Back in 1994, ecommerce was in its infancy, and Hot Hot Hot was the second fully-functional ecommerce site on the web – beating even Ebay and Amazon to the punch! This interview with Hot Hot Hot co-owner Monica Bosserman Lopez took place in 1996 and is a fascinating look back at the state of ecommerce nearly two decades ago, and the chance to pick the brain of one of the web’s earliest ecommerce pioneers.
Even though this interview is ancient by modern standards, some of the advice and insight provided by Monica is still spot-on, and can be a real help to aspiring web entrepreneurs.
How many people visit your website each day?
MBL: We have about a thousand to 1,500 visitors to the site every day, which considering we have a 300 square foot shop, we could never possibly fit in here.
How many actually order?
About 1% of the people that visit the site actually order, which is the same as direct mail.
Do you think people on the Web tend to order more?
I think that people on the Web tend to be adventurous anyway. So I think that people who might never have thought of ordering hot and spicy foods, because they see it on the Web, take the opportunity to do it. It's something that's never occurred to them, but it's something totally new.
Has a website enabled you to get more business?
For us the pros of a website is that we're a very small, tiny shop. We get orders from all over the world. We have a guy from Germany who ordered for a friend in England. We have a guy from Guam who sends gifts to his family in the United States. That's something that from a small retail establishment we could never do in any other way.
What products do you sell on the site?
Essentially we sell 150 hot sauces, which to someone who doesn't know anything about hot sauces would be a 150 of the same thing. It was up to us to come up with the way of dividing them up, and in a logical pattern for them to follow. Many websites can be labyrinthine. You can go from one space to the next to the next to the next, and never find out the information you needed. So we divided them up in, in four fairly logical ways. One would be by heat level. One would be by place of origin. One alphabetical listing. And one we were, we were, we had a lot of customers in the shop that ask us for sauces that have no salt or nosugar or a 100% natural. So we set that up too, so you could look for any kind of health reasons you had to have no salt, you could find all the ones with no salt.
Talk about the personality of the site.
We always wanted it to be up and fun. I mean hot sauces are by their very nature fun. They're the only food products you're going to find on the shelves that try to actively scare you. That are making a point of saying this is going to kill you. They're death sauce or hell sauce or anything like this. The site had to reflect that. It had to have that kind of personality. It had to be there for people who aren't going to be afraid of this kind of food.
What is the philosophy of site?
I think that the Internet is a tremendously new place to do business. It's the first new place anybody can go to to explore marketing. It's also a new medium. It's a totally new unexplored creative area for people. We happen to use it as a selling tool. You can see it used very creatively as an advertising tool, as a marketing tool, as a communications tool. I think it's really a fascinating new place for people to explore.
Are you growing with the site?
I don't know that it's growing, that business is growing to the degree to which people are getting on the Internet, because I think that as the same time that people are logging onto the Internet, websites are going up. So at this point there are tons of websites for people to maneuver through. I think that that will start to just dissipate. That unless you're, people are putting up websites without thinking about them. They're not trying to use them for anything great. Everybody's just clamoring to get on there and not have any thought about what they're doing up there. I think those will go away. And then there'll be a more even keel for it. And it will grow with the amount of people that are on it.
What do people have to take into consideration about being on the Web?
To start a business on the Internet, there are lots of things that you need to think about. For us, if you're selling something, you have to remember that you're now a worldwide company. You will be shipping overseas. You will get orders from overseas, be prepared for that. You will need to be prepared to fully involve it in the rest of your business. Customers on the Net are much more likely to want to contact you than any sort of catalog business. Most catalog businesses have very little contact with their customers. But e-mail is easy. They can e-mail you questions. Customers feel more comfortable doing it. So you have to be prepared to be, spend a fair amount of time responding to them.
Give us some idea of your monthly sales on the Internet.
The Internet currently is about 20% of our business that we can attribute directly to sales. I think there's another 10% that brings people in here into the shop that we can't directly attribute but people that know us because of the website. I've had customers come in from Germany. I've had customers come infrom England because they saw the website.
What were the up front costs to do this?
In our particular case, when we started the site, we were just at the same time doing a catalog. So we had set up all that. Aside from setting up the site, cost wise you have to be prepared with the manpower to do some marketing. You can't just rely on putting up a site, that people are going to find you. You have to do some traditional marketing. And, that will cost you some money.
How do people find your site?
People navigate through the site and find you by way of many indexes. Some of which are Yahoo or Web Crawler and you need to be listed in them. That's how people can find you, by your URL, basically your address. It's really the only way to find your address without calling the shop or, or if you're looking for hot sauces and you don't know who has them, you can look it up by the different tracking mechanisms.
Talk about positioning on the Internet.
