An online-shopping pioneer tells his story
Business View Magazine profiles ShoppersChoice.com, an online retailer of outdoor home and entertainment products in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
ShoppersChoice.com is an online retailer of outdoor home and entertainment products including barbecue grills, grill accessories, gas logs and fireplaces, patio furniture, and other home, kitchen, and outdoor appliances, furniture, and accessories. The company was originally founded by Mike Hackley in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1998. A far-seeing entrepreneur who, early on, perceived the possibilities of online shopping, Hackley narrates the saga of how a small brick and mortar store became one of the world’s leading websites for outdoor cooking and leisure products. It’s a great story:
“I was in the military for ten years. I worked part-time for my father-in-law installing gas grills. Back then, they had the old gas grills that were on a post, so I had to install the copper lines, hook them up to the gas meter, concrete them in, crank ‘em up, and get ‘em started. After I got out of the military, I moved on to the hotel business for a couple of years. I was moving back from Des Moines, Iowa where I was managing a hotel, and was on the way back to Louisiana to manage another hotel. I drove through Dallas, and happened to see a Barbeques Galore store. There used to be about 150 Barbeques Galore stores in the U.S. and I absolutely loved them. I walked in and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ So, I came back to Louisiana, looked up the demographics for the best place to open a store and we chose Baton Rouge. It took us about a month and we opened up a store called ‘The Grill Store & More.’ And then, we opened a second one, and then we opened a third one. And that was in 1998.
“In about 2000, business got really bad because the economy started to go in the tank. I had befriended a guy named Paul Borge, who owned a company called ‘Ironworks Grills’ out of Shreveport, Louisiana. He built grills and sold them on the internet, only. I helped him come up with some different designs for grills and they sold very well. As it got deeper into 2000, business got worse, and I told Paul I was going to have to shut my doors and go back into the hotel business. And Paul said, ‘Go on the internet.’ My response was, ‘People don’t buy anything on the internet,’ because it was relatively new at that point. And so, he opened his books to me and said, ‘Here are my books. There’s money to be made, and you need to go internet.’
“I came home and within one week I found a programmer – he was 17 years old, working at a hospital. His name was Corey Tisdale. By day, I installed grills and gas logs and fireplaces, and by night, we sat in the back room and I studied all of the HTML and the stuff that helped the other websites get ranked, and he wrote the code. In the first part of 2001, the first three months, our site took off and we did a million dollars the first year and thought we were rich. And from that point on, it just kept on getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
“Business was so good that I wanted to get out of the storefronts and so I gave the Grill Store & More name to a buddy of mine who owned a hardware store and he moved the stuff into the hardware store and it became the Grill Store & More. We moved into a five-bedroom house and we started doing our internet operations. It was just me and my wife. The garage was filled with cast iron and grilling accessories and copper cookware. Then we ended up buying a building, and then over two years, we expanded into nine buildings, increasing our employees, and then, about five years ago, we moved into a 45,000 square foot building and started working out of it. And we also ended up opening a store because we had a lot of vendors giving us a hard time because we didn’t have a storefront. And so, we opened a storefront and that opened the floodgates for us to carry a lot more variety of products. And then we extended another building that was on the property, which gave us another 12,000 square feet and, just recently, we built another 60,000 square foot building.
“And then, I let Corey Tisdale take over the company as the CEO, and I started another company called Blaze Outdoor Products. I started manufacturing and engineering my own grills and selling them to distributors and also sold to ShoppersChoice as a distributor. About eight months ago, we acquired a 78,000 square foot building, because it’s growing so fast. And today, ShoppersChoice has about 130 employees and Blaze has about 20 employees and we’re growing ShoppersChoice about 15 percent and I’ve stepped back into a CEO position with ShoppersChoice. And Blaze is growing at about 38 percent and both companies are doing extremely well.”
Hackley goes on to explain how becoming an internet presence propelled his company into prominence:
“I’m a small internet guy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But because of Google and some of the other search engines, I have the best storefront in every city, in every town, in the United States – virtually. And it’s true. So, rather than a storefront struggling here in Baton Rouge, I have the availability to touch everybody all over the world. And this is where the technology comes in. Way before anybody started doing this, I had the idea that we’re going to do sales videos. We had this 20X20 platform I built in the back of one of our buildings. So we took a grill and explained how the grill worked. And then, we would cook on it and show people how it would cook. Because it was tough times, both parents were working. So what our analytics told us was that they were sitting down at night after they got the kids to bed, and they’re looking at our videos. And they didn’t have the pressure of a sales guy saying, ‘Hey, you need this, and you need this, and this is the best, and this is not.’ We did practical videos explaining the product and showing how it worked. And I was amazed at how many people would watch five or ten of our videos and go straight to the buy button.
