Will They Bite?

The "Reverse Pivot" is not your typical golf shoe. For starters, its clunky, three-toned saddle-oxford body strays from the traditional single-colored, pointy-toed, dress-shoe style of footwear that players like Jack Nicklaus have sported on the PGA tour for years. Even more daring, it has a spikeless sole with an intricate pattern of grip-inducing rubber ridges meant to handle slippery conditions on the green.

The new design followed the principles of Bite Shoes founder Dale Bathum, who in 1996 started the Redmond, Wash., company to make casual, comfortable golf shoes. He and his tradition-bucking staff created a sample of the Reverse Pivot, hoping against hope that the company would have a hit. "We all liked it here in the office, but we thought it might be just too radical for our core customers," recalls Bathum.

So Bite Shoes queried golfers themselves. The company posted a photo of the shoe on its Web site and then E-mailed 50 loyal customers and, more important, 10 top buyers for pro shops who set the standard for the golf-shoe-wearing public. The messages referred recipients to the site and asked them questions about the shoe's style and price tag.

That wasn't the first time Bite Shoes had used its Web-surfing customers as a focus group. The company, which posted revenues of $3 million in 1998, developed the on-line strategy last year, when it was considering entering the bowling-shoe market. By displaying its prototype designs on-line, Bite Shoes not only received important feedback from customers but also saved a lot of money. "Before the Web, we flew in key buyers from all over the country to see the line," says Bathum. "That was superexpensive."

As with any start-up, cost is a big issue for Bite Shoes. And producing a new shoe is a pricey proposition -- about $50,000 per style, according to Bathum. "And if it's a dog, then you've got to sell it for nothing on the closeout market." Based on the 60 responses the company received about the Reverse Pivot, it's probably safe to say that if the shoe had ever seen the light of day, it would never have left the warehouse. The golfers liked it -- they were even asking for multiple color options. But "the store guys didn't like it -- they just didn't want to take the risk," says Bathum. And since the company doesn't yet sell direct to customers through the Internet, buyers' preferences mean everything.

So Bite Shoes scrapped the Reverse Pivot and decided to focus instead on developing more golf sandals, whose sales represent about 45% of its total revenues. The company plans to continue using the Internet for focus groups, though. Besides being a cost-saving measure, the Web surveys provide an opportunity for additional high-quality contact: after receiving the buyers' E-mail responses, company reps follow up with phone calls. "You have a reason to call them up, other than trying to sell them something," Bathum says. "Plus, they feel as if they're a part of the process." -- Anne Marie Borrego

Lincoln Logons

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?