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It's e-business as usual



Published: Sun, May 20, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Local companies are using the Internet to serve customers across the country.

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- Despite the crumbling of many dot-com companies nationwide, selling over the Internet is alive and well in the Mahoning Valley.

Perhaps most importantly, it's profitable.

"These e-tailers are making money," said Ralph Zerbonia, general manager of Cboss Community Networks of Boardman, which sets up Web sites.

Some examples:

UBikeswholesale.com, which opened a year ago in New Middletown, expects to do $1 million in sales this year and $3 million next year.

UAt Frankford Bicycle Corp., a 24-year-old Girard company, 20 percent of total sales are either placed on the company Web page or over the phone by people who have shopped on the page.

USki Limited of Boardman has been selling over the Internet for six years, but interest has been so strong lately that sales are up 48 percent over last year.

UCentral Optical of Youngstown, which makes eyeglasses, added Internet sales a year ago to better reach out-of-town doctors and now has about 10 percent of its sales placed on its Web site.

Zerbonia said Cboss is marketing new software that makes running an e-commerce site easy. He thinks the Internet revolution is far from over, despite the failure of many companies.

"It was just the demise of the idiots," he said.

The dot-com companies that failed were relying on advertising to pay for their Web operations, he said. Television has worked by relying on ad revenue only, but that doesn't work with online companies because Web sites have a narrow audience, he said.

Companies that succeed are treating their e-business like any other business, he said. They know their market, promote the Web site well and pay close attention to what their customers want, he said.

Cycling toward success: Jerry Rowan, managing director of Bikeswholesale.com, said his customers are bike enthusiasts who know the products, so they are comfortable buying over the Internet.

"They are clever, well-educated people who take advantage of everything around them," he said.

His company sells between 15 and 25 bikes a day, with the average order totaling between $400 and $500. About 40 percent of the orders are placed directly on the Web site.

Rowan said it takes about an hour to serve a customer in person, which is why he doesn't promote his store as a walk-in location. It only takes five minutes over the phone and hardly any time over the Internet.

"Not that I mind talking to them, but there's only so much time to get stuff done," he said.

The key to his business's early success has been knowing where to buy bikes and getting the Web site prominently placed in search engine results, he said.

Rowan started the company, which has 11 employees, after Bike Nashbar of Boardman was acquired by another company. He had been vice president of purchasing and product development for the mail-order bike company.

Frankford Bicycle, with 10 employees, took a different route to success on the Internet. The company has been selling bikes for 24 years and offering a catalog for the past 15.

It started frankfordbike.com four years ago and now sells all sorts of bikes over the Internet, from tricycles to $5,000 mountain bikes.

Sales have increased as people become more comfortable sending credit card information over the Internet, said Paul Frankford, president.

Sales growth: Vic Daprile, president of Ski Limited, said he expects Internet sales to grow by nearly 50 percent for most of this year, with the growth rate tapering off later this year or next year. Even though the mail-order company has been on the Web for six years, growth has sprung up recently because people are more comfortable with the Internet and the company has increased marketing of its Web site, he said.

The company, which has about 65 employees, has been promoting the site in its catalog and placing ads in national publications. About 80 percent of the online customers are regular Ski Limited customers, he said.

"They found this to be a convenient way to do business with us," he said.

The site allows Ski Limited to offer greater depth of product lines such as supplies for recreational vehicles and ocean navigation, he said.

At Central Optical, a year-old online sales site has helped pick up new accounts with doctors throughout the northeast United States.

"I love it. It's worked out real well for us," said Lloyd Yazbek, president of the company, which employs 40.

Doctors in other areas find it easy to place orders for eyeglasses over the Internet, he said. Local doctors don't use online ordering because the company has daily delivery and order pick up, he said. About half of the company's business is from local doctors.




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