Tag Archives: marketing

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

Geofencing: Pinpoint Marketing at Work


Geofencing is a term I wasn’t familiar with until recently. It refers to a marketer setting an invisible “fence” or boundary within which they are able to target consumers. To many people, this may feel very stalker-ish. Really though, it is a logical extension of consumer profiling.

Long ago, when I worked at a catalog company, we would order lists of names to mail our catalogs to. We had the “ideal customer” profile created and we were careful to select people that closely matched that criteria. It was a gardening catalog. Not surprisingly, the largest part of our clients were over 35 years old, homeowners, with pets. They had some post-high school education, an active concern for our environment, incomes over $50K, and were creative/crafty. They lived in suburban and rural settings, rather than urban cities. All logical, right? All easy to specify when ordering mailing lists. She subscribes to Country Living magazine and lives in Ohio? Sounds perfect.

Then came the digital age. Not only were we able to sort by your current subscriptions or hobbies, now we were able to rent your names from companies like Amazon. They know that you buy outdoor gear and doggie toys… the Sierra Club has you on their web membership… more and more information sources are feeding your profile.

As if the data mining weren’t enough, along comes Foursquare and other similar companies. Now, instead of the marketers finding you, you are finding THEM. You check in wherever you go: movies, restaurants, stores. As a thank you gift, you get a free bucket of popcorn at the show. You get to see which of your friends might also be there. You can read reviews. You get valuable coupons. YOU are asking for these benefits by checking in. You also get the opportunity to become the Mayor of Dunkin’ Donuts. (Huzzah!)

So it only makes sense that marketers are continuing forward with the pinpoint marketing trend. I don’t have a smartphone, but I am assuming that there are some rather large info. clearinghouses that seek permission to use the geolocation of your phone when you download their “free” apps. (They’ll make plenty off of your data, don’t worry.) Once they’re in, you are on the radar. (Can you opt out of this Mike?)

I know it is a little creepy, but I doubt that it is going anywhere any time soon. It’s a natural consequence of our connected world – and as a marketer, it’s damnably exciting too. It all goes back to the cost of doing business and the profile that will convert into a sale.


Stalking the wild online retailer

robin grass

Stalking the wild online retailer: The marketing assessment case study project is an interesting one, and with the amount of stalking that we need to do, I wanted to be sure that I chose wisely. Decisions, decisions! Let’s wade in:

I narrowed my possible companies down to three. These were chosen very scientifically, based on the fact that I like them, find they have quality products, and admire their company “voices”. That’s all. Like I used to tell my kids: “It’s just because I say so.”

1. http://www.thinkgeek.com/ 
ThinkGeek is an amazingly fun company, with Timmy the Monkey as its mascot. They specialize in all things geeky, featuring many different fandoms, including: Star Wars, Star Trek, gaming, tech support, Princess Bride, D&D, etc. (I am an old-school geek and proud of it.) In addition to their print catalogs, they also make strong appearances at Comic Con and other venues.

The upside of studying ThinkGeek (in addition to an excuse for shopping), is that they have a very strong online presence. Their website is great, plus I follow them on Facebook and Twitter. They blog, they have a youtube channel, they offer discounts on couponing sites… their clients tend to be pretty tech savvy, so the ThinkGeek web team makes sure they are very visible. They also work to make two-way communication easy with live chats and newsletters, geek haiku contests, t-shirt design submissions, online commentary on any product, Amazon product cross-marketing, etc.

In fact, it was the massive amount of online information that made me eliminate them from consideration. I wanted a company with more holes in their marketing plan. I wanted to be able to create a plan with new avenues to exploit.

2. http://www.kingarthurflour.com/
King Arthur Flour is a high-end source for baking supplies and equipment. Flour, yeasts and bread starters, loaf pans, cookie molds… all good things for making good things. The really cool thing about King Arthur is that their product copy is written by people that are bakers. When I receive a catalog, I study it and keep it for future reference. (There are recipes among the product listings.) To say I am a fan of this company is a bit of an understatement. My family and I went to their store in on vacation – it is located very close to Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot Cheese, and several excellent maple-syrup operations. Essentially, we ate our way across the state of Vermont.

Online, they are on Facebook and Twitter. Their emails come regularly, encouraging product sales and providing seasonal recipes. They are not top-of-page in Google when you search “baking supplies”, so they could perhaps stand to do some work on their SEO. There are some opportunities here, but I’m just not sure…

This is tough… I’m honestly torn between #2 and #3.

3. http://www.sciplus.com/
American Science & Surplus – Oddball overstocks with a scientific bent. Can you tell I love copywriting? It’s true, I think the voice a company chooses is core to their success. I especially like friendly, casual, collaborative text. AS&S creates copy that makes me smile. Sometimes, a product really makes no sense… and they come right out and say, “Need a pressure cuff for an Acme widget? Neither do we, but an exuberant buyer stuck us with a gross of them. Perhaps you can make Barbie skirts from them? Buy now and let us know what you use them for!” I’ve got to admire that bold honesty.

AS&S is online, they have a print catalog, and they also have three retail stores (two in Chicago, one in Milwaukee). They send email newsletters and update their Twitter and Facebook feeds fairly regularly. I think SEO might be a bit of a challenge, give the breadth of their product offerings, but keywords such as “scientific instruments”, “lab supplies”, “overstocks”, and “military surplus” would be pretty relevant.

I think that’s why I’m choosing AS&S. Their unique product mix makes marketing even more of a challenge. Plus, their unique voice and graphics (a hand-drawn version of every product is shown) make me happy. In the end, that wins me over every time.

Talking it through has helped. This blog is pretty handy after all. 🙂


Here we go…

blue hair

Blogging. What a concept. Creating a blog is something that has been niggling at me for a few years, but who has time for that?

Working in a small rural library, I wear a lot of hats. I’m the head of Programming. I run all of the Teen programs and I’m involved in all Staff events. I design signs, create television scripts, build front window and holiday displays, post to social media feeds, write press releases, host events, design brochures, and manage the voice of our levy campaign… Whew – just listing it makes me tired!

Oh, and did I mention that I am part time? Yep. All the Marketing you want in 30 hours a week or less.

You know that feeling you get when you’ve been slogging along at work, day after day for a few years? Your mind gets a bit numb. Instead of tapping into your creative brain, you just try to tackle one calendar event after another to make it through the week. That’s where I’ve been recently. A bit brain-numb and lacking in inspiration.

Our local community college announced a new class this term: Digital Marketing 231S. The overview sounded like information I could use: digital media, search engine optimization, gauging the reach and success of your messages, etc.

One of the requirements of the class is the creation of a blog. So here we are dear reader… let’s see how my brain-awakening pans out. Keep your fingers crossed that inspiration strikes before the levy campaign kicks off!