A lot of online entrepreneurs start at square one, hoping they’ve found a product or service uniquely well suited to Internet marketing. And then there are the grand centenarians of the retail world—companies with brick and mortar in their blood that nonetheless make a youthful, entrepreneurial leap into Cyberspace.
A case in point is Langston’s, a 100-year-old, community-based Western boots and apparel company that lassoed the Internet in 1999 and now counts it as one of the favorite horses in its corporate stable. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, the company is still owned and run by members of its founding family, who established the first Langston’s store in 1913 to serve the ranchers and farmers of central Oklahoma.
Back then, in the days before strip malls and way before Amazon.com, Langston’s served as a one-stop shopping destination for rural folk who would come in their farm wagons or on horseback from miles around to stock up on whatever goods they couldn’t grow or make for themselves. They’d buy seeds to sow and feed for their livestock, groceries and clothing, boots and shoes. The store was partly stocked with produce brought in by the farmers to trade for stuff they needed. During the Dustbowl and the Depression, Langston’s owners extended credit to their beleaguered customers, patiently waiting for crops to be sold and deferred salaries to come through—filling in the empty lines of their ledger books with loyalty and goodwill.
Mike Barber, the great-nephew of founding partner L.Y. Langston, is now president of the company his family has nurtured since 1913. (Mike Barber’s father, the late Bob Barber, held the position before him). Mike’s son, Brian Barber, came on board in 1999 to bring the authentic Western apparel business online.
“Our history,” says Brian, “is, of course, a very important part of our success. With a century of experience to draw from, we really understand who our customers are and what they want. At the end of the day, it’s always about the customer—you don’t get to be around for 100 years without listening to them, getting to know them and adapting to them when their needs change.”
Brian Barber knows that what he’s doing is making history right now. “Since Langston’s website went live in 2000, we’ve experienced double digit sales gains in most of those years, with online sales now accounting for 25 to 30 percent of our total business. We went from filling orders out of our store inventory to maintaining a separate warehouse and inventory for online sales.”
I asked Brian how a brick-and-mortar business with a venerable history can expand into the online world without sacrificing its strong community identity.
“The most important thing to remember,” he says, “is that it’s still all about people. Technology can help us sell products in new ways and to new places. We can look at analytics and online statistics all day. But the minute you forget that those numbers represent actual people, your business risks losing its soul.”
Brian and his web designers do their best to make the website reflect the hospitable vibe of the original store, where customers would often hang out for the better part of a day, exploring what was on offer and talking with other ranchers and farmers as well as Langston’s notoriously knowledgeable and friendly staff. Brian explains, “Even in an online store, it’s imperative for customers to be able to talk to a real person about the products that interest them. Exactly how and when they can do that has to be clearly communicated to the person browsing in our online store.”
Imbuing the website with the full-service atmosphere of the original store involves psychology just as much as logistics. “Sometimes it’s enough for customers to know that they could talk to a real person if they wanted to, even if they never need to.”
The Langston’s family embraced technology as a new way, with a wider reach, to connect with their customers. “Western Wear is so much more than just boots and hats,” explains Brian. “It’s a way of life—part of a long-enduring part of American culture that includes music, an outdoor lifestyle, a strong work ethic and often a love of horses, rodeos and ranching that goes way beyond just casual hobbies.”
The website was designed to communicate the company’s love and appreciation for the Western lifestyle and the people who enjoy it. “We convey this in everything we do online, from our social media activity, blogging relationships and everyday customer correspondence, all the way down to the images we use for promotions."
I asked Brian about some of the business opportunities Langston’s sees on the horizon, as the Internet, social networking and mobile shopping all continue to evolve and expand their reach in the world of online marketing.
“Social media, when used correctly, allows us to interact with our customers in a more personal way. In my opinion, that’s the real opportunity evolving online at the moment. We are in the process now of expanding our social media content, as well as expanding our video presence and online customer resources that not only inform the culture we serve, but celebrate it as well.”
Ironically, admits Brian, the biggest hurdles along the way have come from the beloved boot and clothing vendors whose products Langston’s sells. “Many restrict the way we can price, advertise or promote their products—and just about every one of our major vendors competes directly against us with their own online retail site.” Langston’s works to overcome this by continuing to offer a diversified catalog “backed by highly personable customer service that many vendor operations simply do not invest in.”
Competition comes as well from online versions of the “big box” stores, which now offer a lot more of Langston’s products than they did just five years ago. What they don’t offer, according to Langston’s online mastermind, is the product knowledge and personal relationship to the Western lifestyle that are part of Langston’s DNA.
“Selling online has never been as easy as many make it out to be—and it gets tougher every year,” says Brian, who offers these three nuggets of advice to other clothing/footwear retailers hoping to launch an online store:
- Shoot your own images when you can.
- Always write your own copy and do so in a way that speaks directly to your customer. Basically, when writing copy, first ask yourself who would want to wear this, and where they would want to wear it. Then, just like you would if they came into a store, tell them why that specific item is a good choice for them.
- Be the expert and don’t be afraid to be yourself. No one likes the hard sell. But some people are really excited about what you sell—and, in this climate, that’s the customer you want. Those people respond when they see that you and they share an interest in the same things.
“I don’t think a company needs to be around for generations to tell an interesting story. My advice would be to speak about your passion for the products you sell in the context of who would use them and what led you to market them. More often than not, if you have a passion for what you’re selling, your customer does, too.”
“Our strategy online is to place content on pages indifferent ways based on their purpose. We want our main landing pages to be instantly recognizable as Western and relevant, so it shouldn’t take a browser long to identify what we’re about or what we offer. For more focused pages, like brand pages and specific attribute pages, we want to make sure we have all the most important information about that micro-niche, to both inform and sell. For product pages, we want very little distraction from the item itself. We feel that images should dominate the frame, and that all technical specs need to be available.”
I wondered whether Langston’s might have chosen the Yahoo platform simply because the name went so well with their product line.
This got a laugh from Brian Barber. “We were fleshing out a solution by a local company in 1999, which was adequate for transactions, but didn’t offer much more. About that time, a high school classmate of mine had gotten a job at the YahooStore—and she began selling me on the platform. It didn’t take us long to recognize that Yahoo had a bunch of advantages to the other carts we’d evaluated. We made the switch completely by the fall of 2000.”
To which there’s only one possible response (I’ve always wanted the opportunity to yell the word while raising a cowboy hat in the air): “Yahoo!”