Sink or Swim
by Shannon Scully
Imagine if you had never heard of the Internet. “Google” would still mean a
really big number and “crawl” would be how babies get around. Think of all you’d
be missing if you had never been online: instant news headlines, discount
shopping deals, access to the world in just one click.
Has your small business heard of the Internet? Are you capturing
opportunities to sell to a customer across the country as easily as you sell to
one down the street? “We don’t need a Web site,” you say. “All of our customers
are local. And besides, they wouldn’t use an e-commerce site if we had one.” If
that’s your opinion, it’s probably time to rethink it.
Consumers as a whole are moving online in droves — your customers included.
During the 2003 holiday shopping season, online orders grew 29 percent over
previous years, according to research firm comScore Networks. And consumers
weren’t buying just at mega sites. Small online retailers also enjoyed big
boosts in their sales. Since it appears this “Internet thing” is here to stay,
it’s survival of the smartest now. Despite all the favorable statistics, do you
still worry e-commerce would kill the respected brand that took you years to
build? We found four small businesses that say, Fear not. With at least 50 years
of experience at each business, these owners understand why established
companies resist change. But they also know how quickly a business can die in
this new economy. On the following pages, discover why the fastest-growing small
businesses are putting a lot of energy into e-commerce.
Marc Schulman hasn’t forgotten his roots either. He provides the same level
of customer care at his Chicago cheesecake business that made his father, Eli
Schulman, a legend in the Windy City’s restaurant industry.
Started in the early 1940s, Eli’s The Place for Steak was a favorite hangout
of stars such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The cheesecake dessert became
such a popular menu item that in 1980 the family spun off Eli’s Cheesecake
(www.elischeesecake.com) to focus solely on the sweets.
Eli’s Cheesecakes is a retail and wholesale supplier to clients across the
country. One of the most popular online produces is the “C-cake®,” a
made-to-order cheesecake customers build themselves, choosing their favorite
topping, border, decorations or even a personalized message.
Schulman has been online since the early days of the Internet. Though Eli’s
Cheesecake was a part of Chicago Online in 1995, the company resisted pouring
cash into online ventures.
“We were much more conservative about it,” says Schulman. “From the beginning
we never said, ‘We’re going to change our entire business to e-commerce.’”
To him, abandoning a formula that works didn’t make sense. Instead, he chose
to stick to a family-owned recipe for success.
“The Internet is a great way to reach lots of customers quickly. It’s a
growing part of our business, but it’s definitely not the most significant.”
Marc Schulman wants customers to know he exists, too. That’s why he made sure
to add a link on Eli’s Cheesecake’s homepage that allows people to e-mail him
“I’m an e-mail junkie,” says Schulman, who answers messages as quickly as
possible. “I like customers to know there’s a person on the other end.”
Schulman enjoys hearing customer feedback, and never wants someone to have to
dig through layers of people to get an answer. To him, it’s the same sort of
personal service his father provided for 70 years. “My dad is the ultimate
one-on-one marketer,” he says. “I use the same personal touch, I’ve just adapted
it with technology.”
Technology can help you improve personal service, but you have to work at it,
he says. “The system won’t do everything. In our case, you can’t eat
Schulman says e-commerce just makes good sense for small business retailers
“In an era where retail distribution is getting tougher, anyone in the
country can get a cheesecake from us in two days,” he says. “For the little guy,
the ability to grow through e-commerce is very good.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2004 issue of