The right products are one of the most important things needed to create a successful eCommerce business. You can’t be good at everything and not everything is good for your business. Over the years we have added millions of items to our catalog, but we have also dropped many items, brands and suppliers. We ultimately decided to eliminate items that continued to perform below average, this includes delivery time, customer satisfaction and returns. Using our KPIs and other transactional data we identified these items, brands or suppliers and worked to improve them. If we determined these were not able to meet our needs and those needs of our customers, we eliminated them from our catalog.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Ali, Chief Operating Operating Officer at PartsHawk. He is a sales and business development executive with 20 years of experience in online and B2C sales. At PartsHawk, he is responsible for sales and marketing for all products and services, and grew sales over 248% in less than 6 months while growing profit over 600% during the same period. Prior to this role, Ali was the Senior Vice President of Merchandising and Marketing for Systemax Inc, dba TigerDirect. His responsibilities included handling 2b+ dollars portfolio, including online sales, marketplace sales, product management and marketing in a high growth and fast paced environment. Ali launched many campaigns for companies like Microsoft, Intel, Dell, HP and others.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The PartsHawk team originally met just over 10 years ago at a fortune 1000 retailer which sold over 1.3 billion dollars annually online. Before that our CEO owned a chain of auto part stores in South Florida. After we helped the fortune 1,000 company through a sale and transition it was a natural fit for us to combine our CEO’s auto parts experience with our eCommerce experience. After evaluating the auto parts market online, we knew we would develop a successful business model. The question was how and what. That’s when our CEO said, “We need to act like a counter man, online.” This is when we set out to start PartsHawk.com. To offer a better experience online and better assortment than traditional retail stores, with fast delivery. PartsHawk.com — Millions of Parts. Crazy Fast Shipping.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I don’t think there was a single aha moment, but several key moments that have defined who and what we are today. We knew from day one the auto parts market was underserved for the online marketplace, so offering a wide variety of products was key to our success. In addition, product content, information and vehicle lookup was also something that we needed in order to be successful, which is why we invested big in the collection, consumption and housing of product data. Our infrastructure and delivery network was also very important. As we onboarded new suppliers, we evaluated their individual abilities to serve our customers quickly and efficiently. In today’s on demand environment being able to deliver fast is a must.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Giving up was never an option, we have a solid plan for a market that is in need of a better customer experience. From day one we have said, many times, “if it was easy everyone would do it.” We come in every day determined to do better than we did yesterday. There is always something we can improve, which includes the customer experience, product selection, product information, and our partners. During our journey there have been many times that we have needed to pivot but that’s just part of business. One recent example is earlier this year when the pandemic hit mid-to-late March, we had to quickly decide how we were going to handle it. For our employees and their families, our customers, and our vendor partners. There were many adjustments that had to be made over the past 8 months. But we stayed focused, adjusted where we needed to and pushed ahead. Our drive to continue comes from healthy competition between us. As owners of the business we each have our own unique strengths and abilities, but more importantly we all want to win. We hold each other accountable and compete daily to win.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We have been extremely fortunate, as focus and execution has gotten us to where we are today. Our sales are up 100+% year over year, we have added several new distribution partners in 2020 alone, with more in the queue, and most importantly we have added several new team members in the past year. One thing we understand is we can’t do everything ourselves, and brining on the right people at the right time has contributed greatly to our success as a company. As our business has grown there was an increase in the need for more automation, people, and systems. We are continuously evaluating new and better ways to do things; which is a process we believe should never stop.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There is balance between moving fast and moving carefully. It’s amazing what one comma or parenthesis can do to a formula or line of code. One story that comes to mind is we had some items that were discontinued and offered as a closeout. After a few weeks of selling through the majority of the items we put a process in place to drop the sell price of any unsold item, the problem is it continued to run weekly and kept dropping the price regardless of cost. I wouldn’t classify this as funny but definitely taught us a valuable lesson.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our objective from day one is have a website that works and performs like a counterman. While we are a ways away from that, we have invested heavily in the collection of data to help customers get the right part the first time. Shopping online can be frustrating for a consumer, especially if they get the wrong item, which is a key factor in why we have optimized our year, make, model search feature to ask for key information during the shopping experience to help customers get the right item. As an example, if a customer is purchasing a part that is engine specific, we will ask for that information. On many other websites the customer may have multiple options not knowing they are engine specific. Oftentimes they will purchase the lowest price or the first option thinking it works for them. We won’t let them buy the incorrect one. We will also display additional information to help them during the buying process so the customer is as informed as possible prior to clicking the purchase button.