When they opened their door to the public in the early 1990’s, Hot Hot Hot had over 320 hot sauce options. The Pasadena-based hot sauce retailer was started by Perry and Monica Lopez. They were a local business. Nevertheless, they found ways to stand out.
Their hot sauce varieties came with a slew of absurd names: Endorphin Rush, I Am on Fire Ready to Die, Flying Burrito Flounder Juice, to name a few. They sold coffee beans and novelty items. And the Lopez’s liked to stay on the cutting edge of promotions. When Los Angeles hosted their first ever public hot sauce tasting, Hot Hot Hot signed up.
Their brand was offbeat and amusing. They took hot sauce seriously, but no so much themselves. In an interview, Monica Lopez chalks it up to the hot sauces themselves. “I mean hot sauces are by their very nature fun. They’re the only food products you’re going to find on the shelves that try to actively scare you. That are making a point of saying this is going to kill you.” When Hot Hot Hot got their first write-up in the Los Angeles Times, reviews were positive. Before long, they had built up a regular stream of local regulars.
Among those that made Hot Hot Hot a regular stop on their shopping trips was was Tom Soulanille. It was 1994, which made Soulanille’s job fairly unusual. He had recently created one of the first web consultancy agencies. He called it Presence. When he asked the Lopez’s if they might be interested in a website where they could sell their hot sauces to the new Internet public, they immediately agreed.
Soulanille worked alongside the Lopez’s for several months. Given how early they were to the web, they had to make some decisions about the best way to sell things online. Using the mail order catalog as their template, they went about prioritizing what exactly belonged on an e-commerce ( a word not yet in the vernacular) website.
At that point, Hot Hot Hot had over 400 hot sauces to chose from. Soulanille explained that bandwidth was a key issue for web users. Most were still paying by the hour for Internet service. Loading page after page of hot sauces would prove not only tiresome, but costly. So the first thing they did was pare down their list to their 150 most popular options.
To make things easier to find, they organized their sauces into categories. Visitors could sort sauces by heat level, or place of origin. And finally, they decided to emphasize text descriptions of each sauce, adding only small graphics next to each one to break up the page. After all, even the Lopez’s and Soulanille could see that if their website was too slow, people would simply lose interest. In September of 1994, they launched hothothot.com.
Hot Hot Hot would soon join a growing number of small businesses turning to the web. A cottage industry of web hosts, designers, and consultants would offer a new set of packages and services to these small businesses. Specialized web hosts would set up turnkey solutions for selling things online. Web consultants would work alongside retailers to design and setup these sites. The consultants handled order processing and collection, and then passed the order information directly along to the retailer. In the case of Hot Hot Hot, orders were faxed (yes, faxed) over each time one was made. These consultants often stuck with the site after launch, continuing to process and store order information for non-technical clients.
When you think of e-commerce on the web, your mind may go to large digital-first retailers like Amazon or eBay. You may even think about big box stores that managed to get online before others, or the explosion of growth in the dot-com era. But it was small businesses that saw the opportunity of the web first. When you think about it, it’s fairly logical. Small businesses can move quicker than big ones. They can make flexible, adaptable decisions.
Even so, Hot Hot Hot was on the forefront of this change. When they launched, there were less than 10,000 websites in the entire world. Hardly any of them were selling anything. This was even before secure payments — what we now know as SSL — was around. Many people would browse the website, and then call in their order through a 1-800, and speak directly to the store owners.
The website proved successful. Hot Hot Hot was visited thousands of times a day. They began shipping hot sauces all over the world. Within the first year, sales from their website accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and 30% of their total sales. They weren’t the only one. When a flower shop in Florida followed suit, they 25% of their sales came from out of state web visitors.
The Lopez’s were excited about their success, and they quickly found that their web users were a different breed. Many that visited the site simply wanted to see what an online store even looked like. Some of their orders were from customers just testing things out to see how it works. Through the contact form on their website they were flooded with emails asking all sorts of questions. Staying true to their brand, the Lopez’s tried to answer all of them.
Web visitors were, in other words, curious conversationalists. There was a frankness to the web early on, and that came through in the way visitors interacted with their online store. Hot Hot Hot may not have created a formal community of hot sauce lovers, but they acted like they did. Whenever possible, they kept their customers in the loop and coming back.
For years, they kept experimenting. They would new hot sauces to the list, and began to expand their catalog. They added a rotating list of featured sauces. They would feature comments from their online users. They added new graphics and colors. Eventually, the web caught up as behemoth one-stop shops like Amazon seized up larger chunks of the market. But ecommerce began with the small business. Just like Hot Hot Hot.