Selling custom products on the web

If you manufacture a custom or a customizable product, you have probably wondered how it could possibly sell online.

We’ve all seen those fancy flash websites where you can design a wardrobe or put together all the options and build a new car, but let’s face it, those sites may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require a whole staff dedicated to cyber maintenance.

Alain Albert

What is a small manufacturer of custom wood products to do?

As it turns out, the technology has evolved tremendously in recent years, and it is now within reach of small- to medium-sized businesses to build an effective e-commerce solution for their custom products.

It is not an easy feat, but if you understand the underlying structure of selling on the web, you can elaborate a good cyber-sales channel and find a guide to help you develop your new web marketing powerhouse.

There are several elements that make it challenging to price a custom product for your potential cyber customer. Some of the barriers that you may face are:

• There are often many different options to choose from.

• Wide array of sizes (perhaps even an infinite number).

• The need to show images of an assortment of colours/materials.

• A complex formula is required to calculate the price of a custom product.

• Each custom product is different from the others requiring different options and different formulas for each category of products.

• Many more challenges depending on your specific product.

The web is a very mysterious place, and from the outside it looks all polished and sophisticated but the thing that most users don’t understand is that behind the scenes it looks more like a jungle. In the belly of the Internet, you have a jumble of different systems that don’t quite all work well together and nobody knows why. Imagine a futuristic city with a beautiful top side, all chromed and serene with flying cars whizzing by in the sunset, and then beneath the streets is the hidden city, dimly lit with pungent smells, smoke and slime covering all visible surfaces. Wires are hanging in every direction punctuated by a flash of sparks every now and then. This is what the back end of the web looks like.

Without going into too much detail about the intricacies of coding for the web, it is important to understand the different platforms onto which your website might be built. While you can code a website from scratch with HTML5, PHP, MySQL and other coding languages, most people use a content management system (CMS) that is built specifically to support the structure of your cyber storefront.

WordPress is the most popular CMS in the world, powering more than 25 percent of the world’s nearly 1 billion websites. WordPress is an open-sourced platform that is built by a collaborative of different programmers from around the world. There are other CMSs such as Joomla, Druppal and Magento, just to name a few, and they all offer a different set of options for their users. There are also web-development platforms that are the equivalent of paint-by-number. Such DIY website builders as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace offer you a simple way to build a website on the fly, but without the flexibility or the ecommerce power of a full CMS.

With these technicalities out of the way, the most important aspect that wood manufacturers need to understand is the nature of their own products if they are to implement a successful digital sales channel. It is very important, before you start, that you take the time to analyze and list the distinct products you offer now and may develop in the future. Their characteristics will often dictate the proper strategy for selling online and knowing this will point you towards the best e-commerce solution for your product.

Here is the description of the most frequent product types that you will find on the web:

Simple product

A simple product is a static product that has a price and that’s all. Picture an antique pine rocking horse; one size, set colour, no options, just a beautiful rocking horse that will give your toddler hours of old-fashioned fun. This is a product in its simplest form and doesn’t require much e-commerce horsepower at all. You can build a website using Wix or even sell this kind of product on Etsy or Amazon. Variable product A variable product is the most common customizable product on the web. The best example is a tee shirt available in small, medium and large sizes, and in white, red and black. In all likelihood, the different combinations of sizes and colours of this product are completely distinct SKUs sitting on a warehouse shelf somewhere but in order to make the choice easier for the customer, all nine different products are presented on the same web page.

You can use a variable product for custom-made orders, as long as you have a finite set of variables. One important aspect to note is that you can assign an extra price to each of the variations that will then be added to your product’s main price, if chosen.

Database-driven product

If you have a product that has a given set of values for each variation, you can use a database to drive your product page. In this instance, all the combinations and permutations available to the customer are listed in a database and the webpage will perform “lookup” functions to determine the price based on the chosen variables.

The database looks like a spreadsheet with the column titles corresponding to the variables and the rows to the data. An example would be standard-size window frames. The columns might contain information such as: style – description – colour – width – height – price. Depending on the quantity of styles, colours and sizes, this list could potentially contain thousands of entries. When a customer chooses a style, the next variables are automatically populated by the available entries contained in the database. In the end, only one permutation of the product will be priced. In this type of product database, no two rows of data can be identical.

Formula-based product

For the manufacturer of truly custom- made products with an infinite number of variables, a formula is needed to calculate the price based on the customer’s input.

The most common example of this kind of variable is when you need the customer to enter a dimension. A kitchen cabinet, service for painting a room or a custom bookshelf are all examples of products where you might want your customer to enter the exact width, height and thickness or depth of the product that they want. With this kind of product, you want your website to generate a price based on the customer’s input much like you would by taking the user input and entering the variables into a formula.

The formulas that we use when creating a website of this type are usually quite complex and can incorporate many variables. Although it is important to simplify this calculation as much as possible, the most important work the manufacturer can do is to create a good formula for all products and to test them prior to building the website.

Another thing to remember for successful sales automation is that product development must be worked out as a process that is mathematical and automated. There is no room for holding one’s thumb in the air or improvising.

Product matrix order form

In some cases, you might want the customer to build an order for a category of products. This is often the case when they are likely to order a group of products with slightly different variations.

An example of this is if you want contractors to send you a list of cabinets that they need for building a kitchen. Each cabinet will be slightly different in size but they all need to be ordered together with some variations in common such as colour and door style.

In this case, you might want to capture the personal information of the customer at the top of the form, then build a list of every cabinet they need and finally, apply a colour or style to the whole order before calculating the price and capturing payment.

Using this kind of custom form builder, your customer can in fact create their own quotes. This makes it more convenient for them but it also relieves you from many hours of office work. In one instance, one of my clients saved more than four man-hours of work in the office every day and their orders grew because of the convenience for their customers.

You must be careful with this kind of order form, though. Although it is well suited to a business-to-business environment, some training needs to be performed and support material such as catalogues given to the customer ahead of using the form. These website pages tend to be more technical and complex and are not suited to be used by most consumers.

A web-based sales tool where your customer can create his own personalised order will give you a huge marketplace advantage but you must remember that it is only the start of a successful cyber sales strategy. Much like a brick and mortar store, if you furnish a small room on No- Name Street with a few generic products, don’t expect to become a multinational conglomerate overnight.

Your store needs some killer products that everyone is going to want. This is a function of product development. Then you need to display them in the best light; photography and content creation come into play. You will hang a beautiful sign over your door and let the whole world know about your offering by rolling out the best marketing strategy and finally, you want the best street address for your store, i.e.: top of search results in Google.

All that we’ve discussed above is well within your grasp and I’m sure that by now you’ve already built a very solid scenario in your mind’s eye of what your Web sales engine would look like. Remember that most of your competitors in this industry are not very far along the path of exploiting the Web for all its potential. The very last thing you need to do is to find yourself a trusted guide to help you navigate the wild shantytown of the web. Choose well and explore yet-undiscovered lands of plenty.

Alain Albert supplies the industry with CNC machining services at Woodoer and creates Web-based sales channels with Configrr.

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