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take a break….sometimes it’s easier to take a break and come back to a problem and tackle it fresh. Everyone wants to or tries to go 100mph all the time; that’s how mistakes happen and that’s how you burn out. I personally try to tackle my largest projects early in the day. I will also take that project and break it up smaller chunks to make it easier to handle. Fortunately for us we also have a lot of brain power on our team, so collaboration is key. Sometimes just talking through something will help for a solution to present itself.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been fortunate to work and learn from some great leaders. I have also learned a lot from my peers, but I think my biggest lessons have come from people that have worked for me. Narrowing my success to one person would not be fair or accurate. I am always working on ways to improve and be better, from every aspect, as a leader, mentor and partner.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Adjusting to this “new normal” was not clear or planned out. The biggest factor for us was working virtually. While we already had a few remote employees, it was still an adjustment for everyone to be working remotely. Almost everything we do is cloud based so once we figured a few things out we were able to make the adjustment fairly seamlessly. We also had to take into account our vendor partners and the impact the pandemic had on them. We made sure to stay in touch with each partner on a daily/weekly basis to have an idea how they were doing. They would ultimately have an impact on our customer if we had not stayed in touch. We quickly implemented a daily score card that was more in depth than our previous version which allowed us to see a by order view, by location with delivery times. This gave us the ability to see which suppliers were able to adjust and keep up and which ones were not. We made adjustments to our order routing system to send orders to the locations that were able to ship timely to our customers.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
US based brands have had this challenge for years; today it is much more transparent. Retailers and eCommerce companies need to define their goals and objectives. For example, if their goal is to compete with Amazon and Walmart, they may elect to carry some of the D2C China-based companies. If their goal is focus on service, support and quality they may decide to carry US-based brands only. Their challenge will be telling that story to the consumer and explaining why they feel that choice best serves them.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Trying to do it all! I think that’s the most common comment I have seen. Trying to do it all yourself or trying to be everything to everyone. Every successful person surrounds themselves with equally strong or stronger people to help them. Every successful company has a purpose, usually a very singular purpose. The minute you try to do it all yourself or be everything to everyone you will lose. Focus and asking for help are the best ways to avoid these errors and will contribute to your overall success.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Standing out from the crowd. There are thousands of eCommerce brands, customers are constantly being pulled in different directions, ads for this, ads for that. Standing out and coming up with your purpose and focus is the most underestimated task. Most of us have a great story to tell. It takes time and consistency to tell that story.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Something the world has been forced to learn this year is how to work efficiently even when being remote. We have been cloud-based since we started so for us it was relatively easy to transition, but being able to access any information you need anywhere, anytime is ideal. We currently have three main systems that are being used daily to run our business. Trying to find a single solution for all of our needs was close to impossible, however, we have found that Channel Advisor has been a great tool for us to help build our catalog, manage products and orders, and many other pieces of the business. You can read more about how we use their platform for our business. https://www.channeladvisor.com/success-stories/partshawk/
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Having the right information presented well is a key factor to conversion rate. The best strategy we have implemented is the gathering of product data across millions of parts and properly presenting that to our customers. We are continuing to add more information, photos, buying tips and other unique features that we believe have and will contribute to a higher conversion rate.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Service, which means offering customers what they want and when they want it. While price is an element it is not always the determining factor. Building trust takes time, and that trust is built over time by solving a customer’s problem with a product or information, and delivering the product fast. If you can’t solve their problem or you can’t deliver fast you have lost. A granular understanding of who your customer is will also help to grow your brand and the consumer trust needed to succeed.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
If you are fortunate to only get positive reviews, good for you. That doesn’t mean you are doing everything right and you can’t be better. Poor reviews are probably the best source on what you need to work on as they will tell you where or how you can improve your process, customer service, shipping, etc. Not everything said online is accurate and it would be impossible to police that. If something is said online that you feel is unfair or not accurate, always try to look at it objectively. If you still feel it’s unfair, my recommendation is to reply to them publicly and provide your perspective. This may help to change their mind, but if it doesn’t it will at least show your other customers and potential customers you care and that you tried to correct a problem or poor experience.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
While there are many factors that contribute to success, I believe the most important are your team, purpose, process, metrics, and products. Once you define these many other things can fall into place.
