eHobbies Delivers Christmas

eHobbies was taking its chances launching two months prior to Christmas last year. The 1999 holiday season was a notoriously brutal for many e-tailers who failed to process and ship orders on time. eHobbies, to its credit, was one of the relative few who got it right. Even though volume went through the roof in December to 883,000 unique visitors a month, the months of preparation preceding the October 18 launch paid off big time. eHobbies was selected as one of the Feedback 50, Feedback Direct's list of companies that provided the best support during the 1999 holiday season.

More importantly, because eHobbies had taken care of the "big" things that might go wrong, they were free to concentrate on the little things, that is, providing the "above and beyond" type of service that turns one-time buyers into loyal customers. Of course, the free holiday shipping offer didn't hurt either.

The successful launch bodes well for eHobbies' goal to become the ultimate destination for the 100 million or so hobbyists worldwide. According to eHobbies Chief Executive Brad Sobel, each will typically spend $1,100 a year to feed their habit. Founded in March 1999 by Sobel, a train and rocketry buff, and Brent Cohen, a plastic modeler and rocketeer, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company currently offers 15,000 items--from trains, radio-control cars and rockets, to models and the like--for sale on its Web site, www.eHobbies.com. Plans to expand into other categories are also in the works. A true "vertical" portal, the site contains an online magazine full of articles and tips for the beginner as well as the aficionado, and a lively community space, in addition to its shopping and auction functions.

A Proactive Launch
Getting it all up and running smoothly in a matter of months was no easy feat. According to Vicki Yaller, eHobbies' vice president of customer support, being proactive was the key. "We tried to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong, or that we knew could happen in everyday e-commerce life, and find the solutions in advance," she said. Not only was Yaller hired early on in the site's development, a rarity in today's first-to-market frenzy, customer service people were also given extensive advance training both in systems and products. Yaller found that bringing in manufacturers and buyers to do some training, some of who have 10 to 20 years of experience in the industry, was especially helpful.

The knowledge gained during those months of preparation was then put to work online to help customers. All of the "how to" information--how to shop the site, how to return something, how to exchange something, etc.--was placed under the Help icon for the visitor to self-serve. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section located in a different area. In addition, based on feedback from the Beta test, eHobbies learned that most avid hobbyists know the manufacturer's SKU of the products they are interested in and want to search on that. So changes were made to the Search capability to make it easier to use and to enable customers to search for products by name, manufacturer SKU or eHobbies' SKU.

eHobbies was finally ready to confront the great unknown. Because, as Yaller admits, no matter how proactive you are, anything can happen in customer service. "Like when a customer accidentally hit the seven-day delivery button instead of overnight delivery," said Yaller. This was just days before Christmas. "But because we were so prepared and our site was so stable, it gave us a chance to really extend our customer service to people. We actually jumped through hoops to get the package changed and out the door so that it got to "Little Johnny" on time," she added.

That "jump through hoops" mentality extended throughout the company. Yaller described how during the holiday crunch colleagues would volunteer to answer phones so that customer service people could take breaks. Many, including top executives, actually went down to the warehouse and helped with packing and shipping. That kind of dedication to pure customer satisfaction got noticed when Feedback Direct conducted their study of the best companies for online customer support. eHobbies was one of the top sites based on availability, responsiveness, user-friendliness, courtesy and quality of issue resolution.

Today, the site continues to grow and change with the daily feedback of customers made possible through the Feedback feature, which sits on the Contact Us page. "Let me tell you, this community tells you their opinion, they write three-page letters, single-spaced, telling exactly what they like, what they don't like-which is great for us," says Yaller.

As of this writing, 60 to 70 percent of customer questions came to eHobbies via e-mail and the rest by phone. But Yaller was eager to see what the impact of "live chat," scheduled for introduction in May, would have on those numbers. At eHobbies, customer e-mail goes to one of two different addresses depending on whether the question is order- or hobby-related. In any case, eHobbies guarantees a 24-hour response time, with the average being more like three to six hours.

The company uses eGain software to manage its e-mail contacts. Both the phone calls and the e-mails are logged into the e-Gain system, where, based on keywords and e-mail aliases, the questions are directed to the person who handles that particular area of expertise. During December of last year, eHobbies added 24/7 support and has kept it up ever since with the help of PeopleSupport, which handles the off-hours.

eHobbies uses Pandesic's e-business solution to run its e-commerce engine, including the hardware, software, hosting and services. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Pandesic, a joint venture of Intel and SAP, has an unusual business model in that the customer pays an up-front fee of $25,000 to $100,000 to Pandesic, then Pandesic receives between 1 and 4 percent of the customer's e-commerce revenue. Yaller likes the Pandesic solution very much, especially its "customer service slant."

The Pandesic system enables eHobbies customers to browse through product photos and descriptions, utilize enhanced search capabilities, view order history and real-time inventory, and experience an efficient and easy checkout process. Once the order is taken, customers receive an e-mail confirmation and have access to online self-service for order status, order history and package tracking.

Hobby Sales Go Year-Round
Even though holidays are important, "it's not a make or break proposition like an eToys," said Leasa Ireland, eHobbies' vice president of corporate communications. In fact, she points out, even after the Holiday rush, the number of unique visitors to the site held strong in January at roughly 872,000 per month. While the company does a marketing push around Father's Day--another big hobby holiday for its male-dominated customer base--eHobbies marketing and advertising efforts are year-round, using both traditional and online mediums.

This year, a catalog will go out twice, they will have an increased radio presence and print ads will appear in about 35 hobby-specific magazines. "We pretty much own [the hobby magazines] from a marketing perspective, because our ads stand out so much," said Ireland. Two-page advertising spreads will also appear in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics around Father's Day.

Another important marketing goal is to capture the interest of a whole new generation of hobbyists. To that end, eHobbies advertises in Boy's Life, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Disney Adventures and Nickelodeon. The company's aggressive online strategy includes an eHobbies presence in almost every search engine and every shopping area on the Internet.

In the future, eHobbies also hopes to increase customer loyalty by being more targeted in their customer communications. Rather than sending out a generic, one-size-fits-all newsletter, eHobbies will have six different versions. "Most hobbyists really identify with a specific interest. So it's making sure that we're communicating with these people as model railroaders, as radio control enthusiasts versus this big umbrella," says Ireland. As they scale for next year, the company also plans to bring in an even more specialized customer service group who are hobbyists themselves.

Looking ahead to the next holiday season, Yaller wouldn't necessarily do anything differently. She worries more that the company will let its guard down. "Last year we had the CEO and top executives down at the warehouse helping to ship things," says Yaller. We just have to do that again this year."

To put it in perspective, Yaller continues: "Certainly the holidays are a critical time. But we like to think that every day of the year we're going to offer the same kind of service."

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