Electronic Commerce
Site for Sore Eyes

Problem: An unmanageable Web site
Solution: An on-line-store host
Payoff: Control of the site 24/7, increased Web sales

About a year ago Softpro Books, with headquarters in Burlington, Mass., realized that its Web-site strategy was generating more headaches than sales. For 15 years, Softpro had been selling computer books through its retail store, in Burlington, and an independent affiliate in Denver. In 1994 it decided to extend its reach into cyberspace and set up a Web site through a Denver-based cybermall. Problem was, the company had failed to consider the importance of flexibility in managing and updating a site that deals with a fast-changing topic like technology. "Titles go in and out of fashion in weeks, not years," says Bob Treitman, vice-president of finance and operations for the 10 -person company.

When the virtual store yielded little more than an occasional sale after a year of operation, Treitman opted for a more complete Web-site hosting service. He chose the on-line-store system Live Store, from Viaweb (888-4-VIAWEB; monthly charges range from $100 to $300). With the help of a Viaweb staffer, Treitman spent just a few days building the Softpro site on Viaweb's server. Now he controls his own electronic store.

The benefits have been manifold. Treitman used to have to call the Denver cybermall's webmaster whenever he wanted to modify his site, for example, to update his list of titles. But the webmaster was often dealing with hundreds of requests from mall denizens, and changes could take days to show up on Softpro's site.

Now Treitman has a password that lets him access Viaweb's server using any Web browser, and he can make changes or retrieve order information himself. Treitman can also get reports about which sites his customers come from, which helps him plan strategic partnerships. For example, he recently got a flood of orders from the Web for a particular book that had gone unnoticed for months. After a bit of sleuthing, he found that the book's author had linked his personal Web site to Softpro's. The author has since agreed to create a similar link whenever he comes out with a new book.

Treitman's new strategy has paid off: Web sales already account for 5% of Softpro's revenues, up from virtually nil a year ago. --Sarah Schafer

Customer Service
Caffeine Fix

Problem: Slow service, frequent order errors
Solution: Bar-coded cards
Payoff: Shorter waits and better service

When you're jonesin' for a cup of coffee, waiting in line for 15 minutes can bring on as bad a case of the shakes as a caffeine overdose. Those long lines and interminable waits drove Dan and Patricia Norton to enlist the help of family members and start the Espresso Lane, a coffee drive-through in Silicon Valley's Redwood City.

Customers came in droves, eager to grab a jolt of java on the fly. The problem was keeping up with them: when the Espresso Lane started up, in 1994, it rejected a speaker system (too impersonal) in favor of runners, who would rush out to cars, write orders on yellow sticky pads, run back to the kitchen, and pass the orders to workers behind the coffee bar. By the time customers got their cup of joe, the order had passed through at least three pairs of hands, leaving plenty of room for mix-ups. After that system proved too unreliable, the Espresso Lane decided it was time to live up to its hometown's reputation and go high-tech.

At first, that meant using an old Kentucky Fried Chicken headset system that cost a couple hundred dollars. Customers would give their orders to headset-clad runners, who would pass them along to headset-clad kitchen workers, who would finally fill them. But there was so much interference on the lines, mostly from car phones, that the workers could barely make out the orders. Next, the owners tried the Pokky system, which is used in many restaurants today. The package required workers to carry a device in their hands and a long list of two-digit codes in their heads--and would have cost almost $10,000 to implement fully. "Turns out, the name fit," jokes company president Paul Norton.

Finally, the Espresso Lane found its perfect system: plastic drink cards dubbed "speeding tickets" and the same infrared scanning equipment that giant supermarkets like Safeway use to monitor inventory and customer cards. Each customer has up to four of his or her favorite orders bar-coded on the card's surface. The system has reduced rush-hour turnaround time to less than three minutes and cut order errors to zero. In the process, sales have increased by 10%, to $525,000.

The Espresso Lane bought its proprietary system for $8,000; it includes a Pentium computer, two small printers for the kitchen, and two hand-held devices with screens.

The runners have been converted to order takers, who rarely even have to speak: they simply scan each card, and the customer's order pops up on both their screen and one of the kitchen printers. The company also plans to use the cards to issue free-drink coupons, based on customers' preferences, and to do direct mailings. --S.S.

Product Development
The Ultimate Head Trip

Problem: Creating 3-D computer models from clay prototypes
Solution: A system that transforms objects into readable computer files
Payoff: Efficient and accurate computer-model generation

Technology was slowing down business at Mosa Extreme Sports, a $6-million manufacturer of helmets and protective gear for rigorous sports like in-line skating and snowboarding. When co-owners Doug Poe and Tom Akeley had to create a prototype for the next wave of protective headgear, they'd typically begin with pencil sketches and then move on to clay models. Simple enough. But to turn the clay prototype into a manufacturing mold, they'd have to undertake the grueling task of designing a computer model--a painstaking process of "creating and defining curvaceous shapes mathematically," says Poe, that often took up to three days to complete.

Poe and Akeley acknowledge that a very high-end CAD system might have solved the problem for the small Hermosa Beach, Calif., company. But it was looking for something a lot less pricey. The solution? Immersion's MicroScribe-3D (408-467-1900; $2,995), a tabletop computer accessory that can electronically transform a physical object into a 3-D computer graphic, coupled with HighRes's HighLight software (619-459-1493; $5,400), which translates the MicroScribe graphics into computer files that CAD systems can read.

The MicroScribe comprises a penlike tool attached to a three-hinged mechanical arm that sits upright on a small base. To "scan" an object into the computer, Poe gently presses the stylus tip against the clay prototype and carefully outlines its surface. The HighLight software then automatically converts the input into a readable 3-D digital format. With the design safely ensconced in the computer, Poe can use the CAD system to make cosmetic changes to the model's surface and even to modify its overall shape.

Mosa Extreme Sports now produces 3-D computer models 60% faster than it used to, says Poe. That leaves the partners plenty of time to roller-blade along Hermosa Beach--while testing out their newest helmets, of course. --Joshua Macht