Is It Worth Selling Millwork Online?

Thoughts and advice (pro and con) about starting a lumber and millwork e-commerce website. November 14, 2014

Our company is thinking about launching an eCommerce site for our lumber and millwork. Has anyone tried this? Does anyone have any success stories or not so successful stories to share? One of our local competitors started an online store but doesn't deliver. You would have to go to the store and pick it up. I think we could up it by offering to deliver the items (set a minimum amount and distance) and extending the online purchasing a little further. I think it would be good to offer some of our standard/most popular millwork for online purchasing. For those who do not live in the area, we would ship. I just wanted to see what others have done and how successful they were. I'd like to just stick a toe in the eCommerce world before we jump right in.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
I have an order for 1.25" walnut. It needs to be minimum 8" wide with no sapwood. Iím willing to wait a week, so if you've got some rough lumber coming in soon, I'm willing to wait a few days. Is it really easier for me to place that order online versus picking up the phone? Even if you create the coolest ecommerce site ever that takes into account all the nuances of ordering lumber, I still see no advantage for me as a customer to place that order online in terms of time saved or risk that the order is completed correctly. I think you're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole because it's a fun project to do.

From Contributor R:
I can't speak to the complexity or nuances of your products, but I have to disagree with Contributor J. There are many advantages to selling online, which is why so many products, even complex ones, are now sold that way. The reality is that people are used to ecommerce, and even expect to be able to purchase that way. They can order online, nights, weekends, etc. rather than wait for you to be open and available. So I'd encourage you to start the process. In the beginning you might verify each order with a call back, or at least the complex ones, but eventually you will learn what works.

From contributor M:
I think that unless you have a special product, you either have to play big or not at all. This has the potential to be an inverse example of the brick and mortar vs. online shop phenomenon where folks quality shop at physical sites, then go online to price shop and buy. You'd create a nice current database of products and prices to inform your competition of how to edge you out. This could be a great way to sell directly to home owners who feel like they don't have access to for the trade type suppliers, but would probably drive away your commercial business. So, more small orders at a higher price and lower return.

From contributor I:
I'm with Contributor J. If I'm ordering 500 bd ft of 4/4 FAS white oak, I'm picking up the phone. If I'm buying a $1000 claro walnut natural edge slab, I want high quality pictures of both sides. The pictures of those specialty pieces will eat up your profit or be a cause for higher markup. An ecommerce sight might almost add another employee to just do that. Still worth the effort - your call.

From Contributor C:
I am a furniture designer/maker with 35 years of experience, and from my own experience I think you are heading in the right direction. I buy all my lumber from commercial suppliers all on-line! Now as a shop with four makers and an all custom business model we are not buying 50,000 bf at a time but we generally do keep in the neighborhood of 3-5,000 bf of each of the species we use most and typically will have 15 -20,000 on hand in total. I work with several lumber suppliers and all of them have working on-line capacities. We've found that when ordering if we supply accompanying notes on our needs they will pick and pull what we need, for example if we need lumber widths of a specific dimension say 5" for roughing out parts they will pull boards that are at or near 5, 10 or 15" so we can minimize waste.

I'd say if you don't upgrade your site, that in two-five years when all of us old farts have retired and the younger guys are taking our businesses over or starting their own you will be done for, because they won't bother to call you! They will simply jump on their smart phone, tablet or laptop and buy from your online competitors without ever even looking in your direction. Maybe we all don't like to look at the future but we'd better be willing to if we expect to be in business in five years. Things are a changing. We have made this change and we now sell all over the country instead of just with the interior designers and architects in our region. It's been a big source of new clientele for us. Follow your heart on this project, you won't be sorry if you go into it knowing that some things will work and others won't. With a good solid web designer you should both be able to build a dynamite site but also you should get a great deal of insight into what has worked for other firms and maybe most importantly what hasn't worked.

From contributor M:
Sorry, I was jumping around a bit. I am referring to a common phenomenon in how folks buy shoes, sporting goods, electronics, etc., and suggesting that small scale online lumber sales might have an opposite utility (that doesn't benefit the online supplier.) The devil's always in the details, but I'm really just suggesting that I can see this idea working well in two ways: with a specialty product, or with a common product and a jam-up user interface. Sticking a toe in doesn't seem to be a recipe for success.

From contributor J:
To contributor M: I get your point now. You're saying that if you put up an online store for a small lumber operation that doesn't have the scale to offer prices that can't be matched locally, that all you'd be doing is being the first place customers go to find baseline pricing, before they go elsewhere to actually buy. That makes sense. I think I would go ahead with an online store, but be very wary about whether it's a net positive or negative.

From Contributor Y:
The great thing about online channels these days is that it's really a low cost to experiment. Success is about a lot of little bets. Try a lot of things, see what works, and put more resources into the things that do. If you're thinking about an online store don't pay thousands for a custom solution.

Once the online store is up, tell customers that they can also order online for convenience. When they try it, ask how they like it and what would make it better. The idea here is that with marketing nobody really knows what's going to work since every situation is unique. If something if cheap enough, why not try it? So always look for the least expensive way to try something (called a minimum viable product or MVP), try it out, and iterate to make it better. If it doesn't work out at least you learned something and it didn't cost much.