Methods Used: Competitive Audit, Contextual Analysis, User Interviews, High Fidelity Digital Prototyping
The retail trade show world is not what it was thirty years ago, when CJ’s Cottage started. Indeed it is facing many of the same pressures transforming other industries. Where once 90% of business would be conducted face to face, with relationships forged over years at industry events, now that slice of business stands at 50% and falling. The remainder is e-commerce and return business by email or phone.
CJ’s Cottage is a small wholesale business confronting the realities of an industry massively disrupted by changes in technology. My team and I met with its new owner Kate to discuss developing the digital strategy that could make or break her business in a rapidly changing world.
Kate runs CJ’s Cottage with one full time partner handling bookkeeping and several part time reps. She is on trend and excels at forging new relationships with clients, but an increasing slice of her time is spent servicing current clients who could be using her web portal, instead of drumming up new business. With a lean staff and facing a tougher business landscape every year, Kate knows that without a strong online presence, CJ’s Cottage cannot hope to compete.
Our team went to the Midwest’s regional wholesale hub at Minneapolis Mart to perform a contextual analysis and gain some insight into our client, their strengths, and their business environment. We talked to Kate and her bookkeeper Laura at their booth and interviewed customers in the cafe nearby to encourage them to speak freely.
Interviews with longtime buyers revealed that Kate and the CJ’s Cottage brand held a position of esteem among her peers: CJ’s Cottage was seen as on trend, and Kate’s way with clients was often praised. But even her loyal customers confessed ignorance of her web store and rarely read her newsletter. Those who did use the site found it confusing and admitted they’d rather give up and call Kate directly or email her. Our challenge was to capture the experience of CJ’s Cottage that they so loved in person in the digital realm.
Kate let us know she’d struggled with her newsletters, putting a lot of time and effort into writing them and maintaining an email list of thousands of potential customers. She unfailingly mentioned her website at the top of the page but wasn’t seeing the traffic she expected. Privately, customers complained of a “wall of text.” Here we had a clear opportunity to mend a leaky funnel, put Kate’s personable and on-trend brand front and center, and free her to do what she does best: make a great impression and grow new relationships.
The website itself suffered from aesthetic and screen flow issues, and the customer facing backend bookkeeping software particularly so. Kate’s strengths in sourcing cool and quirky products from small mom and pop businesses also meant that she faced marketing challenges - many of her clients didn’t have appropriate media for her to feature on her site, and she had been forced to improvise her own. After a comprehensive cognitive walkthrough of the site, I decided on a simplified structure with added security and marketability that put her best brands forward and minimized the shortcomings of her outdated backend software.
The new features all share the common theme of promoting and focusing the CJ’s Cottage brand while saving Kate time. The Reorder button is for those clients she’d otherwise have to talk through the process on the phone or by email. New pulldown menus allow buyers to browse within categories or just jump right in and ‘Shop Now’. The site is fully searchable. Proposed changes to backend coding are simple and modest, in line with Kate’s budget, but better align the Aleran shopping cart with industry best practices.
Kate is very proud of her ethical business practices, and her customers feel good supporting Fair Trade brands like Ten Thousand Villages as well as buying local. Keeping information about her ethics front and center reminds clients why they buy from Kate - because her values reflect theirs.
I also featured visual-forward social media with strong demographic overlap (Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook for the trend aware suburban moms that are Kate’s customer base).
It’s not always possible to pivot effectively as a small business in an industry undergoing seismic change, but with intelligence and nimbleness, scrappy small outfits can survive in the shadow of giants for long enough to forge their own path and build a sustainable growth model. Kate’s road forward will be built on her values and the relationships she has nurtured through her first years in the industry. Now she has the beginnings of a digital strategy to match and support them.