Lessons in e-tailing

Catherine's tries offering furnishings on Internet

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— For a mom-and-pop store on Lincoln Avenue, it sounds like an impossible dream. If Amazon.com is struggling to make a profit, aren't the odds even greater against small retail shops succeeding in e-commerce?

Cathy McCullough is willing to take on those odds. McCullough is the Catherine behind Catherine's at Boggs, a home furnishings and accessory shop within a historic hardware store on Lincoln Avenue.

Now, the old bricks and mortar store is complimented by a cyber presence Catherine's at Boggs opened on the Web with a fully functional e-tail site about six weeks ago.

"I've been working on this for six years," McCullough said.

"We found it's a necessity for us to do this. We're trying to keep the hardware store."

McCullough and her husband, Bob, purchased Boggs Hardware 1996. Like all independent hardware stores, they face intense competition from nationally branded stores and lumber yards.

To remain a viable retail presence in the local market, they have for years been mixing attractive collections of home accessories into the front of the store.

And they have won a loyal following among locals and in particular, visitors and second homeowners.

The online store is meant to take expanded lines of home and garden accessories to a larger audience. Although they haven't made a significant number of sales just yet, they are greatly encouraged by the fact that more than 3,500 "page views" have been logged on the site.

"The reason we did the Web site is we get so many out-of-towners who make repeat visits to the store," McCullough said. "We do a lot of shipping because they often leave town, then call us back and try to describe an item they saw in the store and ask us to ship it to them."

McCullough reasoned that her captive list of vacationers who discover Catherine's at Boggs represent potential e-commerce customers. She hopes they'll tell all their friends about it. But she knows she and her e-commerce assistant, Caroline Hamilton, have a lot of work to do with marketing and search engines to make the Internet presence of Catherine's at Boggs a success.

The merchandise available online differs to a degree from what is available in the store. Online, Catherine's customers can choose from among natural cotton blankets, toiletries and cleaning solutions and even plantation raised teakwood benches for the garden. Larger items, like the benches, are drop shipped from a distant warehouse when ordered by Catherine's customers. Smaller items, like hand lotion, are stored in the basement of the hardware store in Steamboat.

McCullough said she and Hamilton still have a lot to learn about which of their products will sell on the Internet. They realize that visitors to the bricks and mortar store can use their senses to appreciate the items, which is more difficult to do online.

Kathryn Antyr of Studio9-Design developed Catherine's Web site to allow the store owners independence and the ability to make additions themselves.

"That's what we intended," McCullough said. "We wanted to be able to change the product a lot." Antyr said she encourages independence among her clients; she takes the most satisfaction from designing and building the Web site. Clients who want the capability to maintain their own sites are fine with her.

Catherine's site is database driven and password protected. "They can easily maintain their inventory by using a Web-based form," she said.

Boggs has been a fixture on Lincoln Avenue for 61 years. In many ways it's a throwback to the family-owned hardware stores that were prevalent on every main street in small-town America for generations. It has beautiful wood floors and old-fashioned snowshoes hanging from the ceilings. You can still pull a fistful of ten-penny nails out of a bulk container and weigh them out in a paper bag for purchase.

Now, Catherine's at Boggs is a cyber-based store. And if McCullough is able to cast her Web wide enough, the new e-tailing store just might preserve the old hardware store.

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