Ace casts a wider Net: The co-op improves its Web site’s design and functionality

When Laura Pallay of Hillsborough, N.J., was looking for a new outdoor fireplace on the Internet, she found a resource she hadn’t thought of before—her local Ace Hardware store.

She discovered a gas model she liked on the site, ordered it and saved what would have been pricey shipping by picking it up at the store, which was less than eight minutes away. Lucky for Ace, she also made other purchases while in the store.

That’s the game plan for Ace’s new Web site, which was relaunched in February 2007. The goal at Ace is to have the Web presence fully support the Ace brand. Even when purchases are made online, the goal is to drive shoppers to the local stores. Consumer dollars spent online flow into the local dealers’ pocket. The Web site has been especially popular for large high-ticket purchases. Pallay’s fireplace, for example, retailed for $899.99.

“We want to keep people with the brand whether they buy online, or it drives them to a store,” said Dana Kevish, e-commerce marketing manager for Ace. “We offer a multichannel relationship.”

A positive discovery has been that shoppers do use Ace for purchases that can’t always be stocked day to day in the stores. “We find that many consumers do buy large items such as fire pits and patio furniture—not just items like hammers,” explained Kevish. Incremental sales come from the fact that many consumers opt to pick up the purchase in the store where they grab impulse needs, too.

The free in-store pick up is, of course, a major benefit, but more people are also using the easy-to-navigate site to research models and to seek advice. As part of the redesign in conjunction with e-commerce vendor partner GSI, consumers have found easier to navigate.

Ace’s site attracts between 45,000 and 50,000 visitors per day, and it is hitting the goal of attracting shoppers to nearby stores, with about 20 percent using the store locator key. One advantage enjoyed by Ace over many other merchants with Web sites feeding to local units is that Ace’s network of dealers offer a location within five miles of 64 percent of the American population. In the Hillsborough, area, for example, Pallay found eight dealers less than 30 minutes away from her home when she was in the market for her fireplace.

Kevish is confident the existence of the site doesn’t cannibalize from store volume. Ace surveys show about 35 percent of those who bought online purchased additional items in the store.

Ace first launched its Web site in 2003. Although the original had many of the features of today’s incarnation, consumers find it easier to use in its new form. The revitalization was planned to help Ace catch up with advancements that have been made in e-commerce. “We wanted to get back on par with the industry and represent the brand better and bring the local store to life,” she said.

Navigating is easy in its new format, which features category banners including lawn and garden, outdoor living, paint, home goods, tools, electrical, heating and cooling, auto and featured departments. “Projects & Solutions,” a component of the old design, are better highlighted, and plans call to even further tweak that in 2008. There are project videos, frequently asked questions and learning aids and even a section with questions personally answered by Ace’s expert Lou Manfredini. A recent question was from a DIYer in Avenel, N.J., who wanted to know how he could fix tiles he just put down that moved when he walked on them. Kevish said Manfredini personally provides the answers—a nice touch to personalize the Web experience. There are also seasonal departments, which recently featured back-to-campus and tailgating.

Kevish said categories feature top seller lists. “When you are talking about 35,000 to 40,000 stock keeping units, you need a way to call them to shoppers’ attention,” she said.

In just the last few months, Ace integrated its rewards program so that points for online purchases are linked to the store. She said many of the features, such as questions and answers, are intended to spur frequent visits to the site. And the local store can become part of a shoppers’ home page.

Like most retailers still building the virtual store, Kevish wants to see a higher conversion rate of visitors to sales. Terming sales “a little behind projections,” she said she’s pleased with the day-to-day growth of conversions.