For Jim and Dave Raneri, third-generation owners at Charles Department Store, launching an online purchasing platform is not about transitioning away from brick-and-mortar roots.
In fact, it's just the opposite: One more way to connect with the customers they have cultivated over the decades.
"It's having an extension of what Charles does outside the four walls here," Dave said one recent afternoon.
For years, they've made sure to personalize the shopping experience—by injecting into conversations the type of knowledge a sales staff develops from testing products themselves; providing extras, like holiday shopping guides that detail brands by department and note American-made items; and simply getting to know the people who drop by—for Bedford and Katonah folks, and the family and friends they've introduced to the 88-year-old shop.
Other loyal customers, some who reside in the surrounding area, and others who were in town from far away for business, have stopped in by chance and fallen in love with the the charming atmosphere.
"So many people want to shop at Charles but physically can't get to Katonah," Dave said, referring to these folks as "Charles alum," before taking a moment to assure a woman that the gloves she was purchasing were one-size-fit-all, not to mention a "great item."
Some of those out-of-towners, who make up about 5 percent of the store's customers, telephone their orders. A number have asked about the ability to shop Charles online. So between the inquiries from patrons, the prevalence of businesses going digital, and a bit of post-recession downtime for extra projects, the time was right for an online shopping option.
The new portion of the Charles website, which in June replaced the previous one from 1999, went live with a soft launch about two weeks ago.
A work-in-progress, Dave and Jim told Patch, the site offers about 25 select items in a handful of categories, including clothing, cutlery, footwear and luggage. The online inventory will change, depending on what is in stock and what is popular.
The virtual shop is designed for domestic orders—international shoppers are encouraged to call the store—and the owners plan to ship items straight to the buyer from the Katonah Avenue staple.
"If we need to, we'll hire more people," Jim said when asked what sort of impact the task will have on staff members. "The biggest kind of problem to have in an Internet site is that you can't operate where you are because you've outgrown it. That's a real great kind of problem to have."
Operating a physical shop and a maintaining an online commerce presence is not something all Katonah businesses are doing, according to Christopher Roberts, one of the founders of media consulting company Really Social Strategies. But it's a practice that makes sense, as the two entities often complement each other, Roberts said.
"To me, it's not ironic at all, because my whole business is based on the idea that online tools are a great way for bringing people together in fun and community-spirited ways," he said, adding that he anticipates local shops will follow suit.
Most of the establishments have already taken advantage of social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, but none have pushed an online presence "quite the way Charles has," he said.
Beyond the purchasing platform, the 80 followers on Twitter and the 300 likes on Facebook are the blogs, videos and historic pieces on the site. The latter details everything from Katonah's emergence as a "modern-day Currier and Ives setting" to Dave and Jim's summer shifts when their parents ran the store.
"Let's go back in time. Let's hop on the time machine. We're standing right here. How much of this has really changed?" Dave said as Christmas music from a different era played in the background, and a ding-dong sounded each time the door opened. "Maybe the lighting system. The tin ceiling is the same. The floors are the same. Merchandise has changed. So we have constantly learned how to upgrade—to sort of warp speed—to the type of merchandise customers want."