Digital Expansion: Exploring e-Commerce for Brick-and-Mortar Businesses

Growing a business — there are lots of options. Sometimes, you’re bursting at the seams and adding another location is just what you need. You can service a new geography and make accessing who you are and what you do easier for the people who love what you do and offer.

Other times, the right growth can be digital. With convenience as a major player in the lives of business people and consumers alike, it’s no wonder that smart leaders are looking to e-commerce to expand businesses that began as brick-and-mortar. If you’ve ever wondered about making the leap to expand your sales online, we have some real world examples of businesses doing just that. Let’s have a look at three different businesses that each have recently taken the digital commerce leap as a growth tactic.


    • Robin Autorino – Founder, Owner, and Chocolatier at Robin’s Chocolates in Longmont, CO, a boutique chocolatier located just outside of Boulder.


    • Frank Capasso – President, Valley Home Lighting, a retailer of lighting fixtures, residential electrical supplies, and ceiling fans in Ansonia, Connecticut.


    • Gini Dietrich – CEO, Arment Dietrich and Spin Sucks. Arment Dietrich is a boutique public relations and integrated marketing firm based in Chicago, Illinois. Spin Sucks is their online training company for public relations and marketing professionals.


How long in have you been in business?


    • Robin’s Chocolates: We officially started in February of 2008.


    • Valley Home Lighting: We’ve been in business 53 years, since 1963.


    • Spin Sucks: We’ve been in business for 11 years.


What prompted the decision to offer online purchases?


    • Robin: It made sense to be online since many people shop for holiday gifts online and chocolate is very gift-able. When you search online for chocolate, artisan chocolates, edible gifts, and the like, several chocolatiers pop up. The only way I could compete with them was to also be online. Being online definitely gives a company a broader customer base. My shop is in a small shopping plaza and the town I live in is not that large—I had to be online to spread the word.


    • Frank: We had customers who wanted to shop online. We didn’t want to lose business just because our existing customers wanted to order on an online platform instead of walking into a store. We also wanted to expand geographic reach. We’re a lighting store in Connecticut, but now we can reach customers across the nation.


    • Gini: In practicing the “seven revenue streams” approach, we decided to add online courses, a mastermind group, and a membership site to our services offerings. As the founder, I went through every emotion you can think, from, “I run a PR firm, what the heck can we productize?” to, “no one will ever buy these from us.” As it turns out, all the years we spent building an audience through our blog and developing an expertise around our services allowed a great entree into online product sales.


How have online sales helped (or hindered) your in-store traffic?


    • Robin: I think it actually helps. People that live an hour away have ordered online and then decide they want to see all the other items that we mention on the website but don’t sell online.


    • Frank: It helps people find us who would have never found us before, that kind of exposure you can’t get by just having a brick and mortar store. It is still hard to compete against Amazon and other big box stores, though. But now we can at least be in the running for online searches for anything lighting or home related.


    • Gini: It’s been pretty cool, actually. We thought clients might shy away; but it turns out, the ones who can afford to hire a firm would much rather hire the experts to execute on the process than try to learn it themselves. So, not only has it grown the services side of the business, it has allowed us to become experts in helping organizations take a traditional business online.


What was the most surprising about making the transition to operating with both brick and mortar and online sales?


    • Robin: How difficult it is to ship chocolate? It’s still a struggle for the online store for two reasons. The first is keeping the website up to date. My husband is the web designer but also has three companies of his own, so time is limited. The second is that shipping chocolate is hard since it melts. Insulated boxes are the answer, but they are quite costly as are shipping costs for overnight or 2nd day air with UPS. In the winter, it’s easier but we still have to check temperatures for each destination where we’re sending a shipment.


    • Frank: I was very surprised that so many people order from geographies that are far away. The volume of local customers who reach out to us through our contact page to ask questions was also surprising.


    • Gini: The difference in communication. You know how you get tired of all the emails you receive? There are so many emails you have to send when you sell an online product. If done well, though, they work extraordinarily well. I remember our first launch had 15 emails in 10 days and I was really nervous about it and even pushed back on my team about sending that many. But they were right. The emails worked. And the three emails we sent on the last day? Those are what generated the most revenue. The lesson there is, even if it’s uncomfortable, persist. It’s in the process for a reason.


What advice would you give B&M-only businesses right now considering the shift to adding online sales?


    • Robin: Learn all you can about shipping first. UPS and Fedex can be very costly, but USPS doesn’t always provide great tracking. Knowing how to ship your product – packaging, especially – and then training staff to actually get those shipments out is very important. Another important note is that if your employees change throughout the year, document your shipping processes as precisely as possible. I learned in the US Navy that when writing instructions you should keep it simple and detailed so that even a 6th grader could do it.


    • Frank: It’s the way people want to shop. You need a web presence–and if you think you don’t you will be surprised how many online customers you can and will reach.


    • Gini: Run, don’t walk. Do not overthink it. Do not over-analyze. Create a pilot, test it out, create the product, and get some feedback. Then move from there. The best book you can read on the topic is Launch by Jeff Walker. It walks you through a process and what you can expect the first time out. There also are tons of experts who, today, teach online courses. I recommend Danny Iny’s Course Builders Laboratory. As a services business, it’s hard to imagine that you can have online sales. Sure, some people sell eBooks (or traditional books) and in-depth webinars, but nothing goes much beyond that. But what if you thought about it as teaching your employees and your clients your process? In Built to Sell, the big message is “have one process and build a business around it that isn’t dependent on you.” So take that philosophy and figure out how to create online courses that first would benefit your employees and then your clients. And then launch it out to the industry. Intellectual property makes great online courses and that industry is exploding right now. Take advantage!


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