Digitizing The Catalog

Cheri Markowitz didn’t think Emerald Coast Growers needed an online ordering option. She was the naysayer. But then the orders came, and they came in full force for Cheri and her brothers Paul and Mark Babikow, the three minds behind Emerald Coast’s electronic marketing strategy.

Since Emerald Coast launched a website in 1995, the Pensacola, Fla.-based business has developed a multi-pronged strategy of carefully targeted and meticulously selected digital tools that simultaneously build business and service existing customers and brokers.

“As a business today, you have to be poised to respond to the growing need for electronic communications,” Paul says.

And respond Emerald Coast has. It now has a website (ECGrowers.com), an electronic product database, e-newsletters, online availability updates, electronic ordering and a downloadable catalog to give customers an all-access pass to the true ease and convenience of doing business with Emerald Coast Growers. “We want to be the easy choice,” Paul says.

Bits & Bytes

So how did Emerald Coast build a world for customers online? While Cheri, Paul and Mark all have a born-and-bred passion for plants, each has a unique specialty: Paul’s background is computers and technology, Cheri’s is sales and marketing communications and Mark’s is photography. They have a nice blend of skill sets for a business, especially a green industry operation.

Mark’s striking photography and videography are front and center in everything Emerald Coast Growers does, from the catalog and web site to e-mails, newsletters and tags. His high-quality full-color shots bring the catalog resource guide to life.

“We launched it with a more retail look, with large color photos and detailed information,” Cheri says. “That’s why for 15 years, the industry has used and appreciated it.” The look has been integrated into Emerald Coast’s electronic strategy in a downloadable version available on ECGrowers.com.

World Wide Wonder

By the early 2000s, Emerald Coast Growers’ website had grown to include more photos and more products, but updates were still only made twice a year at best. Two years ago, the three started creating a plant database online.

“We knew a database was the key to making the website more dynamic,” Paul says. “The fact that it’s constantly changing is what sets a website apart from a static, once-a-year catalog.”

Last fall, Emerald Coast launched its online ordering function, which even features a password-protected members-only side that’s only available to customers and brokers.

“I think one of the fears wholesalers have with putting themselves out there is everyone will have your information and pricing,” Paul says. “Our site is designed to provide pricing to site members only. Customers enter their information and tax ID number to get a login, and we review each request.”

Attention to details has helped Emerald Coast build its website into its current form. The website is much more than just variety photos and company promotions. The extensive database is packed full of details, including descriptions, zones, culture, usage and more.

“It’s searchable information for customers and brokers,” Cheri says. “They enter ‘drought tolerant’ or ‘variegated’ and get a set of solutions.”

More than just an advertising vehicle, Emerald Coast views its website as an essential tool. “It’s a resource where customers and brokers can get all the information they possibly need,” Paul says. “Availability is updated daily. Our online ordering process accepts credit cards, and approved customers can place their order on account.”

Cheri chalks everything up to service. “Placing an order online with our quick and simple 24/7 checkout is just one more convenience we offer our customers,” she says.

Videos are the next frontier for the site. Shot in-house by Mark, the vignettes are short clips designed to give viewers quick hints and how-to advice on growing, plant attributes, new varieties and more.

“It’s a unique way to experience our selection,” Cheri says. “We sell plants by movement, sound and color. With these videos, we present the plant in its real environment and truly connect to our customers.”

True Integration

Beyond the Web, Emerald Coast takes full advantage of the electronic world with daily availability updates by e-mail and Web, a monthly e-newsletter to a targeted key customer and broker list and regular breaking news e-mails with product updates and other hot items.

Integration is the key to [the e-newsletter’s] effectiveness, Cheri says. The e-newsletter pushes traffic to the Web. The website homepage carries a call to sign up for e-mail updates, and Emerald Coast’s electronic and print advertising directs customers to the website. Emerald Coast has explored pay-per-click advertising, and it works extensively with the industry’s print publications to exploit their electronic ads and reader service options.

“Entering into the digital world doesn’t exclude print advertising,” Cheri says. “We don’t think in terms of weekly newsletters or a magic number for updates. We think, ‘We’ve got news, how do we best get it out?’”

Staying With The Customer

Pacing is one of the biggest challenges in the electronic world. How far ahead do you go before you leave your customers behind? It’s something Emerald Coast wrestles with every day.

“Ten years ago, we looked at moving from fax to e-mail availability,” Cheri says. “To send the list would take a full night every week. I asked customers if they preferred it by e-mail, and I got five responses. Five years later, nearly everyone requested e-mail, and we stopped the fax version completely.”

While Emerald Coast’s customers are migrating to new electronic tools, Emerald Coast Growers works to educate them on the potential. “If we send an older format to a customer, we always also send the newer format,” Cheri says. “It’s getting them to look at it in a different way.”

For Emerald Coast Growers, knowing its customers’ state of mind is critical to success. “We do not dictate to our customers how they’re going to receive our material,” Paul says. “When we make changes, we put notices out on the positive aspects. When customers see them and understand how much it can do for them, that’s when they get on board.”

Cheri agrees: “We don’t leave anybody behind, but we also include them in everything new we’re trying.”

That balance also includes figuring out how to best communicate with customers of all sizes. “We do need a way to communicate with that customer who might buy two trays a year,” Cheri says. “The Internet has been the most useful tool in finding those startup businesses.”

Emerald Coast sees the benefits as three-fold: The Internet is out there to attract new and smaller customers, the website is a communication tool for customers and brokers to find all the information they need, and online ordering rounds it all out.

“There’s a convenience aspect to it,” Paul says. “Customers with only a few employees are in the field or greenhouse all day and don’t have time to sit down and discuss. I’ve looked at our statistics, and a lot of our orders are coming in after hours at night and on weekends.”

Glancing Ahead

So what’s next? Twitter? MySpace? Facebook? YouTube? Another digital revolution? Even Emerald Coast Growers doesn’t know. What Emerald Coast does know is whatever its next move is, it will be made for the customer.

“Our customer is very involved in what we do,” Cheri says. “Our challenge is to listen and be ready to make the move.”

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