Sunday, October 20, 2002

Students boost Web mark of engraver

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Thanks to the Internet, Pewter Place Engravery is capturing new markets in the Tristate and beyond, without having to go outside its Kenwood Towne Centre location.

What makes this company's e-commerce story different from many others, however, is the exacting nature of the Gilson family's business and its serendipitous use of resources.

  Pewter Place Engravery's new site, at, debuted last week. Robert Gilson anticipates that the company's sophisticated online capabilities will affect every aspect of its business, including in-store transactions.
  Customers in the store will deal with a sales staff that has a much-improved database. The company is considering installing a computer for use by customers who want to browse on their own, or to actually select and purchase an engraved item.
  "We are using this site as a tool to increase our services, our reach and our availability," said Mr. Gilson. "Customers that know us will enjoy our enhanced services and those that don't will be surprised.
  "Once we decided to develop these tools, we realized that these are the tools the big guys have. It's hard to tell online how big a company is. If your site is as professional as, say, Williams-Sonoma, and as long as you provide the good service, you can be as successful as they are."
"We are in the gift industry, both corporate and personal, and have wrestled with how to get our services online for a few years now," said Robert Gilson, who is leading the company's new markets effort. "Being in the custom engraving business, a typical sale can take as long as 30 minutes, with a great deal of customer-sales-associate interaction."

Translating that very personal shopping experience to the Web was a challenge, especially because Pewter Place didn't have a huge budget for professional Web design. Mr. Gilson knew that a successful solution had to combine ease of use, a friendly approach and high-quality visuals.

The answer to his problem proved to be right in the shop with him. Because the busiest seasons for Pewter Place, December and late spring, correspond with student vacation times, the shop beefs up its staff during those times with area students who are interested in graphic arts or retail sales. Several students hired last year proved to have critical computer skills as well.

"We had a Web presence before," explained Mr. Gilson. "The site we had developed was a minimum-investment online catalog. As we were hiring students to operate our computer engraving machine, we found that those skills were compatible with product management on the Internet, adding or updating product information."

Once the project was outlined to them, the students began questioning its limits.

"They brought us more ideas; we'd ask them `Can you do this?' The next thing, they're saying, `What about this?' There were new concepts we thought we couldn't afford, but they showed us new features that could be done so reasonably we didn't have to wait."

University of Cincinnati computer science major Nicholas Fabisiak convinced the Gilsons that the company's Web site, properly designed and managed, could do far more than simply keep track of inventory. His vision and preliminary designs were enthusiastically seconded by new hire Al Bhattacharya, who helped make that vision a reality. Another new staffer, UC photo major Mark Corelli, supplied the images.

The first step was to modify the store's site so customers could view its complete product assortment, although customers still needed to phone in or e-mail their engraving requirements. Even with that limitation, the company saw an immediate increase in sales, giving staff confidence they were moving in the right direction. The goal was to develop a self-guiding Web site that would incorporate the whole shopping process, with excellent-quality images that would reflect how an item would look with a particular inscription.

As the students worked on plans for such a site, administrative issues emerged, as did a solution.

The company hired a third UC student, David Rice, who has worked with Mr. Bhattacharya to enable Pewter Place to host its own Web site, thereby keeping control entirely in the company's hands.

"If a third party administers your site, you lose a lot of control," Mr. Gilson explained. "It's like owning your own building versus renting. We `bought our own building.'"

"Dave and I used to sit in class at UC and debate on how we could apply what we were learning to industry," said Mr. Bhattacharya. "Pewter Place has given us the opportunity to create, manage and direct an IT project, which will enhance their business and give us valuable practical experience. Bridging the gap between theory and practice has been challenging, but familiar, territory."

While Cincinnati Bell is its Internet service provider, Pewter Place Engravery has taken on everything else. That power, said Mr. Gilson, has expanded both the site's database potential as well as its speed.

"It means that we can put all of our products onto the database and run an inventory control system that is up-to-the-minute. If someone comes into the shop and buys our last pewter baby cup, we scan it into our machine and it goes right into the Web site. If somebody in Seattle wants to order the same cup, they see that this item ships in two to three weeks."

Said Mr. Bhattacharya: "The Store Management System will not only make managing their Internet business easier, but also their retail store. The system we came up with streamlines business processes at both locations, so there is a true one degree of separation between their `bricks' and their `clicks.'"

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