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Lighting up the Web Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

Deciding on a name was the easy part.

After Paul Vincent, the owner of Vincent Lighting Systems, nailed down the domain name, he faced the challenge of making his e-commerce plans a reality. He assembled a small team of employees to help work on the project and, less than two months later, www.virtualightstore.com was open for business and customer orders were being filled.

"We simply felt this was another way in which customers could do business with us," explains Vincent. "In order to be successful, it had to be backed up by a strong bricks-and-mortar business."

Vincent was able to get his Web idea from paper to cyberspace quickly and, more important, do it without letting it dominate the time and attention he needed to keep his long-standing physical business on the right track. Here's how he did it.

Make a financial commitment

Talk is cheap, especially when it comes to launching an e-commerce site. Researching a name and discussing a Web strategy are undoubtedly the first steps, but Vincent says real progress toward his goal was made only after he earmarked money for Web development.

"We had been talking about it before and had been researching names," he explains. "But it wasn't until the first part of February that I decided we were going to commit $10,000 seed money in order to get this off the ground."

Use in-house talent

Consultants, designers and IT firms can quickly whittle away any sort of budget, so Vincent made sure to outsource only what could not be handled by someone already on the company's payroll. In the end, he needed only to outsource the graphic design work. He tabbed one of his employees to handle all photography for the site, while another was chosen to work on the layout of the company's online store.

"Doing a lot of blood and guts work, so to speak, in house certainly saved us time and money," says Vincent. "It also gave us control over the final look of the site."

Limit your online catalog

Vincent knew there was no way he could offer all of the 12,000 products in the VLS catalog on the Web site. Instead, he at first limited the product offerings to expendables like light bulbs, paint and lighting gels that were sure to be in stock at all times.

"We made a conscious decision that we wanted to make sure that if a customer ordered something the night before, we could ship the next day -- period," says Vincent. "It had to be items we would have in our control and items we stock in our warehouse."

Stay consistent

Although some companies offer special deals on products purchased through their online stores, Vincent was skeptical about such a strategy. He decided that if he wanted the e-commerce site to truly complement Vincent Lighting's long-standing brick-and-mortar business, there would have to be no special deals offered to online shoppers.

"The pricing structure is the same in our catalog as it is on our Web site," he says. "If I'm a regular customer and decide to one day buy over the Web, and all of a sudden the prices much lower than what I've been charged, I'm not going to be very happy." How to reach: Vincent Lighting, (216) 475-7600; www.virtualightstore.com

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.