For 44 years, Lehman's Hardware Store, in Kidron, Ohio, has supplied the town's agrarian natives with nonelectric tools of all sorts -- gas refrigerators and battery-operated water pumps, for example. "It's just frightening how reliant we've all become on electricity," says Galen Lehman, 39, the store's vice-president. Lehman, who is a Mennonite, lives on a 20-acre farm and prefers a scythe and a horse-drawn plow to anything with a motor. So it might be logical to think he'd be wary of computer technology. But it would also be wrong. As it happens, Lehman has embraced E-commerce as he would a bountiful harvest.
It all began last year, when new Y2K-fearing customers started buying nonelectric items in droves. Annual sales doubled. To cope, Lehman's, which also sells by phone and mail order, doubled its workforce, to more than 100 employees. Still, Lehman sensed he was losing potential customers who were put off by busy employees or busy signals.
He sought a more efficient way to serve the expanded customer base. The solution was obvious: a top-notch Web site. Lehman's had already ventured onto the Web. But the company's then-sparse site had no product graphics and listed only 25% of the store's inventory. If the store's site were upgraded to provide descriptions of the 3,600-item catalog and easy ordering, Lehman would be able to solve the phone glut and generate even more new business.
The economic advantages of a new site were clear. But what were the philosophical implications? Lehman's Hardware had been founded by J.E. Lehman, Galen's father, to serve the needs of self-sufficient Kidron -- home to one of the nation's largest Amish and Mennonite communities. By catering to the Y2K-worried, would Lehman's be neglecting its most loyal customers? And would Lehman be betraying the decidedly low-tech ethos by which he lives?
Lehman maintains that his life's mission is not simplicity per se but service. And the Web site was what Lehman needed to best serve his customers. Plus, it was good business. Lehman says that the company's $20,000 expenditure on the site this year will easily pay for itself, by reducing catalog-printing, mailing, and other costs.
Even though Y2K anxiety is a bonanza for Lehman's, there's nary a mention of it on the Web site. And that is consistent, Lehman argues, with the company's history of supporting self-sufficiency as a lifestyle rather than as a millennial fashion. To this day a 300-foot-long hitching rail stands outside the store -- it's been there since the business was established, in 1955 -- for people who arrive by buggy. Once sales slow down a bit, Lehman might be one of them. "I've been trying to convince my wife that I should take the horse to work," he says. "But you shouldn't really leave a horse standing out there for nine hours."