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Hattons Model Railways Case Study

Hattons & Rails of Sheffield – Case Study

Hattons Model Railways were, until recently, one of the biggest online hobbies retailers in the UK. Earlier this year, they made the difficult decision to cease trading. Hattons had loyal customers and invested significant time and money in building online resources for the model railway community – it was a sad day.

Little Fire clients, Rails of Sheffield, worked with Hattons to ensure that customers were not left without unfulfilled orders. They also took the plunge and decided to keep the Hattons name alive.

The Hattons Directory

One of Hattons’ biggest achievements was the directory, a widely used and much-loved archive of (just about) every piece of model railway rolling stock ever manufactured. It used to be integral to the Hattons shop. But with Hattons‘ e-commerce gone, the fear was that it would lead users to a dead end.

Not only that, but Rails of Sheffield has invested in the Hattons directory and is committed to keeping it up to date. To benefit from the investment, they needed links from the site back to theirs – railsofsheffield.com.

We chose to make those links to specific products wherever appropriate. This serves two important purposes:

  • Existing Hattons customers could use the site they loved and understood but could still buy the exact model they wanted once they found it (Rails stock is exhaustive).
  • Rails would ultimately benefit, gaining direct SEO backlinks and, as a result of this mini-project, direct sales from the Directory.

The Challenge

Hattons is a large and complicated website with limited access for Little Fire to make changes. Rails of Sheffield are very busy people, and they, in turn, keep Little Fire Digital busy too. Further, while the bond between the two websites is close, for the backlinks to be valuable, each site needs to be a destination in itself. To maximise the SEO value of any links, they needed to be appropriate.

The changes needed to link the two sites server-side would be expensive and slow. So a lighter touch was needed.

The Solution

Rather than attempt to match products directly, Little Fire opted to use the powerful search API offered by Shopify. Using elements already visible on the Hattons page – the part number and brand – we were able to build a convincing search query. We configured Shopify to accept search requests from a third-party website and then wrote a script which would run whenever Hattons users looked at any given model. The script uses the popular jQuery library already in use on the website. It sends a search request to Shopify and, if Rails have the product to sell, returns key product details.

We like search. We use search a lot and, lf you’re people like us, you’ll be familiar with some of its frustrations. In an ideal world, for a project like this, we’d have databases chattering, comparing IDs and matching everything, item for item, perfectly.

Search is not 100% accurate. Sometimes it drives us mad. In this case though, search found more than we expected. Including Pre-Owned items … bravo search!


The Outcome

In the end, we handed the Hattons developers two files, each containing fewer than 100 lines of code. One is the script that queries Rails of Sheffield and builds links and one to make it all look good. All the developers had to do was add them to the page. Code doesn’t come much lighter.

Search driven buy now buttons on the Hattons directory
The search-driven buttons in situ on the Hattons Directory – perfect backlinks for Rails of Sheffield.

It’s a win for everyone. Rails get quality backlinks and Hattons customers get to keep using the website they have used for years.

Set Us a Challenge …

At Little Fire Digital, we love a puzzle. If you’ve got something you need to figure out, ask us – it’s free – we can make databases chatter, make computers go look for things and, in the end, make something useful.