Imagine if you had never heard of the Internet. “Google” would still mean a really big number and “crawl” would be how babies get around. Think of all you’d be missing if you had never been online: instant news headlines, discount shopping deals, access to the world in just one click.

Has your small business heard of the Internet? Are you capturing opportunities to sell to a customer across the country as easily as you sell to one down the street? “We don’t need a Web site,” you say. “All of our customers are local. And besides, they wouldn’t use an e-commerce site if we had one.” If that’s your opinion, it’s probably time to rethink it.

Consumers as a whole are moving online in droves ? your customers included. During the 2003 holiday shopping season, online orders grew 29 percent over previous years, according to research firm comScore Networks. And consumers weren’t buying just at mega sites. Small online retailers also enjoyed big boosts in their sales. Since it appears this “Internet thing” is here to stay, it’s survival of the smartest now. Despite all the favorable statistics, do you still worry e-commerce would kill the respected brand that took you years to build? We found four small businesses that say, Fear not. With at least 50 years of experience at each business, these owners understand why established companies resist change. But they also know how quickly a business can die in this new economy. On the following pages, discover why the fastest-growing small businesses are putting a lot of energy into e-commerce.

Mike Weaver never expected it would take two years to build his company’s Web site. But adding a new sales arm to a 115-year-old family owned company doesn’t happen overnight.

As the fourth-generation owners of W.T. Weaver & Sons (http://www.weaverhardware.com), Weaver and his brother, Bryce, are experts on decorative plumbing and door hardware. If you want an odd-sized pedestal sink for your half-bath, they can find it. But building a Web site employed a different kind of hardware.

“We had always wanted an e-commerce site, but we probably didn’t fully understand what it involved,” says Mike, who heads up the sales division of the 15-employee company in Washington, D.C.’s, historic Georgetown.

Started by their great-grandfather and his brother in 1889, W.T. Weaver & Sons was originally a hardware and pump-and-harness business. When their father ran the store in the late 1950s, he expanded into decorative hardware. Today, despite the steady showroom foot traffic at their prime location in downtown Georgetown, the company focuses heavily on the design aspect of the business, catering to architects and high-end builders. Launching a site was the next logical step in their marketing campaign, says Mike.

After multiple revisions and a few directional changes, Weaverhardware.com launched late last year. With several new product lines being introduced online, the Weavers hope the site will increase sales. They’re now offering items online such as garbage disposals ? something they’d never considered selling in their traditional showroom. “We always assumed the plumber who installed one of our kitchen sinks would take care of it,” says Mike. “But we were missing the opportunity to sell more items.”

So why did it take the Weavers so long to get online? Because, like most small-business owners, they’re perfectionists. Instead of slapping something up, they wanted Web site visitors to experience the same level of quality as someone who walks into their showroom.

“Our biggest challenge was maintaining the integrity of the existing business while expanding into new business,” says Mike. “You can’t forget what got you where you are.”

Marc Schulman hasn’t forgotten his roots either. He provides the same level of customer care at his Chicago cheesecake business that made his father, Eli Schulman, a legend in the Windy City’s restaurant industry.

Started in the early 1940s, Eli’s The Place for Steak was a favorite hangout of stars such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The cheesecake dessert became such a popular menu item that in 1980 the family spun off Eli’s Cheesecake (http://www.elischeesecake.com) to focus solely on the sweets.

Eli’s Cheesecakes is a retail and wholesale supplier to clients across the country. One of the most popular online produces is the “C-cake,” a made-to-order cheesecake customers build themselves, choosing their favorite topping, border, decorations or even a personalized message.

Unlike the Weavers, Schulman has been online since the early days of the Internet. Though Eli’s Cheesecake was a part of Chicago Online in 1995, the company resisted pouring cash into online ventures.

“We were much more conservative about it,” says Schulman. “From the beginning we never said, ?We’re going to change our entire business to e-commerce.’ ”

To him, abandoning a formula that works didn’t make sense. Instead, he chose to stick to a family-owned recipe for success.

“The Internet is a great way to reach lots of customers quickly. It’s a growing part of our business, but it’s definitely not the most significant.”

Personal Matters

Karen Jenks never corrects employees who use “y’all” in e-mails to online customers. The more Southern-speak the better at Greenwood, S.C.-based Geo W. Park Seed Company (http://www.parkseed.com), one of the country’s oldest seed shops.

“One thing people love about our company is the Southern voice,” says Jenks, president of the 140-year-old catalog seed business. “And I think we’ve done a good job at maintaining that voice online.”

Park Seed grew from humble beginnings. In 1863, George W. Park developed a handwritten listing of seeds collected from flowers in his mother’s garden. He started selling to neighbors, and business blossomed from there. Today his granddaughter, Karen Park Jennings, is the third-generation owner, with Jenks overseeing the daily operations.

Over the years, Park Seed has developed a hardcore following of gardeners from all regions of the country.

When Jenks was hired as president in the late 1990s, getting the small business online was her first priority. “For a long time, we honestly believed that none of our customers had computers and that they just weren’t going to be interested in the Internet,” says Jenks. “A lot of people thought it was just a flash in the pan.”

