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5.14.99  
Getting the Bugs Into the System
How Planet Natural sells beneficial insects over the Web

Where do you go when you need a gallon of feisty ladybugs to lay waste to your garden's teeming aphid population?

If you search for "ladybugs" online, you just might wind up on the virtual doorstep of Eric Vinje's Planet Natural. You wouldn't know it from his colorful Web site with the animated ladybug, but Planet Natural is just a small, 10-employee organic gardening supply house with $500,000 in annual revenues. It's located in the mountainous reaches of Montana, just a short hop from Yellowstone National Park.

Vinje set up his first Web site in 1996 to help his mail-order company go up against bigger and better-capitalized competitors. "We just kind of dove in," says Vinje, 36, who hired a designer for $700 but has since taught himself enough from software manuals to revise and maintain the site himself. "It sounded like a good tool to get our name out there; we were a small business in this little nook here. We had a good product, but we weren't getting the information out."

The biggest advantage to the Web? Vinje can now use color and fancy graphics to his heart's content. By contrast, in print, he can only afford to put four pages of his 51-page catalog on glossy, four-color paper. "On the Web you can compete with the big guys because your Web site can look just as good as theirs," Vinje says.

Early on, the site won such awards as the NetGuide Gold and a Medaille d'Or, which led to more links. But even with traffic now running around 300 hits a day, most of Planet Natural's Web visitors still don't order online. Vinje gets three to six orders a day over the site. Much more dramatic has been the increase in requests for his catalog, up to 50 per day, compared with two to three per week in his pre-Web days. The next big step for Vinje: to reduce the time his operators spend on the phone with customers by putting more detailed information online.

"Somebody's not just going to buy ladybugs and know what to do with them," he says. So look for details soon at Planet Natural on how to let 4,000 ladybugs loose in your garden. The answer? Very, very carefully.

By Joan Oleck in New York
joan_oleck@businessweek.com

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