White House Gift Shop Moves Online, Offers Tips

Tony Giannini
by Tony Giannini 26 Feb, 2013

For years, The White House Gift Shop operated in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building within the White House complex. For security reasons, this store was accessible "only" to White House staff and their guests. To meet demand from past White House staff, Secret Service members and everyday citizens, the Uniformed Division Benefit Fund created the online White House Gift Shop.

After the events of September 11, 2001, The White House Gift Shop moved its store to a brick and mortar outside the White House and stayed open until August 2012. At that point, they chose to move their entire operation (close the brick and mortar and move their existing ecommerce site) to an online Volusion store. 

Tony Giannini, Director of The White House Gift Shop, recently shared with us his top five tips on moving to the digital world. 

1. My best advice to an entrepreneur before creating an online store is a 1-2-3 formula:  

(1) Create a solid business plan, ask experts to review your plan and make changes, appropriately.

(2) Know your markets and your specific market focus - as in a college thesis - narrow your initial customer groups to a clearly defined and specific set of not more than three target markets.

(3) Select your Web host provider as carefully as you would select a partner for marriage. Look for top-rated platform solutions such as Volusion (which is our partner) and assure that key attributes of systems performance are solid. 

2. When hiring staff for an online store especially for new or entrepreneurial startup stores, be sure to place emphasis on human skills or the human side of enterprise as much as on technical skills, because balance is essential for both short- and long-term success.  You have to stay lean in the early days to stay competitive; consequently, your technological guru may at times have to change roles to answer phones and provide world-class customer service, so be sure to cross-train your staff especially if you are a startup operation or charitable organization, such as the White House Gift Shop where revenue is measured in how much help we can give to others across America. One of the reasons for going entirely online was to be able to keep costs low for customers, increase quality of Presidential, White House, and Executive Branch gifts and collectibles while simultaneously assuring that every penny possible is available to meet our core mission of providing assistance to good people in need.

3. The need for a human voice and a human touch is absolutely essential for success for any online store that has moved from a brick-and-mortar store to an entirely online store. Phone, video, links to YouTube clips, ability for real-time customer service within the website via one-click connections are critical success resources for today's online customer centered store. In an often impersonal world the successful entrepreneur continually seeks new ways to make the customer online experiences vividly personal, tangible and positively memorable.

4. Store security is as important in the online world as it is in brick and mortar (in many ways even more), believe me, I know. I am a seasoned cyber security fellow with certifications in more than a dozen Intel fields including cybersecurity. I also worked as a senior security advisor to departments of governments, CEO's of major corporations such as General Motors Worldwide, where we created the first "Tiger Team" ever. I was called Tony the Tiger, there, and we conducted simulated assaults on every aspect of global systems security. That said, I am no stranger to computer systems security (was also Managing Editor of Computer Systems Security Journal for IBM and General Motors) and hold a graduate degree from Harvard University in the design of Interactive and Intelligence Technologies.

5. Take SEO seriously. I hired an SEO team at Volusion to assist me with every aspect of SEO possible including off-page presence. What benefit has the SEO team at Volusion provided to me as Director of the White House Gift Shop? I wear 20 hats on any given day, and the SEO team at Volusion gives me more time to ask the big questions, such as the strategic planning questions vitally important to not only the future success of any business but the viability of the business itself in a virtual world in which bits are soon to become Quibits. They let me focus on the bigger picture while they work on getting traffic and sales to our site.

After all is said and done, making such a drastic change was a huge leap of faith, especially since sales from the gift shop were the primary source of income for the fund that the entire organization was designed to supply. Fortunately, the risk paid off.

Since taking that leap of faith, The White House Gift Shop has seen a tremendous growth in sales each month. It has doubled its revenue, and almost immediately its organic presence tripled as compared to the old online store. Volusion helped them to have a greater presence online than they had ever seen.