By most accounts, Curtis Lumber is a big dealer. With 22 locations, 650-plus employees, and annual revenue topping $153 million, it serves a generous portion of the builders and contractors in upstate New York and western Vermont with a full line of lumber and building materials.

But within its Ballston Spa, N.Y., flagship location, there's a division that sits just outside the mainstream. Fittingly, it's called Curious Woods, representing the dealer's line of finish-grade hardwoods ranging from padauk to poplar–the stuff only real wood geeks understand.

Most of Curtis Lumber's rank-and-file pro customers know about Curious Woods; it's been around since 1991, providing custom builders with the rich wood finishes their high-end homes demand. But there's also a customer contingent that bypasses the pro desk and heads straight to David Whitehouse's office to talk timber with the division operations manager, increasingly via e-mail from the Curious Woods Web site,

Curtis Lumber is hardly the only LBM operation with a sideline shtick. Others sell related products, such as plumbing fixtures or pole buildings, or perhaps even more specialized lines to capture and cash in on a local need. For the most part, niche divisions like Curious Woods have been tethered to the LBM business and its limited geographic reach, and thus hard-pressed to snare a bit of extra business from builders or attract local enthusiasts.

That changed when LBMs discovered the Internet.

For Whitehouse, the moment came three years ago as he was surfing the World Wide Web for other hardwood suppliers and sources. "I saw it as a way to find a bigger audience" for Curious Woods, he says. "And I knew we could do it better than what I was seeing."

Two years after launching the online version of Curious Woods, Whitehouse is fielding e-mails and calls from around the world instead of just from surrounding counties. His customer base has tripled to about 3,000, and the division is on its way to earning $100,000 in sales from the Web site alone in 2007.

In that respect, Curious Woods truly is an anomaly in the LBM industry. While 92% of this year's ProSales 100 dealers report having a corporate Web site, only 8% enable online payments or full-fledged e-commerce. More than half of those dealers plan to offer that function in the future, though to date only about a third of the leading dealers have Web sites with electronic data interchange and customer account access, two less-complex functions than online payment.

Redefining E-Commerce

Even for the few dealers that do enable online payment, making a financial transaction over the Internet is a narrow and incomplete definition of e-commerce. Most, including Curious Woods, use the Web primarily to educate and communicate with customers by letting them visit a virtual showroom and ask questions, via e-mail, on their own time–a service that ideally drives them to the phone or the showroom to negotiate an order.

"What we sell is not a commodity," says John Williams, sales manager for Mountain Lumber, a two-location dealer in Ruckersville, Va., specializing in antique and reclaimed wood flooring, millwork, and beams. "There are all kinds of questions we ask of our customers, and them of us, to make sure they're buying the right thing."

For that very reason, and despite recently launching the sixth (and most extensively reworked) generation of its Web site, Mountain Lumber is unwilling to offer online sales. "Customers can order brochures and samples and get a comprehensive sense of what we supply from the Web site," says Williams. "It's a great way to start the [sales] conversation," if not finish it.

Mountain Lumber also relies on the site to screen its customers–an especially effective tool for a specialty dealer or division. "One of the first things we try to do in a sales conversation [in the showroom] is qualify the prospective buyer to avoid wasting each other's time," says Williams. "If prospects visit the Web first, they know if they're in the right place and whether to continue the conversation. If they pick up the phone from that, we already know they're a qualified sales lead."

Christina Martin, director of marketing for Allen & Allen Co. Lumber & Hardware in San Antonio, considers the company's Web site its third location–and the only one open 24 hours a day, seven days a week–even though online sales aren't yet offered. "We're known in town [for our products and services], but customers still check us out online before coming in," she says. "Once they do, it's obvious they've done their homework online about the vendors and types of products we carry," which generally makes for a more successful sales conversation.

That's especially helpful to Allen & Allen's diverse product mix, including specialty hardware and plumbing fixtures, serving an equally diverse customer base. "The Web site is a tool we have to work with people who are not professional builders or traditional lumber customers," says Martin, including small-business owners, DIYers, interior decorators, and even boat makers.

It also serves the dealer's interests across the border in Mexico. "Customers there will check out what we have and even call or e-mail about pricing before they make the trip," Martin says, setting up for a sale once they enter one of Allen & Allen's physical locations.