But since launching a full e-commerce site in 1999, Park Seed has experienced rapid growth in its online sales, which now accounts for a third of the business. Jenks credits the site’s personality with most of the growth.

“Gardeners want personal service,” she says. “Our customers want to know if this plant is going to grow in their yard.”

Park Seed customer service reps regularly communicate with online customers via e-mail. But with e-mail messages, quality control is key. Jenks and her managers have carved out a group of customer service reps who communicate well electronically, meaning their messages don’t sound terse or rude by mistake. She also randomly monitors correspondence and response time.

By using a content-management system, Park Seed is able to update the site several times a day if needed, making their e-commerce component more than just a database of products. One feature updated regularly is “Karen’s Favorites,” a list of picks from owner Jennings.

“Karen’s Favorites really are that: her favorites,” says Jenks. “It’s not someone who doesn’t even exist.”

Marc Schulman wants customers to know he exists, too. That’s why he made sure to add a link on Eli’s Cheesecake’s homepage that allows people to e-mail him directly.

“I’m an e-mail junkie,” says Schulman, who answers messages as quickly as possible. “I like customers to know there’s a person on the other end.”

Schulman enjoys hearing customer feedback, and never wants someone to have to dig through layers of people to get an answer. To him, it’s the same sort of personal service his father provided for 70 years. “My dad is the ultimate one-on-one marketer,” he says. “I use the same personal touch, I’ve just adapted it with technology.”

Technology can help you improve personal service, but you have to work at it, he says. “The system won’t do everything. In our case, you can’t eat technology.”

Schulman says e-commerce just makes good sense for small business retailers today.

“In an era where retail distribution is getting tougher, anyone in the country can get a cheesecake from us in two days,” he says. “For the little guy, the ability to grow through e-commerce is very good.”

Real Time

Ian Ginsburg changes his store every day. That’s because the customer experience is important to the pharmacist and owner of C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries (http://www.bigelowchemists.com), a 162-year-old institution in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

“If you come in my store and it looks the same every time, you might keep coming back to buy your favorite product, but you’ll never discover something new,” says Ginsburg, whose grandfather purchased the existing business at the end of the Depression.

Selling everything from exotic, hard-to-find brands of toothpaste to European skin care lines, Bigelow is a browser’s paradise. So how did Ginsburg manage to translate that same feeling to his online shop? By sticking to his core belief: Cater to the customer.

“Every time you go to our site, there are different products on the homepage,” says Ginsburg, who recommends purchasing an e-commerce system that allows you to make simple changes quickly. ” I can put up a new product in about 10 seconds. It’s foolish to get into a Web site that you don’t have control over.”

Ease of use from a customer standpoint is also key, says Ginsburg, who didn’t launch a site until he felt he could afford to do it right.

“People use the Web because they want to do things quickly,” he says. “Web shoppers are highly sophisticated, and you only have a second to capture them.

“In my opinion, you should stay away from fancy Flash products on your site. If people want to watch a movie, they’ll turn on Channel 4.”

Marc Schulman also advises updating content regularly. His Web site showcases the latest events at Eli’s Cheesecake World, the factory where the desserts are made.

“You’ve got to have ways to make changes easily,” he says. “If a customer goes online and finds information about an event that it turns out happened last year, they get frustrated and leave.”

Seek Help

When the Weavers were building W.T. Weaver & Sons’ Web site, Mike worked on it at night and on weekends. As the head of sales, he was the best person to write all the product descriptions and approve all the designs. But there are only so many hours in a day. Looking back, he wishes he had hired someone ? even part-time ? to help with the content creation.

“More than likely, the person who sets up the Web site is going to be the expert in the company,” says Mike. “But that person is probably also responsible for maintaining the overall sales in the company. It doesn’t make sense for you to waste your time when you can hire someone to help.”

Weaver had such high standards that he hated to skimp on the design. “The artwork and photos you use are a simple thing, but they’re very important,” says Weaver, who had a marble display made to serve as a backdrop for all Web site product shots. “You don’t want it to look like you did it with scissors and glue.”

In the early days of the Internet, Web design was pricey. But now, small businesses have lots of affordable resources available to them.

Like Weaver, Karen Jenks taught herself a lot about site construction during the creation of Park Seed’s site. Now she wishes she had known more going in to the project.

“There is so much out there, and it’s very confusing,” says Jenks, who recommends lots of comparison shopping. “Some applications are great for General Motors but aren’t needed at a small company.”

After the initial design was complete, Jenks hired a consultant to help make Park Seed’s site more user-friendly. “The front-end of our store was pretty boring,” she says. “We just put our catalog online. We never considered how it worked from a user’s point-of-view.”

Ginsburg of Bigelow Apothecaries also suggests taking it slowly. “This is a decision that shouldn’t be made hastily,” he says. “Do your homework. Consider lots of options.”

But eventually, Ginsburg says, you’ve got to make a move online. “If I can’t find you on my browser, you don’t exist.”

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