The Spice House
In early 2018, Charlie Mayer took over as CEO of The Spice House, a gourmet spice shop owned by second-generation spice merchants Tom and Patty Erd. After six decades of family ownership, Charlie was the company’s first outside leader, and he found himself tasked with the unique challenge of growing a homespun business online. “We’ve really tried to build on the brand value that has existed for a long time and push it onto the internet,” said Charlie. With locations in Chicago, Evanston, and Milwaukee, The Spice House is used to sustained foot traffic from curious customers who follow their noses after catching a whiff of fresh cinnamon or cardamom. “Spices are a really interesting product for the internet,” said Charlie. “If you’ve ever been to one of our stores, it’s a sensory experience.” But that’s not something they can easily translate online, so they needed their digital marketing efforts to work even harder — and Google has been a critical part of that.
Spearheading that effort has been Douglass Craig, a growth marketing expert who began working with The Spice House in March of 2018. “I was fascinated with the business and saw that it had a great potential for growth,” Douglass said. Douglass helped deploy new digital advertising efforts, including numerous Google Ads campaigns, which are currently responsible for 15% of online traffic and 20% of online revenue. “All of our advertising is digital,” said Charlie. The Spice House also uses Google My Business to boost the company’s visibility on Google Search and Maps and tools like Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Drive to collaborate across teams. “We’re a 100% Google shop,” said Charlie. “There are plenty of companies that use Google products, but we’ve embraced them wholeheartedly, and they make our business better.”
Since going digital, The Spice House has fostered a number of online communities where customers can share photos, recipes, and other user-generated content. “I love to just go on there and see the innovative things that people do — not just with our spices, but with food in general,” said Charlie. The business also shares its products by regularly contributing to local charities. Overall, Charlie and Douglass are excited that they’ve been able to reap the benefits of digital without losing the homespun nature of their business. And they are confident that they’ve established an approach with Google that will continue to propel them the forward. “We want to be big. We will be big. What we’ve done this year has been about designing a company and pouring a foundation,” concluded Charlie.
Founded in 1875, Merz Apothecary is considered by many to be a Chicago landmark. For five generations, the pharmacy has been home to a rich collection of unique, hard-to-find goods from all over the world. “We’re not your traditional pharmacy,” says President Anthony Qaiyum. “We carry everything from natural remedies to grooming products to home fragrances. People always say, ‘If you can’t find it at Merz, you won’t find it anywhere else!’” Anthony’s father, who purchased Merz in 1972, managed to grow the business during a time when most independent pharmacies were giving way to large chain drug stores. Anthony attributes their steady growth to the fact that “Merz has always done things differently.” In addition to selling non-traditional products, the “143-year-old startup,” as he likes to call it, has always been quick to embrace the power of technology.
Merz Apothecary took their first online order in 1997. Fast forward two decades, and 85 percent of the business’s marketing budget is now dedicated to digital. They use AdWords, Google’s advertising program, to reach customers who are searching for their specialty products. “AdWords is the magical vehicle that gets you in front of the people who really need what you’re selling,” explains Anthony. “Together with Google Search, it drives nearly half of our online revenue,” he adds. The company shares fun and informative product reviews on their YouTube channel, which has garnered over 1.5 million views. They announce product launches, special sales, and extended hours via their Google My Business listings. And with insights from Google Analytics, they’re able to both “figure out problems and identify opportunities on our website,” says Anthony.
Today, Merz Apothecary has two storefronts in Chicago, an e-commerce platform that services 35,000 customers annually, a direct mail operation that sends hundreds of thousands of catalogues to customers across the country, a wholesale division, and an export business that ships products to Europe. Their yearly sales continue to grow at a double-digit rate, and since Anthony joined the family business full-time in 2000, they have gone from 12 employees to 60. “As the owner of Merz, I feel like I’m the caretaker of a piece of history. And I take that duty very seriously,” says Anthony. “I want to leave this business better and stronger than it was when I joined. That’s my passion, and it’s gratifying to know that we're working towards that.”
The web has enabled Birk Creative to generate over 100% annual growth
JinJa Birkenbeuel founded Birk Creative in 1997 as a way to collaborate more closely with clients and promote her and her husband’s country band. “Because of my marketing and business background, I was able to think strategically about how to build our band’s first website,” JinJa says. She applied her band’s online marketing process to her new branding business, offering integrated marketing and advertising solutions for companies, brands, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and politicians. “Today, I'm leading everything I create with digital strategy,” JinJa says.
Birk Creative grew from word-of-mouth and relentless enthusiasm into a full-service creative strategy agency. Birk Creative maintains a modern digital storefront and deploys a sophisticated digital-marketing operation. They use AdWords, Google's advertising program, to attract customers both locally and internationally. “It’s really the best way to find and communicate with the customers you’re looking for all over the world,” JinJa says. Birk Creative counts on Google Analytics to understand where their web traffic comes from and fine-tune their marketing. “Our content and social media strategy is based heavily on Google Analytics.” They also take advantage of all the G Suite tools to compete with much larger companies on a level playing field. “Security, efficiency, agility—that's what Google gives us. And we can give the same results to our customers,” says JinJa.
Birk Creative’s portfolio of customers now ranges from local Chicago businesses and entrepreneurs to national and international corporations. Their adaptability has helped their annual revenue growth to top 100 percent. JinJa shares her success with the small-business community as well as the creative youth of Chicago. She serves on the boards of the Jewish-Black Business Alliance and Young Chicago Authors. “I often talk with youth about finding their voice, and working on their dreams without fear of failure,” JinJa says. That’s a strategy Birk Creative continues to share with Chicago.
Few industries have more passionate devotees than artisanal coffee and hand-built bicycles. Individually, they conjure images of a vibrant and modern urban community. Together, they're the magic of Chicago's Heritage Bicycles. Founded by Michael Salvatore in 2011, Heritage combines Chicago's rich and proud manufacturing industry with a hip and contemporary gathering space for lovers of brewed beans. “Both bikes and coffee have very loyal customer bases, and we've been able to capitalize on both in Chicago,” Michael says. Long before becoming an international brand, Heritage knew the Internet would be the tool to help them gear up. “The Internet has always been the foundation of the business.”
Michael leverages a variety of Google tools to make the most of the web. He creates geo-targeted campaigns in AdWords, Google’s advertising program, to drive local traffic to their two brick-and-mortar stores. He expands his reach with global AdWords campaigns to promote e-commerce sales of bikes and accessories. Google Apps for Work facilitates instantaneous collaboration amongst employees and is easy to scale as the business grows. Google Street View takes customers on virtual 360-degree tours of their stores. Google Analytics helps Michael to better understand his customers and make timely, data-driven decisions. “Google Analytics is literally on my screen all day long. Those graphs and trends and real-time data help me determine where to put our energy.” And their results have been a small-business tour de force.
Sales have grown a steady 35% year-over-year and Heritage plans to open three more stores in Chicago in 2016. Michael believes Google has played a significant role in their success. “There are so many little things that these products help us with every day,” he says. “I don’t know that we’d be in the same place without Google.” Their hand-built bicycles may have earned them an international reputation as a mecca for discerning cyclists, but Michael is equally proud of the impact that he’s making closer to home. “We currently have 23 employees, and we'll soon have close to 40,” he says. “It means a lot to me that we’re creating jobs in Chicago.”