Making It Work

The potential to reach (and sell to) a much wider audience than what a full-line LBM operation is willing or able to manage beyond its geographic realm is both a blessing and a challenge to specialty shops and divisions operating online.

The key to attracting and keeping online customers, says Curious Woods' Whitehouse, is replicating the showroom experience as best as possible. To that end, he solicited ideas and feedback from woodworkers who frequented his showroom, resulting in a depth of information that suits that audience, no matter where they are. "We tailored the site to how woodworkers think and operate and what they need to know," says Whitehouse. "The goal for the Web site was to emulate what we do in the showroom, which means being knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly," as well as offering products that range from domestic and imported hardwoods to fine finishing oils, sanding supplies, and woodworking tools, and serve both professionals and hobbyists.

All that is fine and necessary, but as anyone with a Web site–or any location–knows, customers won't stop by on their own. To help bring traffic to its online store, Curious Woods labored to create product descriptions rife with keywords likely to be picked up by search engine "spiders," or Web crawlers, that automatically fetch a page based on an Internet user's search.

Another traffic driver: links from reputable and related specialty Web sites, such as that of the International Wood Collectors Society and, of course, the Curtis Lumber home page. "There are a lot of people who want reciprocal links, but we're very choosy," says Jennifer Stickney, who manages the Curious Woods site as well as the Curtis Lumber site, among other advertising duties for the dealer.

Those links and spider devices help Curious Woods place high in search results on the left side of the page. But as any Google user knows, the right side of the results page goes to companies that have paid to have their advertisements pop up whenever certain search terms are selected. Curious Woods pays Google $300 every month to get its site placed high and visible when Internet surfers troll for hardwood products. Whitehouse, meanwhile, maintains a periodic Web log, or blog, on the site to impart information and subtly solicit customers.

All that effort creates some practical realities, such as shipping costs and logistics to a global customer base, especially for noncommodity products often ordered in relatively small lots. "Shipping a $20 board might cost more than the board itself," says Whitehouse, not to mention navigating interstate and international shipping regulations, lead times, and expenses. He solved the problem by partnering with United Parcel Service, now the exclusive carrier for all of Curtis Lumber outside of its practical delivery radius. The move garnered Curious Woods a volume discount and more consistent–and lower–shipping costs to help make the financial model work and make it easier for online buyers to estimate and consider those costs within their orders.

At Allen & Allen, the Web presented an opportunity to leverage the dealer's shipping and receiving machine. "It didn't take a lot of expense to facilitate it or additional resources to make it work," says Martin, including a minimal advertising budget and strategy (consisting mostly of putting the Web address on anything with the dealer's logo) and thoughtful use of keywords to attract spiders. "The biggest challenge for us is making it valuable to us, and to the customer as a service."

Keeping Up

Of the many and evolving truisms about effective Web marketing and sales, maintaining a fresh look and current information is a cornerstone of success. That's especially true for specialty shops or divisions, where online buyers are more apt and able to search and buy globally rather than rely on a local supplier.

In addition to creating a more uniform image across all of its marketing efforts, Mountain Lumber's recent Web site redesign incorporates new technology that eases and speeds the site's navigation and better organizes its information and resources. "You can't be clumsy, or people will leave and go to the next vendor," says Caroline Smeltz, the dealer's marketing coordinator, who incorporated online customer feedback into the redesign.

Similarly, Allen & Allen is in the midst of upgrading its back-office software systems, including an improved customer database. This eventually will allow it to expand its e-commerce capabilities, including online sales. "You've got to put that horse before the cart," says Martin.

For all three dealers, however, small updates to the product mix, pricing, and other information is a daily activity–a chore yet to be fully supported.

For Whitehouse and Stickney, the Curious Woods Web site is a fraction of their responsibilities rather than a full-time job. At Allen & Allen, two people–Martin and a member of the dealer's information technology staff–are responsible for keeping the site current, as well as tracking e-mails that come through it. "They are addressed to different departments, but I field them all," says Martin, who then distributes the messages to the appropriate department.

As much as direct or indirect sales come from the Curious Woods site, Whitehouse knows he's hit a sweet spot by the amount of e-mails he and Stickney receive from their online customers. "We get 10 times as much feedback and questions than the Curtis Lumber site," he says. "That tells me we're doing something right and providing the kind of services these customers demand."

–Rich Binsacca is a contributing editor to ProSales.