“And the other thing is gas logs. Think about this and technology: So, you go to buy a set of gas logs. You go into a fireplace store. At the most, they’re going to have five displays. But there are, literally, hundreds of different logs out there that they don’t get to see. And they never get to see them burning. And so, way early in this process, we had our vendors send us all of their logs, we installed them in a fireplace, videoed them burning, took them out, installed the next one, and literally did a couple of hundred sets of gas logs, so that people could see them burning. A brick and mortar guy couldn’t afford to do 200 fireplaces. It’s where the technology of the internet kicked in.
“And we keep advancing in technology; we keep getting ahead. Back then, we didn’t have as much competition, so it was cheaper to do this stuff. Now, when a new internet guy starts up, it’s tough. It’s tough to get the best shipping rates; it’s tough to find somebody that will come in and video or take pictures of all your grills. Back then, we got ‘em a dime a dozen. Now, because everybody’s trying to do it, it’s very expensive. But we had a vision way before anybody else. There are people starting to do it, but they’re not to the point that we are.”
While ShoppersChoice continues to flourish in the online world, Hackley’s brick and mortar store has likewise flourished as a place where local customers can “kick the tires” of its various products and company employees can expand their skills and knowledge:
“When we built that store, we had about an acre of land behind us and we have 31 outdoor kitchens built. And they’re all live, so a customer can come to my store and say, ‘What’s the difference between the Blaze and the Lynx?’ ‘Well, let’s get some hamburgers and go cook and you can tell for yourself.’ So the brick and mortar facility is a huge hit with our manufacturers and our customers. You can bring your whole family there in the evening and get on one of our displays and relax on our patio furniture and cook your whole meal on a grill.
“And now, it’s a training center for all of my 33 customer service reps. They go over there, they cook on it, they clean it, they tear it apart, they know how the igniters work, they know what burners are in it, they know how they go in, they know how to convert them. So, when a customer calls us, we’re not just trying to sell them a product, we actually know the product, inside and out, better than anybody in the business. And I know this because, I know the storefront business; I have an internet company, so I know the internet business; but I also have a distribution facility, where I’m distributing grills that I make. So, I touch all three aspects of the entire business.”
In addition to Hackley’s early use of the internet, ShoppersChoice has also benefitted from the changes in the country’s economic landscape over the last several years:
“Ten years ago, the only people who were building outdoor kitchens were the people out in Vegas and California. When the downturn happened, it created a need for people to have to stay home instead of going on vacations. So, then, all of a sudden, they start doing these ‘staycations.’ ‘We’re not going to spend the money on a vacation – we’re going to go ahead and get a grill, or a pool, or upgrade our landscaping and we’re going to create a family environment. Our backyard is our Disneyland.’ And that has taken off, and today, that is our biggest-growing category – the outdoor kitchen arena, just because more people are staying home, spending time with family and creating these staycations.
Already a very successful business owner and entrepreneur, Hackley says that he has no plans to slow down, now:
“I’m still inventing stuff. I have a couple of products that are coming out that are going to change the industry that I have patents on for Blaze. I love inventing and making products and I love selling products. What I’ve learned is that if you build it yourself and sell it yourself, you’re going to make more money. That’s where the grills came from. Now we design patio furniture and we put it under our own name and trademark it. I’m in the middle of buying a fireplace company. I’m going to come out with my own fireplace gas logs, fireplaces, fire pits, fire glass, and fire rings. I have some Blaze cookware coming out. You have to come out with your own brands to stay competitive, online.”
Finally, Hackley has this advice for other businesspeople, regardless of the products they sell:
“If you are a storefront, you must have an internet site. And you must invest in your technology to move forward because the internet is a living, breathing organism and you have to keep up with the technologies if you want to succeed. You have to step up your game on customer service. Because of the internet, in this day and time, customers are demanding more than they’ve ever demanded from a brick and mortar. So, don’t fight the internet; grasp the internet. It’s here to stay and if you don’t do it, you will end up being left behind, and fail.”
And that’s the story.
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AT A GLANCE
WHAT: An online retailer of outdoor home and entertainment products
WHERE: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Napoleon Grills – Napoleon Grills is North America’s largest, privately-owned manufacturer of gas, propane, charcoal and infrared grills, outdoor fireplaces, and outdoor living products. The company was founded in Barrie, Ontario, Canada in 1976, by Wolfgang Schroeter and began as Wolf Steel Ltd., a fabrication business that manufactured steel railings. Today, the company supplies wood and gas fireplaces (inserts and stoves), gourmet gas and charcoal grills, outdoor living products, heating and cooling products, and grilling accessories. It is ISO9001 registered, and its 1,000 employees operate out of a 1,200,000 square foot, manufacturing facility. – www.napoleongrills.com
RH Peterson Co. – RH Peterson Co. is a manufacturer of quality gas grills and accessories, gas logs for fireplaces, firefalls, firetables, fire bowls, firepits, and fire urns, and stainless steel burner systems. The company employs over 200 people who work out of a 260,000 square foot facility in the City of Industry, California. – www.rhpeterson.com