Migrating a Fourth-Generation, Family-Owned Business Online
Moving from traditional retail to ecommerce success
Within the last five years, outdoor gear company Sherper’s has gone from less than one percent of its business revenue coming from ecommerce to now having a 50/50 split between in-store and online. And for this fourth-generation family business, that move to online has been both challenging and rewarding.
As an old-school mom and pop business, Sherper’s has always prided itself on building personal relationships with customers and providing a level of customer service you won’t find with the big guys or digitally-native companies.
“We’ve always been small,” Nathan Scherper, the President of Sherper’s says. “We’ve been that small mom and pop shop, but able to do things that maybe some small mom and pop shops can’t do. But I’ve always had that mentality where we know customers’ names, we can go out of our way for customers. I think that’s been one of the biggest things for us — we’ve stayed true to who we are over the 86 years of business.”
So finding a way to build a digital experience that allowed Sherper’s to scale its operation yet maintain a personal touch was a top priority for the company. Leading the way in that journey was Scherper himself, who has come a long way from cleaning toilets for the family business when he was just 12 years old.
When Scherper joined the company full-time in 2015, it was still almost completely reliant on in-store purchases. The move toward a more digital future took some time — and courage.
“We were pretty much strictly retail — I think we were doing like 0.01% on ecommerce,” Scherper says, “We had a website, there were a couple items up there. But it really wasn’t a focus just because it was going to be a huge investment. … We really got to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, I think if nothing else, we need a website that shows the product that we carry in the stores because for the local people, that’s where they’re going to first, especially for big-ticket items, like a kayak or a tent. They might not be buying it online, but they’re going to research it online before they come into the store.’ For me that was the first step, is we at least need to get the shelves stocked on the website and show the product that we have. Once I realized that could be step one, and if we sold 20 more kayaks a year, it was going to be worth the investment that we put into it, I hired somebody full time for the website and I’ve never looked back from there.”
The way Sherper’s started to win online was by finding niche areas to play in and unique products to offer that would bring buyers to the website. From there, it was about showing off that small business personal touch to ensure they would keep coming back.
“I think the big thing is again the customer service piece of it,” Scherper says. “Our ecommerce team is two people, so you’re going to get somebody who knows what they’re talking about. They’ve been with the company for a long time now. If there’s an issue, sometimes it gets bubbled up to me and I’m actually dealing with the customer. It’s still that there’s a face to the name when you’re dealing with us, and I think people appreciate that. If you look at our Google reviews, anything that has to do with online, they’re like, ‘Wow. I was actually able to talk to a person. I was actually able to talk to a person who had used this tent. I was actually able to talk to a person who could fix my issue.’ I always want to stay in that sweet spot where we’re still that small local family owned and operated, I think no matter how big we get online, that has to still be there. And I think if we were ever sacrificing that for volume, we would lose part of our competitive advantage. I don’t think I would ever want to do that.”
Sherper’s has thrived in the sweet spot it has created, and Scherper has gone all-in on making sure that the family-friendly reputation stays intact no matter what. One reason for that is because he is predicting a major boom for businesses like Sherper’s as the world continues to bounce back from the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to see a boom when everybody feels like it’s safe to go back out and shop again,” he says. “I think maybe people aren’t going to go back to Walmart or Walgreens or those places quite as much because they learned they can buy online and get their necessities there. But I think the like, ‘Oh, it’s a nice sunny Saturday, let’s go shopping in one of our towns and hop around and go eat at the local restaurant.’ I think we’re going to see a resurgence of that too. So I think some of the more mom-and-pop, small, downtown, middle America stores are going to see a little bit of a resurgence.”
To hear more about Sherper’s, tune in to Scherper’s interview on Up Next in Commerce.
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