Innovator makes social-media marketing a snap for small shops

| Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ted Teele was running the nation's biggest giftware wholesale company two years ago when he realized that many of his customers were behind the times: Retailers weren't getting promotional messages to consumers quickly.

Owners of small shops filled with items ranging from jewelry to decorative photo frames and cutting boards talked in focus group meetings about how "everything was changing around them," Teele said. "Marketing and retailing were changing, and social media was evolving into things like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter."

Big retailers had begun reaching out to customers via social media sites, but small retailers were not. Seeing a need to help thousands of independent retailers keep pace, despite limited time and staff, Teele formed SnapRetail Inc. and created software that owners of independent stores could use to send messages to customers with ease.

SnapRetail was one of three companies created with Teele's Atlanta-based wholesaler, OneCoast Network LLC, split into three companies on Dec. 31, 2009. The other companies, HomeStyle Inc. and Ivystone Inc., still sell to retailers.

Teele boasts that SnapRetail's digital marketing system has an 18-month head start over competitors in the business of helping independent retailers promote products easily on the Web. "Whoever is the lead is likely to be the big winner," he said.

So far, 550 retailers subscribe to SnapRetail's TrafficBuilder digital marketing system, and dozens of major merchandise brands such as Yankee Candle and Vera Bradley work with the Churchill-based company. Entrepreneur magazine listed SnapRetail among "100 Brilliant Companies" in last month's issue.

"It's made a huge difference," said Amy Hollifield, at The Gift Box in rural Gray, Tenn., which has used TrafficBuilder since March. Hollifield handles "all the computer stuff" for the store.

Here's how it works: Hollifield starts with a TrafficBuilder digital template -- a holiday, special sale or other theme. She adds photos of items The Gift Box sells and customizes descriptions, prices and other details. Then, with one mouse click, she can send it as an e-mail to a list of customers and post it to Facebook and Twitter.

Customers "seem to come in, right after they see it" and usually buy more than one item, she said. "We tried doing this ourselves," she said, "and it was just too hard."

Social media sites are ideally suited to small retailers, who tend to be the "fabric of their communities," as Teele calls them --and they're getting a boost from the "buy local" trend, he said.

TrafficBuilder users pay $99 a month to use the system to send online promotions. Merchandisers who supply retailers with products use it at no cost, so far. But SnapRetail hopes to finalize deals so that the merchandise vendors will pay a monthly fee to provide their top retailers with the TrafficBuilder system. So far, 91 vendors use TrafficBuilder.

Accessories entrepreneur Lindsay Phillips signed on early with SnapRetail.

"He's such an industry leader and is always on the forefront of concepts and technology," she said.

When she was 16, Phillips came up with the idea for a flip-flop sandal with interchangeable straps. Now 26, Phillips runs a New Jersey-based company that sells her SwitchFlops and other items to 3,500 retailers, mainly small gift shops. Through SnapRetail, stores can show her items online in a consistent way that's right for her brand, Phillips said.

Phillips' shoes sit atop several office cubicles at SnapRetail, where the work force of 55 likely will keep growing, Teele said.

He seeks out "very bright, highly ambitious people" and stresses trust and respect when hiring. He wants to build a global company in Pittsburgh, centered on helping independent retailers.

SnapRetail sends a twice-monthly newsletter, the Snap Advisor, to 68,000 retailers. Its website features a Marketplace section, a virtual showroom where about 40,000 registered retailers can order merchandise. Sales there totaled about $7 million last year.

Along with TrafficBuilder, the company has developed other products:

• Snap-in-A Box, e-mails that ask store owners if they'd like to post online messages about items, with photos and product descriptions.

• SnapFinds, described as the small retailers' answer to Groupon. Stores are testing the discount deals system.

The company is adding partners, such as a deal announced last month with the Association for Christian Retail. TrafficBuilder and special training will be marketed to about 1,000 Christian stores at a July conference in Atlanta.

Teele arrived in Pittsburgh in 1989 after graduating from Harvard Business School. He helped to found Internet startup Industry.Net and built its national sales team. Later, he became president of software firm Serviceware Inc. and started Aceda LLC with his wife, marketing consultant Suzy Teele.

Through Aceda, he ran a few companies that were seeking CEOs, before landing for eight years at OneCoast.

"I loved the industry. This is a very warm business," he said.

Additional Information:

About SnapRetail

Headquarters: George Westinghouse Research Park, Churchill

Employees: 55

Products: Digital marketing system to aid independent gift and home products retailers

Annual sales: $2 million in 2010; projection for $5 million this year.

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