When I founded Lillian Vernon Corp. on my yellow Formica kitchen table in 1951, I couldn't have imagined selling to customers linked by little boxes called "laptops" to a "tabletop" of mine that is actually a big box called a server, located in cyberspace rather than physical space.

Back then, a visit was a friend stopping by for coffee, the number of hits told us if the New York Yankees would make it to the World Series, and a web was spun by a spider. The only thing launched in the 1950s was a rocket in a Buck Rogers serial, and a site was something for sore eyes. User friendly? Well, in those days, we didn't even talk like that in mixed company!

So you could imagine my hesitation when, four and a half decades later, in 1995, we took our first steps into what is now called "e-commerce," or selling electronically. That year, realizing that e-commerce would play an important role in the future of catalog retailing, we set up an online shop through America Online, where we thought our customers were most comfortable.

The following year, we unveiled our own online catalog, featuring 200 of our best-selling items, at our new address on the Internet: www.lillianvernon.com. And in December 1998, we completely redesigned the site, expanding our online offerings to more than 400 products in nine categories. In doing so, we enhanced our customers' ability to shop with computers.

Go with the Flow

In the process, I've gone from ignorance and trepidation about e-commerce to a passionate belief in its future. My journey mirrors my company's long-standing willingness to embrace change to maintain its position as an industry leader. It parallels our realization that advances in technology are what powers change.

In 1980, when we realized that telephone orders were increasing significantly, we promptly established a call center. My days of personally handling a small number of telephone orders were over. In 1982, we began operating the lines 24 hours a day, and a decade later, we switched to a toll-free number. In the late 1980s, when more people had access to fax machines, we installed a dedicated fax line, eventually making that line toll free as well.

In short, I have had to go with the flow of technological change, because it has made ordering easier for my ever busier customers. In the case of e-commerce, acceptance involved overcoming skepticism. While I could understand how a telephone or fax machine could simplify ordering, I found surfing the Internet to be a totally foreign concept.

The solution was to educate myself -- which worked. Once I understood that a search engine wasn't part of a rescue squad but an invaluable tool for enabling customers to find the right product, I was sold. With its ability to reference a key word, price, or category, the online index was handier than any in a printed catalog. Best of all, customers could use the tool in the privacy and comfort of their own homes and offices.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

When my marketing gurus convinced me to launch our first online catalog in 1996, I quickly became a convert. The turning point occurred during the 1996 Christmas selling season. After passing a crowded shopping mall, I thought to myself: Why wait in line when you can shop online?

So I set to work creating a site that is fresh, attractive, interesting, informative, and, yes, "user friendly," a word that I now love to toss around. During the last six months, we assigned two full-time staffers to work with a Web design agency to revamp the site, which now features more than 400 of our most popular products, as well as the ability to electronically order all 6,000-plus items from our eight catalog titles.

Through the site, shoppers can also order from a gift registry, be reminded of gift-giving occasions, and even be advised of the "right" gift for family and friends. Our customer service department is only a mouse click away. Since graphics can be altered weekly, the site features holiday-specific themes, new catalogs and online specials. Best of all, encryption software makes using credit cards at our online store safer than at the local shopping mall.

Keep the Personal Touch

Deciding to embrace e-commerce was one of the most important business decisions I've ever made. But I wondered, at first, whether customers from my generation would think we were becoming too "high tech" and flock instead to competitors holding their ground against the technology.

To address that issue, I decided to make a point of transferring the personal touch that has always been a hallmark of Lillian Vernon catalogs to the Internet. Our Web site features my photograph, a personal message from me, and an e-mail address by which customers can write to me. My staffers forward all messages requiring my personal attention.

In addition, I determined that my online presence would supplement rather than replace our catalogs. I am frequently asked whether I will continue to sell in print, and my response is and always will be, ABSOLUTELY. I continually assure customers who aren't computer savvy that catalogs will always be accessible the old-fashioned way.

Making the Transition

In bringing Lillian Vernon from tabletop to laptop, I've learned a lot of hard lessons. Our biggest challenge was finding the right people to build the Web site and its underlying database, a task that required both technical expertise and a sound understanding of our business and its goals for online sales.

As other entrepreneurs make similar transitions, our experience suggests the need to accept change and embrace the technological innovations that are central to change. It suggests the importance of designing a site that is comprehensive, fresh, and secure. And it highlights the necessity of the vital personal touch that is the cornerstone of human interactions.

While revenue derived from our online shop currently accounts for less than 1% of our total sales, I have no doubt that e-commerce will become increasingly important in the decade ahead. With the average dollar amount of our online order soaring 38% in a year, I don't think I've been as excited about anything since I placed my first advertisement in Seventeen magazine nearly a half century ago. Now I anxiously await weekly statistics to see how many more Lillian Vernon customers are shopping online than in line.

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