Found In Space

HomeTown Appeal

"The Net has been a lifesaver for us. We would have closed shop without it," says Barb McCann, who along with her husband, Jim, owns The Chocolate Vault in Tecumseh, Michigan, a picturesque small town about 60 miles west of Detroit. "We couldn't compete with the malls, but now the Web is bringing us customers from all over the country."

The Chocolate Vault isn't likely to become a multimillion dollar Web mega-success. Frankly, it's not shooting for the same level of Internet stardom that the other sites profiled here crave. But that doesn't mean it's not a significant triumph for the McCanns.

Back in 1997, Barb and Jim faced up to the numbers. Profits were dwindling to the point where closing shop seemed the only option. But Barb had heard about the Web, and even though she was then 54 and had no computer background, she decided she could get into it on her own. After spending a few hundred dollars--for a Web hosting service and Microsoft's FrontPage Web-authoring program--Barb launched her site in November 1997.

Has it succeeded? One-third of the McCanns' total business now comes from Web sales, and the numbers are soaring. For the Christmas 1998 season, sales were up 290 percent over 1997 figures. The daily visitor count now averages 150, with about 50 orders coming in daily. "This has made all the difference to our business," says Barb, whose shop sells more than 100 varieties of homemade chocolates, from mint patties and raisin clusters to mocha truffles and chocolate-covered ginger.

How has The Chocolate Vault prospered? Lots of shoestring, low-cost marketing techniques keep luring traffic to the site. For instance, a chatty newsletter, ChocoNews--written and published by Barb every month or so--goes to 2,900 subscribers. "It helps bring customers back," she says. "About 20 percent of our buyers are repeat customers." The site also features customer testimonials and folksy touches such as "Choco-Poetry"--odes celebrating the candy. It runs contests, usually with small prizes, and will exchange links with virtually any site that asks.

But probably the biggest factor in The Chocolate Vault's online success is that despite the anonymity of the Web, Barb stresses the personal touch. For example, customer e-mail is answered the same day it's received, if possible. "We want our Internet customers to feel they're getting small-town service," says Barb. "When you visit us online, I want you to feel like you've just walked into our store and that you know Jim and me. That's the key to our business: We're real people, and we care about our customers and our chocolates. Come to our site, and you'll see that's true."

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Found In Space.

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