting edges, blade guides, shoe assemblies, power angling and lift cylinders, and battery cables and cable controls. Selling and shipping a snowplow is much too cumbersome.

“There's some pretty heavy equipment we ship to distributors — the snowplow, blade, boxes,” Coolman says. “It's certainly not coming via UPS. It's coming on a truck. It has to be unloaded off that truck. I don't picture that happening in someone's driveway.

“But let's even assume that could happen. Now you need to install it. Though there are snowplow contractors out there who have a maintenance department to take care of all the landscape trucks that do install snowplows, we still believe many of the snowplow owners have that plow installed at an authorized dealer. And that's where we think it should be installed — especially with electrical systems getting awfully complicated. Can a user handle the hydraulics and bolt iron to the frame of the truck? How do you get it to someone over the Internet? Does he have the facility and the knowledge to install it? And if he doesn't, there's a problem.”

Complete plows not feasible

Sabedra says NBC has never sold a complete snowplow over the Internet, and he knows of no distributor that does.

“The problem you have is the same as you have trying to sell truck equipment,” he says. “Even with the customer sitting across the desk from you, there are so many questions. You have to make sure he has the right truck to take that plow. It really isn't feasible to sell it and say, ‘OK, here's the plow, out the door for $995, or whatever.’ There are just too many things that could go wrong. A simple thing like whether it has a certain type of headlight will make a difference in whether a plow fits. We've kicked this around a bit. For all the headaches it creates, it wouldn't be worth selling it.”

Sabedra says NBC's costs of running the Web site are slightly greater than the profit the company makes from selling parts, but it's still well worth doing. In the future, he says NBC may choose to manage the site rather than pay a provider, American Web Page, to do it.

“There's a program they will put together for us that will allow us to enter and remove things from the site,” he says. “In the past, we've had to send them the slicks and they have the labor portion of putting it up on the site. There's a time lag when you have a provider doing things for you. They have to work it into their schedule to get it posted, although they do give priority for some things like pricing increases. But if you want to make a major change and revamp the page, that takes time. We want to get it updated immediately. And the way to do that is to do it ourselves.

“We've started to do a little bit of that. If it works out the way we think, we'll probably be adding a lot more to our snowplow e-commerce package than ever before.”

He says that the provider has given the company a major advantage because its search-engine technical knowledge allows NBC to appear among the top five or six companies when a search is done for “snowplow parts.”

“You can have the best-looking site in the world, but if nobody's finding you, it's not going to do you much good,” he says. “And their forte is getting us found. We hear it quite a bit from companies: “I typed in ‘snowplows’ or ‘dump bodies’ or ‘wrecker bodies’, and boom! You guys popped up.'”

It started with agriculture

At Quality Truck and Equipment Co in Bloomington, Illinois, the primary business is manufacturing agricultural equipment. Owner Terry Stahly says his farming-related customers are “savvy and were using the Internet to check their grain prices — when to buy and sell — and to look for used and new equipment long before the general business public was.”

In 1995, his company started using the Internet to sell items that could be shipped without incurring a huge freight penalty — pumps, consoles, and joysticks, among others.

He's in his fourth year of using the Internet to sell parts and accessories for snow- and ice-control equipment, and says sales have increased 20% since the first year. Stahly has used a Macintosh computer since 1986, so he's graphics-oriented and does much of the photography and layout, although he does pay a provider to manage the Web site.

He says he uses the Web site not so much to sell and ship parts, but to attract customers and then utilize the company's expertise.

“Most of the customers want to be within driving distance,” he says. “If they're within a few hundred miles, they come and get it. We really don't do e-commerce, per se. We've used the Internet to entice them to e-mail us or call us. And then, because we have some sharp guys, they know they're talking to somebody who knows what they're doing. That's a really big part of sales. They'll actually drive 100 miles farther to buy from somebody they have confidence in. We specialize in snowplows.

“It's not always about price. There are 10 different snowplow manufacturers to choose from, and each has a half-dozen different models. A lot of people need to feel confident that we're steering them in the right direction, that we know what they need, that we're going to give them what they want, and that if they have problems we'll take care of them. It's a comfort factor. When you buy something, you'd rather buy it from somebody really knowledgeable and with a good reputation than somebody who just has a good price and is not going to be there for you. We're a truck dealer. I've sold trucks. And these agricultural units are $200,000. They have to feel darned comfortable before they buy that over the phone in California.

“We do get a lot of phone calls and a lot of leads from our Web site. It's the same thing as if we were knocking on their door or sending them a brochure in the mail. We're trying to spark their interest. We have a good-looking Web site. It makes us look very professional.”

Year-round action

Coolman says Douglas Dynamics tracks the traffic on its Web site for all three brands, and says that traffic is “going through the roof.”

“We are constantly amazed at how many people visit, even during the summer,” he says. “You think, ‘Who in the world would be on a snowplow Web site in July or August?’ But we get plenty of visitors. We think a lot of end users — potential plowers — get a lot of information off manufacturers' Web sites, where perhaps they got it off a piece of literature in the past. We don't think we're at the point where we wouldn't produce hard-copy literature anymore, but we certainly do see people having access and getting a lot more information from Web sites.”

He says Spokane Computer, a National Truck Equipment Association member that hosts Douglas Dynamics' Web site, provides detailed data on the number of visitors and hits to individual pages. It also uses QuickMatch, which allows a user to input information on a vehicle and quickly be given a snowplow model that will fit that vehicle.

“All the data we've been given in the past five years has been very valuable,” he says.

“Having those results from Spokane Computer has keyed us in on the fact that we'd better pay close attention to our Web sites and make sure they're giving out good information, and also make them entertaining. We want to make it a site a plower wants to come back to. Keep it fresh. We're spending a lot more money and time on our Web sites, because we see they're being used a lot.”

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