Category Archives: geeks

Case Study: American Science & Surplus

Identifying Opportunities: American Science & Surplus

Robin Heintz

Examining the online marketing presence of American Science & Surplus (sciplus.com); and looking for strengths and weaknesses in their approach.

The company’s product mix is unique and ever changing. According to their site:

“American Science & Surplus continues to offer a unique mix of industrial, military and educational items, with an emphasis on science and education. We supply a wide range of unusual and hard to find items (some say bizarre stuff) to the hobbiest, tinkerer, artist, experimenter, home educator, do-it-yourselfer, and bargain hunter.”

American Science & Surplus shares a brief company history on their “About Us” page. ( http://www.sciplus.com/AboutUs ) I’ll summarize:

The company remains at its core a family business model. Founded in 1937, the company ownership has turned over only a few times. These turnovers occurred due to inheritance, the death of a partner, the retirement of owners, or a straight sale. The company was held by two generations of the same family from 1937-1988. After the 1988 death of the family son, his partner bought out the company. By that time, they were already selling through a print catalog and through two retail stores.

In 1991, a third retail outlet store was opened. (There were now two in the Chicago area and one in Milwaukee.) These stores are in addition to a print catalog. The company launched their first web site in 1995, revamped it in 1999, and began taking online orders.

Ownership changed again in 2000, and in 2012 the current owner – a former employee and the purchasing manager – took the reins.

Online Presence:

Deals are posted on retailmenot.com, but they are all of the “Take 65% off clearance – no coupon code necessary” variety – in other words, they do not offer additional discounts through retailmenot that are above and beyond their standard pricing and discounting model.

Googling AS&S brings up many reviews and recommendations for visiting their brick and mortar stores in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. Apparently, they are quite popular as shopping and vacation destination for geeks and toy lovers of all stripes.

Looking over their website, I find icons for Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t see any other media outlets. I do follow the company on both of these forums, and they do maintain a presence on both sites: posting less than once daily on Facebook and two to three posts a day on Twitter.

On Facebook AS&S has 7,722 page “Likes”, which is a respectable number, especially considering the frequency and content of their newsfeed. Posts by AS&S occur almost every other day, with 41 posts in total in the 90 day period from 9/1/14 through 11/30/14.

In my opinion, a daily post (or even two) would be more effective. Also, if you look at the content posted, you will find many posts are simply a photo (or drawing) of a product, a page from a retro 1986-1987 catalog, or a staff snapshot. One of the most popular posts in the time period I studied was a costume contest that pitted associates of their three stores against one another. I think it is likely that the many posts and shares this generated were the result of employee, rather than consumer, interest. In general, their content is very “push” oriented and does not create an interactive online presence. (See attached chart.)

Twitter followers of AS&S number 1,384 – considerably fewer than their Facebook fans. However, the social media focus seems to be on Twitter: Sept posts – 37, Oct posts – 49, Nov posts – 39; making a total of 125 Twitter posts in the same three month time period as the 41 posts to Facebook.

Rationale for the Twitter bias likely falls to a combination of things. With a consumer base that is tech-savvy, an assumption could be made that Twitter is a much more mobile and “hip” media. Also, posting to Twitter for the Social Media Manager would be easy, with an interface that is very mobile-friendly. However, I feel that they are short-changing a large cache of followers on Facebook to report to a following on Twitter that is only 18% as large. I would strongly suggest devoting some thought to the possibility of a contest or game with the goal of converting some of the Facebook followers into Twitter followers. I would also encourage consumer interaction with more open-ended questions, mystery product postings, and a drive to have users share their AS&S creations.

Youtube results show about 153 results under American Science &Surplus, and there are 35 that appear when searching sciplus.com. The top-of-page results are store commercials, with product and consumer videos following. They do not appear to have their own channel. Given the explosion of “Makerspaces” and the availability of DIY-focused video tutorial sites, it seems that AS&S is missing the opportunity to educate as they push product. The quality of their commercials is pretty kitschy, but not over-the-top enough to create a viral video sensation.

It is one thing to push product, but when you are pushing product that needs explanation, you will sell more units to an educated audience. Many of the videos found online, including 29 DIY videos at Instructables.com, are consumer-created. The consumer is showing the company what they want… but will the company listen?

The company needs to create links to Instructables, the creation of an online forum or Makerspace discussion board, YouTube product demos, etc. These interactive channels will build awareness and sell product without the need to push sales.

The followers of AS&S tend to be techies (and teachers) and I think that they would respond well to online marketing appeals and gamification. The kitsch-factor needs to be amped up as well, and sharing updates and news items that are pertinent to their consumer base (such as NASA mission updates and Comicon news) would also be recommended.

If AS&S does not look to the example set by other major players in marketing to the tech crowd (such as ThinkGeek), they are going to see losses in the catalog/online order arena. Community-building is the takeaway here. While their brick and mortar stores may be well supported, they are not exploiting interactive social media opportunities to their advantage.

 

AS&S Facebook Activity 9/1/2014 – 11/30/2014
Date Description Likes Comments Shares
9/1/14 Product Video 5 0 0
9/2/14 Staff Photos 34 2 0
9/4/14 Product Video 12 0 0
9/17/14 Product Listing 32 10 0
9/23/14 Product Listing 18 1 0
9/25/14 Halloween Items 21 2 0
10/2/14 Customer Video 7 2 2
10/3/14 Product Listing 46 4 3
10/5/14 1986 Catalog 14 1 0
10/6/14 Staff Costumes 29 98 32
10/8/14 Join Email 14 2 0
10/9/14 Product Listing 9 0 1
10/9/14 Costume Contest 8 0 0
10/10/14 Shared Takei Joke 13 0 0
10/16/14 Product Video 69 6 16
10/18/14 1986 Catalog 13 0 0
10/20/14 Joke 46 5 11
10/25/14 1986 Catalog 9 0 0
10/28/14 Product Listing 10 2 0
10/29/14 Product Video 66 5 16
10/31/14 Halloween Photo 64 3 1
11/2/14 Product Video 16 0 0
11/3/14 Product Video 12 1 0
11/4/14 Election Day Discount 0 0 0
11/6/14 Product Photo 21 6 0
11/8/14 1987 Catalog 19 0 0
11/9/14 Product Photo 23 1 3
11/10/14 Product Video 58 8 14
11/11/14 Product Photo 26 2 1
11/15/14 1987 Catalog 13 0 0
11/18/14 Product Video 30 2 1
11/20/14 Product Photo 32 5 2
11/21/14 In-Store Sale 13 0 1
11/22/14 Join Mail List 16 3 0
11/23/14 1987 Catalog 10 1 0
11/25/14 Product Photo 21 7 1
11/26/14 Product Photo 10 0 0
11/27/14 Happy Thanksgiving 18 2 0
11/28/14 Thanksgiving Photo 58 0 0
11/29/14 Free Shipping 193 7 23
11/30/14 1987 Catalog 20 2 2
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