First in Its Italian Ecommerce Class…CHL

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To continue on with our interview series, we are speaking with Marco Forlai, the Web Marketing Specialist from CHL, a successful computer and electronics retailer in Italy, as well as the first-ever Italian ecommerce site. 

Marco, could you please give us a brief summary on CHL?

CHL was born in 1993 in Florence as one the first Italian computer shops. In the same year it started its online activity on BBS, giving  users the possibility to consult the catalogue and order products. In 1995 CHL gave birth to the first true Italian ecommerce site, www.chl.it.  These were the very first years of the internet era and the company had to make strong technology investments to implement what is commonly used now.  The core business of the company was, and still is, the sale of computer parts and the possibility to order personal computers choosing the internal components from a big variety of products.  We gave birth to “Dr. Orange”, a web application which guides the user in the process of choosing components to project a pc.

In 2000, CHL entered into the Italian stock exchange market and became the first Italian ecommerce player.  From here we’ve been developing more and more web functionality while the community was growing, reaching more than 1,500,000 users.  Over the years we’ve been extending the variety of products on our catalogue.  Today we have about 22,000 items by 900 different brands. We’re selling products from 22 categories like Computer, Electronics, Photography, Telephone devices, Home appliances, Jewelry and so on.

We have now more than 1,000 physical shops all around Italy where customers can pick and pay for their orders online.

How do you feel about your growth over the past year?  Do you find your sales to be strongly dictated by Technology and Electronic industry trends?

Our sales are always influenced from technological trends, there have been times in which top sellers were home personal computers, in the last two years we’ve seen the explosion of LCD TVs, notebook and smartphones.  We’re just experiencing a strong interest in the new phone devices, I think this will influence our way to use internet in general. Let’s say that every technological innovation has been strongly influencing the behavior of our customers and, consequently, our business. We’ve been constantly growing during the years, some years less than others due also to growing competition in Italian ecommerce.

Do you feel that the state of the economy has had any impact on your shoppers and therefore on your sales performance? 

Sure, recession has had a strong impact on our sales performances, people have less money to spend, less tendency to buy.  The increase in shipping costs also reduced the advantages of buying online.

What are the challenges CHL faces at the moment? 

Finding a new competitive supplier, optimize the logistic chain, open new physical order and delivery centers all over Italy.  Moreover, we’re continuously working to enable better web usability.  One of the main goals is to make users find what they’re looking for, it’s hard to categorize and cluster over 20,000 items from 1,000 brands.  We’re also working to establish new partnerships in terms of web visibility and mainly to always offer new services to our customers like, for example, satellite connectivity, mobile services, and so on.  We’re now focusing on IT infrastructure improvements with  particular attention to the internet highways, driving our traffic on optical fibers to reduce the long response times due to internet congestion.

Have you learned from the success and/or failures of other sites that you admire/do not admire?

There are several sites in Italy which are doing good work.  We always compare our work with theirs.  In these last years we’ve seen how important is to have a small and flexible organization, we all have to act like low cost air companies. Strong competition and reduced product margins made it necessary to reduce costs everywhere possible. We learned that we always have to be careful in investments motivated by international analyses.  The Italian market, like many others, has its own trends and often what is a success in the world doesn’t work here.  Amazon has always been our ecommerce model and we try to learn from its success.  I also like buy.com and the particular business model of krillion.com.

Do you feel like you have an edge over your competitors?/What do you feel sets you apart from your competitors?

There are several aspects I think set us apart from our competitors, the information richness of our product details pages, customer reviews from over 10 years, our big community, computer configurations and production.  Furthermore, we offer many services to our customers we can deliver thanks to our shops net all over the territory.

You have been a long time customer of Celebros.   How did you come to work with Celebros and how do you feel it is going?

We met Celebros in 2006.  We had been working for several years to implement a search solution built internally without particularly good results. During the growth of our business, with so many products from many different brands, a good search solution became essential for our success. When we met Celebros for the first time, we immediately saw the power of their organization and their software.  We were a little frightened though to abandon our software and entrust the whole search process to a foreign company.   However, after 4 years, I can say it’s been one of our best decisions, absolutely no problem due to the company’s distance and what astonished us was that since the first day we went online, our sales increased immediately.  We started to sell more and sold many products that we didn’t even know we had in our product catalog.  Helping the user to find what he’s looking for is essential when there are too many products to show.  I think Celebros has been and still is one of the best partnerships ever in CHL’s history.

What are some other technologies on your site that you feel contribute to your success?

I think “Dr. Orange” and “Wizard”, tools to create personal computers, are something unique, at least in Italy. We’ve also been one of the first Italian companies to manage all the processes through the internet.  Oracle databases are central in our architecture.

What are some new developments that you are trying out this year and what expectations do you have?

We’re going to enter the magical world of mobile apps.  There are huge mobile communities waiting for new apps, we hope to be ready soon and be able to bring ecommerce, store locator and new ideas to this upcoming navigator.  Mobile micro payments are really interesting too, we’re investigating on how this could help our business.  In Italy there are 50 millions potential new users, and 1.5 million are already equipped and active on smartphones.  Social networks gave a strong impulse in the growth of these reality, a new world surely to be observed and understood.

Thank you, Marco, for your time.  This has been great!

Thank you!

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