Word of mouth is the best kind of business you can ever do. It's the best form of advertising. Doing a good site will get you good word of mouth. People will like you and people put links to you. A big part of the Internet and a big part of the World Wide Web in particular it is based on sharing. It's based on sharing of information. So someone might put their own website up, they like our site, so they add us to the sites that they like, someone's at their website and they say oh, we'll check out Hot Hot Hot, and they can link directly to us. There's lots of different ways of going about where you position your site at this point. There's different theories on where you'd like to be, same as if you were setting up a standard retail business. You know, there are different costs involved with being in a mall, but they're also doing some marketing for you. Versus being on your own where you have to do all the marketing.
Where is your server?
The company that helped us to design the website also maintains our server. The orders are processed directly through them. They get the orders and then they send them to us from there.
Do you have a daily rapport with them?
We have a daily rapport, but we actually don't speak to each other. I mean theorders are immediately faxed to us. So we get a fax and an e-mail copy of the order as soon as they get it. So it's not a process where we wait for orders to come in as a list later on. There's a real immediacy to it.
What are some of the other considerations for small businesses?
I think that anybody that wants to get on the Internet should have a purpose. Even if that purpose is just to learn about it. Establish your goals for it inthe first place. If you think that you're going to get up there and you'resuddenly going to make a ton of money, it's not a good goal. It just doesn'twork that way yet. It's too new. But if you want to get up there and try something that's totally new, then that's a fine goal. Establish what you want to do. It's a company decision and you can't just put it up and ignore it. You have to keep putting things into your site. You can't leave it up there and letit be stagnant.
What kind of content do you put on your site?
Every month we have a new sauce of the month as well as a comment of the month. We change sauces periodically. We put new ones in as we get them, we'll take acouple out. We don't like to just keep adding more sauces because we don't want it to be too complicated. We also have added some new features at Christmastime and every season we have a seasonal hot box and gift pack. So we might havea summer one, we might have a fall one. We might have one that was specifically designed for Father's Day.
What about updating your website?
I think all websites are a work in progress. They need to be a constantly evolving thing. If you want people to come back to your site, there has to be something new for them. If it's the same stuff then there's nothing for them to come back for even if you're selling a product. If you were any other kind ofshop or catalog, you change it and your website has to change in that fashion.
What's the future of your site?
Our plans are to continue expanding the website. We have a definite interest in growing and changing with this medium. We would like to add more features and actually add more types of products, rather than hot sauces — salsas and barbecue sauces and other items.
Anything else down the road?
Having a website you have to be aware of the technological advances. And there's lots of new things that come about all the time. Real audio, VRML which is the virtual reality type things, we'd love to incorporate all types of new technologies into it as we progress.
What kind of user feedback and communication do you get?
We get lots of e-mail response. They could be anything from people telling us stories about how they've utilized the sauces, to ah probably the one time we've had some bad e-mail where someone was mad at us for not being a porno site, to people asking us if we can find them a particular sauce, to people who want to sell us sauces.
Any other problems?
When we first put up the site, we realized that when people placed orders it was like placing an order into a black hole, they didn't know if an order was really placed. So the first people who placed orders would place an order and then they'd call us on the 800 number to make sure we got it. Which we figured was kind of irrelevant. We immediately set up an e-mail backup so when they place an order, they get an automatic response saying we received it and it tells them what their order is.
Does the Internet save you time and money?
There are certain aspects of it that do save you time and money. Setting up a website isn't necessarily going to save you money per se. It is going to cost you some money and you are going to want to see something out of it. If it's advertising that you want out of it, these are your advertising dollars as abusiness. It does save you money as far as your 800 phone bills. Or just being able to communicate with people. As a communications tools, it is really an inexpensive tool. I can communicate with somebody in England about their order as easily as I can communicate with somebody across the street and it costs the same which is very little. I can talk back and forth with the guy in England about his order, tell him something's back ordered, or he can ask me questions,and it's not paying for tremendous overseas costs. There are, as far as putting up a website and seeing instant dollars, I think that that's a big fallacy that's going around at this point. It does take work.
How much work does it take?
Once you've spent the money on your website, as far as changing it, it should besomething that's incorporated into what you're doing. It is a lot cheaper at that point to just change your website, to update it, to do some subtle changes or even some larger changes than it would be ever to resend a catalog to everybody. Our catalog costs 78 cents just in postage. A thousand people a day,that's, you know, $780 just in postage, let alone the printing. As, as far asthe changes to it are concerned, it is a cheaper form of a catalog.
How much did you spend on this site?
When we set up our deal with Presence, the company that designed our site, we set it up on a percentage basis. It was very new, we started this very, very early in the website business. So we worked on a percentage basis.
What is the cost?
You know, it's really hard to choose a typical cost. You hear people who say oh, I can get a website for $250 a year, but so what. I think that if we had had to produce a catalog and reach as many people as we did, we could not have possibly done it for the amount of money that the website cost us. We would never have received as much press. Just cost effectiveness in that fashion absolutely, it's very clear that it saved us a lot of money as far as the reach we had.