By Patricia Sanford
I began my career at a large advertising company before heading to the Cigna Corporation where I spearheaded the computer purchasing and repair division. After a few years, I found myself designing for customers directly and felt as though I would be better suited managing my own business. I channeled this entrepreneurial spirit into Alexander Perry Inc., which I founded in May of 1992 in Philadelphia, and I’ve been based there ever since.
Alexander Perry initially started out as a full-service design firm, working for a broad range of clients, from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Marriott Convention Center Hotel. However, in 2001, we branched into project management, furniture purchasing and installation, and then eventually transitioned into construction and energy management. As I expanded into these new business areas and engaged with more types of customers with varying business goals, I realized that one of my clients’ most prominent needs was not being readily met: an easy way to search for and purchase corporate interior products. This realization led me to expand Alexander Perry into ecommerce, selling goods like office products, furniture, high-end beverage ice makers, routers, IT accessories and security cameras. Now, we not only offer customers a full range of design services, but a robust offering of products to outfit their corporate buildings as well.
Over my past two and a half decades as a small business owner, I’ve learned a few lessons on how to reach new customers and markets, while maintaining a streamlined business.
Consider ‘unconventional’ customers and markets
In our formative years, Alexander Perry’s primary customer base was corporate clients, as they are typically reliable, big-ticket purchasers, for example Comcast, Boeing, Marriott, and more. While the company was hugely successful serving this market, I didn’t want to rest on my laurels, so I sought new market potential by targeting an “out-of-the-box” industry – the government. According to the Small Business Administration, of the estimated $500 million the government spends on contracts each year, 23% of those funds are allocated to small businesses. Even so, a lot of small businesses don’t consider engaging with the government as it can feel daunting to enter unfamiliar territory. This fear is not unfounded. Reaching government customers through traditional channels is hard and costly for a small business owner and the process is often riddled with requirements that are difficult to understand, follow and track. This is especially true for a resource-strapped small businesses, and is the primary reason why we turned to Amazon Business’ credentialed seller program to engage with state and federal government agencies. The process to submit for seller credentials as a woman and minority-owned business through Amazon Business was easy, with a lot less documentation required than other certifications we’ve applied for previously. Becoming a credentialed seller has effectively removed the barriers to entry and made our company more discoverable for large corporations and government customers who are looking to find and buy from small business sellers, like Alexander Perry.
The public sector offers a wealth of opportunity with local, state, and federal government contracts specifically designed for small businesses. And it’s not just product-focused SMBs that stand to gain. Service-based SMBs can also lend their skills to government entities. For example, at Alexander Perry we previously secured a contract with the US Department of State for construction management and we are poised to conduct business with the Army and Navy. Engaging with government entities such as these offer consistent contracts that translate to a steady stream of revenue for small businesses.
Explore your digital options for business
Given that Alexander Perry was founded pre-.com boom, we were primarily a “boots on the ground” operation in terms of sales and marketing. In order to be successful, our team attended every networking event, spending most of our precious time and resources at conferences. We quickly found that while one-on-one customer relationships are always going to be important, our team needed a new way to reach customers at scale.
In order to achieve broader brand awareness, we migrated to a hybrid sales approach and began incorporating online tools, like Amazon Business’ marketplace, to reach new customers nationwide. A marketplace was a new territory for us so we signed up for Amazon’s Seller University that helped to demystify selling on Amazon Business and offered training that covered marketing, seller tips, and best practices for listing our products. This not only helped to get us up and running more quickly but freed up time for our team to focus on what’s really important – providing quality products and ensuring our customers are happy.
While a company-owned local presence will always serve a purpose for our small business, Amazon Business has enabled Alexander Perry to rapidly expand nationally, all while remaining in our home base.
You’re only as good as your supply chain
It is mission critical to perfect your business’ supply chain logistics before ramping up marketing and sales efforts that result in new customers. I can attest to this, but only after a few hard lessons learned when we weren’t able to fulfill customer orders in a timely and efficient manner.
Before launching any new e-commerce channels, it’s important to properly audit your inventory and be prepared to have your products out the door as soon the orders came in. This may sound elementary but it is much different in practice than theory. When we first launched on Amazon Business, orders were being placed so quickly that we exceeded our capacity to fulfill them and ended up backlogged. Now, with tools like the Fulfillment by Amazon, we are able to meet the rigorous delivery requirements expected by both our corporate and government customers.
Additionally, finalizing your company’s product availability, pricing, discounts, and return policy is vital before launching any new online storefront. What has worked best for was to hire an Integration company to automate the purchase order, delivery and order process for Amazon customers instead of manually processing orders one by one, which proved to be time intensive and logistically complicated. Now, with an integration company that connects with each of our vendors and integrates them into our e-commerce system, we have much less coordination issues in our supply chain. Because of our improved operations we can consistently stock between 500 and 700 items and sometimes top out at over 1,000 products, when previously we listed a maximum of 300 items.
Another key component of your supply chain are your employees. A strong team is paramount to success in navigating the federal, state, local government contracts and corporate sales relationships. These relationships are complex, so we ensure that we constantly have a team of skilled experts that are knowledgeable about everything that matters to our customers from sustainability and energy savings initiatives to operational needs of government agencies.
It’s not easy for small business owners to uncover new markets and customers on their own, and often we don’t even know these markets exist. Exploring your options through the use of an online marketplace or government contracts can give you access to thousands of new customers and diversify the way you are generating revenue and increase your bottom line, which is the key to your success.
Pat Alexander Sanford is the Principal and Founder of Alexander Perry, Inc. Ms. Sanford has over 26 years experience assisting clients with a broad range of design challenges, from multipurpose facilities to corporate, hospitality, medical and educational facilities, bridging the gap between interior architecture and interior design. Previously, Ms. Sanford worked for Cigna Corporation’s executive team to create new technology to spearhead corporate goals and initiatives, and also managed the Penn Mutual Cyber Security department.