Frustrated by the lack of easy-to-use electronic shopping cart programs, Shawn Roop hired a software consultant to create a customized e-commerce program to sell his mother's toe rings online.

"A few days later, he called me back and said he read about a site where you could set up an online store for free," said Roop. "He said, 'I know I'm going to lose business, but this will really help you.'"

A grateful Roop still paid the consultant $300 for his help. Then, in less than 10 hours, Roop created a simple online store using a template-driven program offered by Freemerchant.com. The firm, which was recently acquired by Network Commerce in Seattle, has set up free stores for about 100,000 companies, according to a company spokesman.

Shelby's Foot Jewels, founded by Roop's mother, Shirley Elliot, in 1991, now reaches a global market with its handmade silver and gold toe rings, thumb rings, waist chains and "Shoewels," the beaded barefoot jewelry originally designed by his mother for herself.

"We've gone from serving people who are very liberal to grandmas wearing toe rings," said Roop. "We sell to all ages, primarily women 32 to 42 years old."

Shelby's Foot Jewels has evolved from a small seasonal, tourist-oriented business in Laguna Beach to a year-round jewelry empire. Web sales accounted for 19 percent of the company's business this year, up from 4 percent in 1999. Roop declined to reveal total sales for the privately held company, but said they were under $5 million.

"At first, all I wanted the Web site to do was $50 in sales a day, then $100. Now I look for $350 a day," said Roop, noting that Christmas and Valentine's Day sales were especially strong on the Web.

Selling in Saudi Arabia

"Our most remarkable customer is a Saudi Arabian businesswoman who sells in a mall that sells only to women," he said. "The mall allows women to let loose and become a bit Western for a few hours while shopping."

He said the mall owner now orders thousands of dollars worth of jewelry on a wholesale basis.

"I've never spoken to her, we communicate with e-mail and faxes," said Roop. "That pretty much sums up what the Web can do for a company."

Roop, who joined the family business after serving in the military, admits he thought his mother would starve after she announced she was going into the jewelry business full time.

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