WHEN was the last time you had a salesperson knocking on your door, eager to sell you a product he has been carting around town?
These days, it is a rare sight. But for the Rammoo family, that was how they started selling Singer sewing machines in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan, in 1968.
When Linggam and Suppaiyah Rammoo were kids, they would follow their father on his sales route. But after the 1990s, the brothers realised that door-to-door marketing was no longer possible due to security concerns — people were reluctant to open their doors to strangers.
“It was not easy to go door to door anymore, so we started distributing pamphlets to houses. But the postbox soon became the next dustbin because everybody started doing the same thing, throwing their pamphlets into people’s postboxes. We knew then that that was not working either,” says Linggam.
“The next stage was to advertise in [consumer catalogue] magazines such as Media Focus. But at some stage, that too stopped working because people would just throw these promotional materials out.”
In the end, necessity and changing consumer preferences forced the brothers — and many other small businesses — to go online in marketing their products.
By the time the brothers joined the four-decade-old family business in the mid-2000s, Lings Service Network (M) Sdn Bhd (LSN) had grown into a multi-product business. It sells a wide range of sewing machines as well as sewing accessories, and provides after-sales service.
How RM10 can make a big difference
Since taking over the family business, the two brothers have thought of many ways they can improve the operations and use the Internet to market a niche product.
One of the things Linggam and Suppaiyah did was to reach out to existing and potential customers by building an e-commerce website.
The website makes it easier for their team to answer customer queries on everything from the functionality of a particular sewing machine model to maintenance and pricing. It also allows LSN to grow its business, reaching more customers nationwide.
But having a website does not mean that they have found the magic solution to their problems.
They needed to find a way to promote their website without bursting their marketing budget. They soon found a solution — Google AdWords, a form of online marketing linked to the search-engine giant.
How does it work? When people search for certain keywords on Google, companies that have paid for the service and have businesses related to the keywords will see their advertisements appear at strategic places on the search page.
For example, a quick search of “sewing machine” and “Malaysia” will bring up three advertising-related links — two e-commerce portals selling sewing machines in the country as well as LSN’s web store.
The company’s website also appears with a link to how to choose the right sewing machine.
Linggam and Suppaiyah started with a Google AdWords budget of RM10 a day, just to test the water.
“In 2009, we started to look at e-marketing. From there, we learnt about Google AdWords, which has a low cost, starting from RM10 a day.
“Then, we expanded. We also use Facebook advertising and other online marketing platforms,” says Linggam.
According to him, LSN previously spent between RM4,000 and RM5,000 a month on advertising and marketing. But now, its marketing expenditure has been reduced by 50% to 75%, with the bulk of it going towards online and mobile advertising.
Using Google’s analytics tools, Linggam could see a growing number of people visiting LSN’s website. Sometimes, the company would get up to 1,000 clicks a day. However, it needed to have a higher Google AdWords budget to draw more clicks to their website.
“Sometimes we spend RM100 to RM200 a day. Sometimes it’s RM500 or RM1,000. It all depends on the campaign and the promotion. When we are having a mega sale at our showroom, it can go up to RM2,000. It changes because we need to attract more customers,” he explains.
Clicks do not always translate into sales
Linggam stresses that no matter how big an advertising budget is, it does not necessarily bring in the sales. What a company is essentially paying for are eyeballs and customer awareness of its brand.
He says for sewing machines specifically, consumers will still need to see the unit, test it out and understand how the added features work.
“A sewing machine is a unique product. Yes, we have an increase in traffic — maybe in a day, we get 1,000 to 1,500 visitors — but they do not always buy something,” says Linggam.
“This product, usually people need to test it out. They need more information on it. It’s not like buying a dress or a shirt — if you like a design, you can immediately purchase it online.”
As consumers move towards mobile devices, LSN is going with the tide by developing a mobile-friendly website.
This came after the brothers noticed that nearly 70% of the traffic on their website were from mobile devices. The company makes it easier for customers to browse through its products with its easy-on-the-eye and user-friendly interface, says Linggam.
It’s not a dying industry
Sewing machines aren’t items that people buy every day. Nevertheless, Linggam believes that by taking the business partially online, LSN has seen a resurgence in sales.
“Back then, when my dad started the company, it was just about selling Singer products. Those days, if we sold three or four sewing machines in a month, it was considered very good.
“But nowadays, we can sometimes sell 10 to 20 units a day,” Linggam notes.
Currently, LSN sells about 300 sewing machines a month, a result that the brothers attribute to their success in online marketing. LSN’s store in Cheras gets some 300 walk-in customers a day on average, Linggam says.
The sewing machine business is pretty seasonal. During the low seasons, after Hari Raya, sales fall to about 200 units a month.
The company sells sewing machines for both home and industrial use. Apart from that, it sells an array of related appliances such as cloth-cutting machines, steam irons, needles, sewing accessories, patchwork and quilting products, and other home appliances.
The brothers hope that there will still be plenty of growth opportunities in the industry, driven mainly by an increasing interest in hobbies and crafts, and the growing number of small fashion and apparel businesses.
Back in the old days, people used sewing machines to sew basic apparel such as school uniforms, baju kurung and daily wear. Now, sewing is seen as a hobby, even a business.
“When we look at the Malaysian market, it’s not that they don’t want to buy sewing machines. It is because people do not have much awareness of sewing machines.
“If you looked at the situation before everything went online, people would have no idea where to go to search for sewing machines or where to buy them, especially in KL,” says Linggam.
Most Malaysians are familiar with the Singer brand of sewing machines.
It is believed that Singer has more than half the market share in Malaysia.
LSN also sells other international brands such as Brother and Juki.
“Generally, Malaysians only know the Singer brand and many still think sewing machines are the old blackhead machines with paddle.
“But there has been a lot of innovation that people are not aware of. When we started promoting sewing machines online, people were surprised that there are so many variety out there, including computerised and hi-tech machines,” Lingam smiles.
For LSN, its online strategy has moved beyond just being a marketing tool; it is a way to educate consumers. Again, this is out of necessity.
“Educating people is one of the key things we have done to be successful in this business,” Suppaiyah says.
This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 26 - February 1, 2015.