Valerie Koehler wants to improve her Web site. The owner of Blue Willow
, Houston, Tex., told me so herself when we met at the MPIBA
in Denver last month. We spoke at length that day and the
conversation has continued. As she explores new ways to cultivate her
online presence, Koehler has agreed to share some of her
experiences--both good and bad--with us occasionally.
Blue Willow's current Web site is a nice place to visit. Working within
the limitations of a Booksense.com template, Koehler manages to convey
a personal and hospitable image for her store. The site includes a
generous selection of monthly new offerings
, Koehler's Letter from the
and a wide-ranging, up-to-date Staff Picks section
According to Koehler, the toughest challenge is "carving out the time
to work on it daily. And I'm not talking about actually writing the
language; just looking at it and working with my Web master. My
immediate goal is to keep the site fresh and relevant. This is not as
easy as it might sound. I employ a wonderful person who is very detail
oriented, a quick learner and a huge web surfer. But the site must
reflect our personality, and that personality must come from me. So I
need to 'feed' her this information. It helps when she spends time at
the shop so she can work with me on the 'feel' part of the site. But
all small business owners are busy and we need to carve out this time."
The reward, however, comes from "opening it up and seeing the changes and thinking, 'Wow, that's us.' "
"Hospitality" seems an appropriate and important word to use here. In
this industry, we tend to flog "service" a bit too often in describing
our mission, but that's not necessarily our best game.
Danny Meyer, legendary restaurateur and owner of Union Square Café,
Gramercy Tavern and other eateries in New York City and author of
Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
was asked to define hospitality in a recent USA Today
"Service can be measured based on how well a product was technically
delivered. Hospitality can be measured based upon how the recipient of
that service felt. Hospitality exists when something happens for you,
not to you. It exists when you believe the other person is on your
side. Service is truly a monologue. Hospitality has to be a dialogue."
Bluewillowbookshop.com already exemplifies such hospitality to a
degree. Koehler makes it as personal as she can, using "pictures,
letters, and fresh commentary that sounds like us. It's easy to cut and
paste the words from the publisher. It is much harder to write reviews
that reflect our personal views. Give me an opening to talk to people
and I can sell books and
inspire my staff to do the same."
People visit her Web site now primarily for information about events,
for staff recommendations and, "a distant third," to shop for books.
When customers mention the site to her, it tends to be for "everything
from coming in and telling us they are buying a book that we reviewed
on our site to calling us to ask about a date correction. One person
said I don't look anything like my picture."
Although Blue Willow does not sell many books online, Koehler would
like to alter that. She is particularly interested in finding a way to
build Web connections between potential customers and her best
handsellers: "Long-range goals would be to increase sales on the site
and to develop relationships--with our existing and new customers who
are unable to visit us physically--that will result in sales that
otherwise would be lost to our competitors." If done well, handselling
conversations online can reap both sales and hospitality benefits.
Setting up an at once secure yet welcoming structure in which to
accomplish this is the challenge.
Koehler seems ready to take it on. She is not satisfied with a good Web
site. She wants a better one and has dedicated herself to the messy,
evolutionary process of replicating the hospitable aura of Blue Willow
Bookshop in an online environment.
"We are attempting to keep the relationships alive with our wonderful
front line booksellers and their customers," she says. "We cannot say I
just want to sell books. We have to engage in the business of retailing
and today that includes online."--Robert Gray
available at Fresh Eyes Now