- Building out the right team is extremely important. This takes time and the ability to truly understand what your business needs. The right team will complement each other, and help the business run like a well-oiled machine. My business partners each offer a unique skill set and together we are able to move forward and fast. As an example, when evaluating a new vendor or product line each of us is involved at some level. Typically, our CEO will work out business terms, I will evaluate the product line, pricing, etc. Our CIO will review the product data flow process and completeness, and our CFO will review all feeds and backend processes. Once we have all done our part, we are ready to launch. We have taken this approach with millions of parts across many distribution partners.
- Defining what you are trying to accomplish will keep you focused; everything else is a distraction. From our first conversation about PartsHawk our goal was clear: How can we replace a counterman, online? Everything we have done and continue to work on must help us answer that question. This focus goes into product selection, distribution partners, back end processes and our customer experience.
- In addition to shipping thousands of orders per week, managing millions of parts, with close 100 million data elements, can be a challenge. Planning out and building a process and implementing systems that can support that is challenging. In the beginning, we did not have it all figured out. In fact, we have changed our backend system since we started, mainly due to the fact that we grew out of the first one and we need more capability to serve our customers. As our business evolved, we would often discuss what are the current needs, are they being met, and what do we need in the future. During these discussions we would include elements like customer feedback, shipping time, time in transit and other key metrics to help guide us in the right direction. We didn’t always agree on what was needed at first, but after debating we were able to come to the right solution for our business, our employees, and our customers.
- I think we have all heard of KPIs, Key Performance Indicators. I have learned in my many years of business and management, sometimes you can over analyze because you try to measure too much or measure the wrong things. Having a clear set of metrics or KPIs will help guide everything from employees, systems, processes, and products. From day one we knew we had to get products to customers fast, which is why we have been measuring our time to ship and our time to deliver. We have continued to track those measurements and share the data with our warehouse/suppliers. These numbers have continued to improve since we started, with an example being our time to ship is now measured in hours instead of days.
- The right products are one of the most important things needed to create a successful eCommerce business. You can’t be good at everything and not everything is good for your business. Over the years we have added millions of items to our catalog, but we have also dropped many items, brands and suppliers. We ultimately decided to eliminate items that continued to perform below average, this includes delivery time, customer satisfaction and returns. Using our KPIs and other transactional data we identified these items, brands or suppliers and worked to improve them. If we determined these were not able to meet our needs and those needs of our customers, we eliminated them from our catalog.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am not sure starting a movement has ever been on my list of goals. However, I have a passion for talking about and discussing business ideas, challenges and solutions. Having a platform or audience where I can help other small business owners would be a fantastic way to share and learn.
How can our readers further follow you online?
We welcome everyone to follow us on social [email protected] on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. In addition, they can visit PartsHawk.com for the largest online selection of replacement, performance, RV, marine, and powersports parts.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!