Gimmick: Tom Ollila, Technology Development Manager of fuel cells at Parker Hannifan Corp., bought this $258.75 HySpeedster from the FuelCellStore to demonstrate hydrogen-power generation and fuel cell technology to his colleagues. He says this working model of a fuel-cell powered car "is more illustrative than writing equations on the board."
Engineers like Tom Ollila might be experienced at presenting various engineering concepts. But when it comes to new and complex technologies such as fuel cells and hydrogen generators, a real-life model may often be the key to showing the operating principles. This is where FuelCellStore (www.fuelcellstore.com) could come in handy. Featuring 385 low-cost to high-end and customizable products from 60 manufacturers in the U.S. and eight other countries, the company provides an online one-stop nexus where fuel cell stack, component, and hydrogen storage manufacturers can come together with their customers, says Doug Larson, FuelCellStore's founder and president, who has a Ph.D. in renewable resources from the University of California, Berkeley. Ollila, Technology Development Manager of Fuel Cells at Parker Hannifin Corp. (www.parker.com/fuelcells), is a typical example of the store's industrial customers.
But the company wants more. Besides products for industrial demonstrations, FuelCellStore also offers educational materials, fuel cell stacks, fuel cell systems, hydrogen equipment, solar hydrogen, and other power products, stack, and testing components to attract all types of fuel cell users. "We want everybody," Larson declares.
To realize his goal, the company must stand out from the other thousands of online fuel cell product retailors listed in a basic Google search. In the case of Ollila, it was the customer support at FuelCellStore that made him a satisfied customer.
When he was "rummaging on his own" on the FuelCellStore website, Ollila says he found the product descriptions and images helpful and the navigation easy. Later, when he called to place an order for the German-made HySpeedster, a working model of a fuel cell-powered car, he also found the sales representatives "knowledgeable and helpful" as they gave him a recommendation on the power supply (see sidebar on page 43).
Warranty services at FuelCellStore are also impressive, Ollila says. Last fall, when he was at a fuel cell trade show in Palm Springs, CA, his model car broke down. FuelCellStore representatives who were attending the expo immediately replaced his purchase for free. "I just bought one model car; most manufacturers wouldn't have that kind of customer service," Ollila says. "That kind of customer support is what the retailer has brought to the equation."
And the equation works especially well with education customers, who account for one-third of sales at FuelCellStore—close to $1.5 million in 2002 and the first three quarters of 2003, says Jason Burch, the store's VP. In fact, FuelCellStore has already broken even since its launch in 1999 and is now profitable, Burch adds.
"Teachers who two years ago bought a book or a very simple demo system [from FuelCellStore] came back the next year and bought three or four more things . . . when they later received grants for hydrogen generation and fuel cell labs," Larson explains. Today, he adds, the website still has a "layman orientation" and links to various technical websites for people who want to find out more about fuel cell technology.
Ironically, FuelCellStore's success in attracting a more diverse customer base represents its—and many other fuel cell product distributors'— biggest challenge: the market pull has outpaced the technology push. "Our business is almost completely dependent on the manufacturers bringing products to the marketplace," Larson contends, calling the situation the store's biggest obstacle to growth.
In fact, most inquiries his company has received are for fuel cell consumer products, Larson says. "Computer batteries or fuel cell cellphone systems—those'll very quickly become the largest category, but they're not available yet," he adds.
Foreseeing the fuel cell industry to take off sometime between 2006 and 2008, however, FuelCellStore has no time to brood over the current growth constraint and instead is preparing itself for future opportunities.
For manufacturers, FuelCellStore has initiated a joint marketing effort and sent out 18,000 newsletters in August, Burch says. For those abroad, such as Heliocentris (http://heliocentris.com), a Berlin, Germany-based fuel cell and hydrogen technology systems manufacturer, with about 25 products being sold on fuelcellstore.com, Burch still talks to the company regularly about potential campaigns, says Ralph Schanz, Heliocentris' sales and marketing manager.
On the consumer front, FuelCellStore has strived to be ranked among the top in Google search results. In fact, when Ollila started his job last year, he was led by Google to the FuelCellStore website, which now averages 1,500 visits per day.
For overseas customers, who contribute to 30% of sales, FuelCellStore has contracted a shipping agent in Europe since August. Products from European manufacturers now arrive at their European customers faster since they are no longer shipped to and stocked at the Boulder, CO, warehouse, Burch says.
"We do our best to make people want to do business with us, whether that means providing the best prices or services," he adds. "That'll stick in people's minds, and there's no reason for them not to come back."