CMS tool helps HobbyTown glue together disparate websites

HobbyTown USA relaunched its online portal using Ektron's CMS tool to control its brand, improve business and ensure that its Web content management strategy satisfied users, customers and owners.

With products represented one way online and another in its franchise stores, not to mention availability and pricing discrepancies between the corporate and franchise websites, HobbyTown USA realized it had a content management problem on its hands two years ago so started shopping for a new CMS tool.

“We had an e-commerce platform, but we didn’t have a [content management system],” said Dave Stanley, director of Web development and business intelligence for HobbyTown USA in Lincoln, Neb.

HobbyTown, which sells Estes rockets, Revell plastic models, games, microrobotics supplies and radio-controlled miniature vehicles, couldn't ensure any manner of control over its national branding or online experience without a real content management system (CMS). The problem was, the retailer sells online as well as in 150 independent franchises across the country.

As the 2010 holiday season approached, HobbyTown realized it needed a new CMS tool to make sure the stock and pricing information disseminated on its Web portal kept up with continual changes from independently operated stores.

HobbyTown’s franchises handle its own stocking and fulfillment, while the corporation decides how products are represented online. The company had a website with an e-commerce capability, but many franchises also developed sites of their own. That led to pricing and availability discrepancies, and HobbyTown started hearing about customer disappointment and franchisee frustration, Stanley said.

At the time, the company was using CampusHub, a local e-commerce product for college bookstores in Lincoln. But without a dedicated Web content management system, each time the company wanted to make a change online, it had to go through CampusHub, said Dave Nolte, director of software development for HobbyTown USA.

“One of the biggest issues was that there were many parts of the program that were in their control -- how data was being handled and the general appearance of the way product information was presented,” he said. “That was a problem because we have to respond to our franchise store owners in a timely manner.”

The company wanted to present a consistent brand identity across all franchise websites, tell customers what products were available in what stores and ensure correct pricing and that each store’s state tax regulations were being followed.

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It had to knock out the discrepancies while giving its stores the freedom to manage their own websites.

HobbyTown’s website designer, Planet Propaganda in Madison, Wis., made some CMS recommendations, and the two Daves -- Stanley and Nolte -- started developing a Web content management (WCM) strategy that would enable integration between one general portal and 100 e-commerce sites.

A WCM evaluation narrowed the choices to Ektron, GSI Commerce, Magento and Vipa Solutions. In the end, Ektron proved it had the flexibility HobbyTown was looking for. It also combined an e-commerce platform with a CMS its staff could operate. “Pretty quickly we saw that it was going to give us the necessary capability,” Nolte said.

HobbyTown began an implementation with Ektron in Nashua, N.H., in February last year. Two HobbyTown developers worked with two Ektron developers, a product manager and a department manager. A larger Ektron team came together when an issue like data interpretation from the legacy system cropped up. Other issues included integrating the e-commerce capability with PayPal to coordinate more than 100 brick-and-mortar stores and making sure the right taxes applied to the correct sale -- depending on shipping locations and destinations.

After seven to eight weeks of testing with only partial tables of sample data, HobbyTown deployed the WCM system last July and started managing nightly stock and pricing updates from all its stores.

“When we rolled over to Ektron it was a midnight rollover, and of course there were some issues, but they switched horses midstream with us very well,” Nolte said. Those issues largely had to do with immediate changes to stocks in stores and changes to website images, but the new Ektron WCM portal team adapted quickly.

The CMS, version 8.02, runs on a local server while the full HobbyTown portal site runs on astaging server and two production servers with ServerSide, a website hosting service in Fishers, Ind.

“Each individual store is different in the way they market themselves,” Stanley said, “so just giving them the ability to get in and manage their own content was something that was super important to us. Now they can do that.”  

Some store owners maintain sites, while others don’t want to be bothered. In the case of the latter, HobbyTown corporate manages a Web presence for them.

Stanley said the new CMS tool gives the company a better opportunity to define and maintain its own corporate brand. And while some franchise owners would rather have more online independence, most who work with the new portal are pleased, he said.

So is HobbyTown corporate.

Since the new CMS has been operating, the company Web portal has had a 50% increase in transactions, a 35% increase in conversion rates and a 12% hike in overall site traffic through the first quarter of this year.

This was first published in April 2012

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