In June, we will begin our fifteenth year selling hats at VillageHatShop.com. It is difficult to fathom how far this sales channel has evolved. In the beginning, to my great surprise and delight, it really was a "if you build it, they will come" opportunity. A search for "hats" elicited a handful of replies; a strange amalgam of search results. If memory serves me well, there was in fact a hat retailer – a single store operation in Washington State – who preceded us on the web. This early adaptor never developed and is a nonfactor online today. Another result was for a straw hat – similar to Panamas – made in a small village in Campeche, Mexico. This obscure hat material made in an off-the-beaten-track corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, woven in underground caverns by descendants of the Maya (who did not speak Spanish) had a promoter on the Internet (before the word "internet" was in our vocabulary!). Aside from another result or two, that was it for a "hats" query in early 1997. Today Google returns about 74,500 results for this keyword.
These good old days are long gone. If you build it now, they will not come-unless you do a whole lot of other things well, and work it very hard. VillageHatShop.com has come a long way in this short time; if we hadn’t we would not still be here. The trajectory of where ecommerce is headed requires ever more diligence if we are to continue winning and holding your business. The novelty of buying online ended years ago; now it’s perform well or lose your customer. We are up to the challenge. Satisfying the needs of our customers are what we have always believed was fundamental to successful retailing. So, we aren’t intimidated if this is to be the criterion that separates the winning merchants from the losers – it ought to be.
I am a different merchant than I was fifteen years ago. I’m stretching and growing – in some ways that are more dispassionate and data-driven, while holding dear to the zeal and idealism that helped bring The Village Hat Shop to where we are today. Finding the right middle ground is not easy. On the one hand the goal is survival, beating the competition. However, if the values of the business are not clearly focused on making a positive difference in people’s lives-and, by extension, the greater community – than why bother?
Fifteen years ago, the world of commerce as it exists today was unthinkable. Where will it be fifteen years from now? I hope that the relationship between customer and merchant and merchant and employee will always be the sine qua non for success in retail. If it is, we may still be around. Search (in engines like Google and Bing) as we know it today, I believe will be gone. But somehow people will get connected to good businesses (likely, more efficiently than now). So being a good business, by all measures is all that matters, and all that will matter.