One might say Gail Dobberfuhl's business is blossoming on the Internet.
It took the Reston florist three tries to create a place on the World Wide Web that works for Blooms, her 5 1/2-year-old store.
But it's working now, she says, after she paid "less than $5,000" to an Ohio flower wholesaler for the rights to the domain name Blooms.com, and "less than $20,000" to a Web consultant to design the site.
The new Web location has helped boost revenue about 30 percent over a year ago, she says. And therein lies a lesson for businesses trying to tap into the ever-growing surge of retailing on the Internet, experts say: It's not enough to have just any old Web site. It must be convenient for customers to reach and utilize.
Dobberfuhl should know. She started with a Web location on America Online's Digital City site that took five mouse clicks to reach -- if the prospective customer knew her store was there in the first place.
Next, she tried listing her store on the FTD.com Web site operated by Florists' Transworld Delivery Inc., the retail flower industry's worldwide send-a-bouquet ordering system. Its Web site shows some generic bouquets that customers can send anywhere, but Dobberfuhl found it difficult to alter the listing. "Any time I wanted to change something, I had to go through people. If I ran out of azaleas," she said, "I wanted to be able to pull that off [the Web site] and put it back on when I had more to sell. The control of it was very important to me. We don't operate as a standard FTD florist. Our market is more higher-end."
Moreover, she added, "many of the sites will talk about how wonderful they are, but I didn't want to have to go through someone else to get to my site."
For her, the solution was simple: create her own Web site.
After some negotiation, she bought the domain name from the Ohio wholesaler and started studying other retailers' online sites. She said the best one she found was that produced by L.L. Bean Inc., the Maine-based sporting goods and clothing store, whose Web site gives customers a clear selection of categories of items they may want, such as fly-fishing gear or casual shoes for girls.
Dobberfuhl wanted the same straightforward selection menu of available items, including traditional long-stem red roses, the 20 wines she carries, Crabtree & Evelyn bath and body soaps and powders, Godiva chocolates, greeting cards or packaged gourmet foods.
"If I've got five minutes before a meeting to send my mother flowers," she said, "I don't want to read a history of the company. Some sites you scroll and scroll before you enter their store."
In the end, she hired the .Com Group, a Reston Internet consultant, to design and build www.blooms.com. The fee of under $20,000 "was a compromise between what I could afford and my dream site." Someday, she said, she wants to augment her site so that it tells customers about the characteristics of particular types of flowers, alerting them, say, to how soon the flowers droop and die.
As it is, Blooms.com offers customers a choice of flowers and other items from 23 broad categories, such as "Get Well Soon," "Just Because" and "Thinking of You." There's also a quote sheet for weddings (Dobberfuhl does weddings where the floral arrangements typically cost $1,500 to $6,000), seasonal specials, an e-mail reminder service to alert customers shortly before friends' and relatives' birthdays and anniversaries and tips on making flowers and plants last longer once they are delivered.
"I put this site up two days before Valentine's," she recalled. "We got our first customers then, a half dozen or so, nothing to write home about."
But since she put a Blooms.com banner outside her store and word spread, she has noticed a substantial increase in sales.
In April, during the week of Secretaries Day, she said her receipts spiraled 80.2 percent this year, to $41,951, from $23,277 a year ago. On the Saturday before Mother's Day this year, she said her sales jumped 45.3 percent, to $16,126, from $11,102 in 1998.
"This is one of the most [Internet-] connected counties in the whole country," Dobberfuhl said of Fairfax. "If I was in a small town anywhere, it may not work."
Tim Hoechst, vice president of technology at Oracle Corp., the large software company, said he has ordered flowers a half-dozen times from Blooms's Web site and found it "right to the point.
"Many [retail] sites over-solve the problem," he said. "They choose to use fancy graphics or functionality to do more than I want to, which is buy flowers.
"What traffic did she get before?" he asked. "Walk-in and from the Yellow Pages? That is what makes the technology powerful, and she's exploiting it. I honestly don't know where her store is." (It's at 11515 Sunrise Valley Dr.)
Another customer, Lynn Densford, an editor for the Thomson Financial publications group, said she ordered from the Blooms Web site while she was on a business trip to Chicago and wanted to send flowers to people who had hosted her for dinner the night before.
"I selected an arrangement [in a blue vase] to go with the hostess's home decor," Densford said. "Her site is one of the easiest to use. I was in the Harvard Business School site the other day and ordered a couple books and then wanted to read about another book. But I could never get back to the ordering site."
As a result, she did not buy any of the books.
Dobberfuhl's Web success has not gone unnoticed in the floral industry: Floral Management, the Society of American Florists' trade publication, did a cover story on her this month, and FTD had her teach a Web site class for other florists.
She has a degree in mathematics from Auburn University and worked as a systems engineer for IBM for eight years. But when she stayed at home to raise two children, she realized "you need a timeout." She took some floral designing classes and started meeting brides-to-be in her living room in 1985, eventually arranging floral displays for about 30 to 35 weddings a year.
"It's not something I started out to do. It just happened," said Dobberfuhl, who declined to reveal her age but described herself as "old enough to have a daughter [Jennifer] going to college" this fall.
Eventually it became too much. "When you're working at home, people think nothing at all of calling you at 9:30 at night" to discuss a floral need, she said. "It was hard to have any time to yourself."
So in the fall of 1993, she opened her store in a small shopping center in the midst of the high-tech corridor that the Reston-Herndon area has become. In the early days, she and a partner, whom she since has bought out, had just one other employee. Now there are 11 full-time workers and 10 part-timers.
As her business has grown, Dobberfuhl annually has produced three advertising flyers with seasonal bouquets for sale and five newsletters, all of which she has mailed to 11,000 people. She has delivery trucks that say, "Caution: Fragrant Stops."
Now, with her growing business, Dobberfuhl is opening a design center in Sterling where workers can prepare floral arrangements for large gatherings, such as weddings and banquets. And with increased sales via Blooms.com, she says she hopes to curtail production of the mail-out flyers that cost her about $28,000 annually. "Not doing these catalogues helps pay for the Web," she concluded, "and the Web helps pay for the design center."
Aside from the bottom-line aspects of running a business, Dobberfuhl said she feels a need "to give back to my customers." As part of Reston's annual Good Neighbor Day (which takes place this Wednesday), she has for four years given away about 10,000 roses -- 833 dozen -- on a first-come, first-serve basis at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 annually. Her supply is often gone by mid-morning.
The goodwill premise is that anyone who picks up a dozen will keep one or two flowers and give the rest away, a rose at a time, to friends or strangers they encounter that day.
"It just felt right for Reston," she said of the giveaway. "I've had people park their car and come in and give me a rose."