When Barbara Dugger started her home-based online gift basket business in 1996, she figured she should never enter the world of bricks-and-mortar retail.
Her customers thought otherwise.
Dugger's company, GiftPort.com, moved from the virtual to the real world three months ago when office space became available in Ashburn, practically next door to her husband's company, UXB International Inc.
Last year at this time, United Parcel Service vans would line up daily along the street in front of the Duggers' home in Ashburn Farm, waiting to pick up her online orders and deliver them to shoppers all over the region.
Deliveries were a logistical nightmare, she explained recently, surrounded in her office by products such as Virginia Peanuts, Carr's crackers and Le Mousseux Virginia Sparkling Cider. She would run back and forth from her workshop upstairs to her office in the cold garage and then to the front door, where she would hand off the goods.
But it wasn't only the convenience of putting everything on one floor that forced Dugger out of the house.
"Clients said, 'We'd love to see what you're doing. . . . You need to have a showroom,' " Dugger said.
Her new space, on Beaumeade Circle, has a retail showroom to display her products, a huge back room where Dugger works with her part-time employees to design and assemble the baskets and an attached storage area, where the goodies wait to be picked up by UPS.
Dugger's location--in a sterile office park surrounded by nonretail companies--is not exactly prime walk-by space. But Dugger, 50, said she has plenty of business. Last year she expanded into baby products, acquiring a local Web-based baby gift basket company, Ishtot.com (for I Should Have Thought of That) for $10,000.
Rather than attracting new customers, her showroom usually receives visits from current clients, primarily from high-tech corporate neighbors such as America Online Inc.--either corporate representatives buying gifts for clients or employees buying gifts for family and friends. And she still receives about 70 percent of her orders online or via e-mail.
"I am [just] trying to keep up with the high-tech companies," she said, adding that all but one or two of her clients are technology organizations or techies.
Dugger's company has turned a profit from the beginning; total sales for 1998 were about $100,000. This year, because of an increase in online buying, she expects to sell 1,400 baskets during the holiday season, double last year's performance for the season.
Preparing gift baskets is often an "engineering feat," Dugger said, and noted that most people do not realize how much time they take--20 minutes per basket on average. Each basket is a different shape, including one that looks like a miniature shopping cart, as is each product. And all of the items--sometimes stacked two feet above the actual basket--must face pretty-side out.
Of course, one of the benefits of having her husband, Richmond, next door is that she can call him in a crunch. Alone in the office at 5:30 one afternoon, she found that she would need to prepare 50 baskets by 9:30--and friends who offered to help wouldn't be there for a couple of hours.
He left a meeting, came over, "took off his jacket . . . and started shrink-wrapping," Dugger said.
CAPTION: Although her husband's business is more technical, Barbara Dugger says that assembling large numbers of gift baskets is an "engineering feat."
CAPTION: Employee Angelique Greer prepares gift baskets for shipping.