Power Retail spoke to Michelle Di Micco, Head of Marketing at online retailer Hoselink, about the evolution of the company and how it benefits from selling directly to customers.
Traditional wisdom holds that there’s nothing like a face-to-face connection when you want to engage with your customers – but the rapid development of e-commerce often proves tradition wrong. In the digital age, bricks-and-mortar is only one of many ways to speak directly to consumers.
Tim Kierath, founder of pureplay online retailer Hoselink, found this out the hard way. He began the business twenty years ago, after frustration with unreliable hose fittings led him to develop his own no-burst, no-leak hose connector. The product had promise, but the business got off to what Hoselink Head of Marketing, Michelle Di Micco, describes as a “rocky start”.
Early attempts to distribute through retailers didn’t work, and the business almost failed. “Finally,” Di Micco explains, “in a last-ditch attempt to overcome the ruthless retail giants and near financial ruin, Tim and his family joined together to give it one last shot, cutting out the middle man and launching a prosperous new e-commerce website with a direct selling approach solely in Australia.”
The result is a company that now sells not only the original hose connectors, but also a variety of watering and gardening products: sprinklers, cutting tools, and a popular retractable hose reel designed to make watering more accessible for gardeners with disabilities and arthritis. “Family and a belief in the product is still at the heart of the business,” says Di Micco, “and it’s what has taken Hoselink from strength to strength since then.”
The shift to pureplay was not easy, however. “The key challenge was having no prior experience in the online retail space,” explains Di Micco. “The family had to learn as they went along, gradually hiring a customer service team, investing in advertising and expanding the physical office and warehouse space as the business grew.”
This effort shows in the strong online presence of today’s Hoselink. The website design remains in-house, and the company recently performed research into ways to optimise conversions, with the goal of keeping the website as relevant as possible. An up-to-date website is important for any business in the digital era, but for an online pureplay it’s especially crucial.
The site has gone through several changes since 2009; in particular, “moving to Neto in 2011 allowed us to streamline a lot of processes and made a huge difference”. The business now uses technologies such as Emarsys and Zip Money, has a strong Facebook following and a growing presence on Instagram, and takes a “mobile-first approach to website design”.
Hoselink and its team have not lost sight of the customer, however. “We do have a social media advertising strategy and enjoy a strong ROI,” says Di Micco, but the company’s social media community is an advantage for customers as well as the business. “We use the platforms to give back to customers via competitions and to share the enjoyment our customers get from their gardens via user-generated content. In that sense we’re not looking for direct ROI at all, rather we’re looking to make a connection with our audience.”
Speaking directly to customers has also allowed Hoselink to improve its services based on need. Since the original hose connector was Kierath’s patented design, an early challenge was “communicating what the product was, how it worked, how it was different and how it would benefit the consumer. It was the first fitting of its kind and to install it on your hose does require some simple instructions. Making this as clear and simple as possible to the consumer was a challenge, but through well thought out advertising campaigns, simple instruction manuals and how-to videos we were able to communicate the message effectively.”
What differentiates Hoselink from other online retailers? Di Micco cites positive customer service experiences, free delivery options, and a strong belief in the products. She also highlights the importance of presentation: “We pay a lot of attention to how our products are presented online, from a good product description to product specs, photography and videography. We do our best to help customers understand what they’re buying, even though they can’t touch or see the product in person. We’ve also tried to make it easy for customers to use and install our products with a range of how-to and troubleshooting instructions and videos. It’s a project with no end – it’s all about continual improvement.”
Hoselink maintains direct control over all its processes, from website to shipping, and experience has taught the company that this control works best for them. “The direct line of communication with the customer has allowed us to quickly respond to feedback, whether it’s about our products, our website or our processes,” says Di Micco. “It keeps us on our toes and ensures we’re always evolving in line with customer expectations.”
Hoselink’s success is proof that online platforms can be as effective as face-to-face service when it comes to connecting with customers.