Small businesses dive into online pool

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Capital News Service
LANSING – When Ryann Lambay, owner of the Grand Rapids boutique Lamb, decided to feature a selection of her store’s products online two years ago, she intended it mainly as a tool to inform customers.
Now, Lambay estimates that close to 30 percent of this year’s sales came from the online store, which features less than one-third of Lamb’s merchandise.
“I never expected it to be this popular,” she said, adding that many of her Internet shoppers are from the Grand Rapids area and live close to the actual store.
“People want to shop local but don’t always have the time to. Now the convenience factor is very high,” Lambay said. “A lot of orders come in Sunday at 11 p.m. People come home from work, unwind and want to shop.”
Tom Scott, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association, said more local retailers do business online because they realize that customers want to shop from the comfort of their own homes.
“It’s almost become a given that if you’re in business, you need to have an online presence,” he said.
Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said while it may be tricky for small businesses to balance the cost of starting an online business against potential success, it’s a booming arena.
As a tourist state, it’s likely that specialty retailers selling gifts, handcrafted items or unique Michigan products succeed with online sales, he said.
“A lot of tourists come here in the summer and then want to re-buy products later in the year. It’s a way for small businesses to supplement their summer sales,” Rogers said, adding that it’s a trend among food suppliers such as American Spoon Foods in Petoskey and Cherry Republic, which has stores in Traverse City, Glen Arbor and Charlevoix.
But an online store may not benefit all types of businesses, Rogers said, noting that small hardware suppliers would have difficulty competing with Home Depot’s online store.
Scott said that retailers expanding to online sales may encounter barriers such as technology, shipping and finding the time to manage the site.
“The big problem they face is being able to make the time to put the resources into an online presence. One retailer said that having a website is like having another store, which it basically is,” Scott said.
April McCrumb, owner of Catching Fireflies, a gift shop in Rochester and Berkley, said she expects her online business to outsell one of the brick-and-mortar stores within the next year.
Since bringing her boutique online, Lambay hired another employee who spends six or seven hours each week on website maintenance.
Jay Fowler, executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, said even with the online success of local retailers, Internet shouldn’t hurt downtown businesses.
“It expands their sales,” Fowler said. “These smaller businesses have an opportunity to be aggressive and online.”
Scott agreed that a strong online store promotes the physical store, and the two venues “reinforce each other.”
Yet online shoppers expect the same level of customer service they receive at the local, family-owned store.
“Customers enjoy being able to buy something on the Internet and pick it up at the store the next day, or return it directly to the store instead of shipping it back,” Scott said.
Lambay said her store ships products within 24 hours of an online order, and unless an order is placed in the middle of the night, the customer will receive a thank you e-mail and status update within three hours of the sale.
Besides working out kinks along the way, Lambay’s advice to boutiques looking to enter the Internet is to start small.
“It took a little bit to get into the groove of things,” she said. “But it’s definitely better this year.”

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