Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joseph Gaskins never could have imagined what American Orthopedic Services might become when he founded it in 1957 in Pontiac, Mich.

Now called Aleva Health, the company still occupies the same storefront it has for 40 years and is still owned by the Gaskins family, with grandson Derek as president.

But a short distance away in Rochester Hills, Derek Gaskins also runs Aleva's e-commerce division, which owns such sites as ForYourLegs.com, HealthyLegs.com and SportSocks.com.

"The key was finding a niche, and (for us) it was compression therapy," said Gaskins.

Fueled by its e-commerce success, Aleva Health has reached $10 million in annual revenues, with 150,000 customers and 600 orders coming in each day.

Aleva's success isn't typical for a brick-and-mortar HME business, and it isn't easy, either, according to Jonathan Gordon.

"A lot of providers take the field-of-dreams approach--if you build it they will come," said Gordon, who runs DME consulting firm Coribus Group and had his own online DME business for two years. "You have to have a plan for getting people to the website and delivering value when they get there."

If you plan to tackle it, Gordon recommends starting with the right technology platform for your business. Will it allow customers--as Gordon's former site did--to choose from lift chairs in eight different sizes and 30 fabric choices with four delivery options?

"(The technology) must meet the unique configurational demands of DME products," Gordon said.

On the backend, consider how the site will tie into your accounting system, how you will keep prices up to date, and how you'll connect with vendors to drop-ship.

"Over-invest upfront even if you get more features than you need," he said. "It's harder to change it later."

Launching a national e-commerce business "is really tough," said Gaskins, but he does recommend brick-and-mortar providers sell online to local patients, using geo-targeted online ads.

But be prepared for a commitment. "A half-hearted attempt at e-commerce," said Gordon, "is worse than no attempt at all."