Small retailers look to the web warily

Deb Weiser, who owns and operates DKW Art Gallery and Studios in Marion with husband Mark, says she’s believes it’s important for even mom and pop shops like theirs to have an online presence, with e-tailers capturing an increasing share of the market each year.

By Katharine Carlon

We may be living in an e-commerce world, yet nearly half of all small businesses lack a website, according to research firm Clutch – and even fewer directly market their products and services online.

That was the situation Julia Jordan, who co-owns Walford-based Creative Thymes with her husband Dennis, found herself in a couple years ago. The handmade crafts and home décor business was generating buzz at local markets, but it wasn’t until the couple began selling their signs, door mats, wooden mazes and other items online through the Cedar Rapids Marketplace – now rebranded as Shop Where I Live – that things started to take off.

Since then, the couple has sold to customers as far away as Canada, and raised their visibility to the point they were asked to join five other vendors in permanently showcasing their wares at the West Branch Emporium in West Branch.

“I think the majority of customers at the moment are shopping online now – we’ve seen that business really take off,” said Ms. Jordan, a convert to the power of showcasing merchandise online. “And if you keep up your end, you can be very successful.”

It’s a truism in sales that you have to meet customers where they are. And while traffic to brick-and-mortar retailers isn’t disappearing anytime soon, customers are increasingly buying on the couch, in bed, at work and on the go via online commerce sites.

Consumers spent more than $517 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2018, up 15 percent from the year prior, according to a recent Internet Retailer analysis of industry and U.S. Commerce Department data. E-commerce was the fastest growing share of the retail market, representing 14.3 percent of total retail sales, up from 12.9 percent in 2017 and 11.6 percent in 2016.

Customer preferences are also changing. Nearly seven in 10 millennials prefer buying goods on e-commerce sites over physically visiting stores, 2017 research from BigCommerce shows – more than twice the three in 10 seniors who prefer it.

“In this day and age, this is how people are validating their buying decisions,” said Cherie Edilson, who launched Shop Where I Live’s forerunner, the Cedar Rapids Marketplace, with husband Robert in 2017 as a way for small businesses and entrepreneurs to fight back against giant e-tailers like Amazon. “If you’re not online already, even if your business is small, you really need to get your product or service out there.”

The Cedar Rapids Marketplace began with a handful of craft vendors, but the Edilsons fine-tuned and turbocharged the concept with help from the Iowa Startup Accelerator in 2018. Today, in partnership with local chambers of commerce, Shop Where I Live is operational or coming soon in 11 markets across the country.

Corridor-area online marketplaces are up and running in Cedar Rapids and Marion, with Mt. Vernon and Marengo going live soon. Shop Where I Live has also launched four sites in the rest of Iowa, two in Nebraska and one in Georgia, all in its first year of operation.

“It takes a village to keep a village going,” said Ms. Edilson of Shop Where I Live’s mission of breaking down barriers to online commerce.

She added that many businesses feel they are too small to warrant their own website, lack the IT skills and time to effectively manage a web storefront, or find site building and maintenance too expensive.

“A business without any online presence can be selling with us the same day,” she said, adding that Shop Where I Live helps business owners through the process of branding, choosing photos to upload, SEO optimization, shipping and delivery, and more. “A lot of times, mom and pop shops are trying to sell on Amazon and it’s hard – there’s no handholding.”

That kind of local support has been invaluable to Tina Wing of Glitz & Glam Art Jam, located in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village, who has seen a steady increase in sign-ups for art parties and classes through the Shop Where I Live site.

“I’m an artist and that’s how my head works, so the technical end is something I didn’t really get,” said Ms. Wing, who originally tried to maintain her own website, but found it too time consuming and complex. “This has been easy and cost effective, and unlike some others, where you don’t have a voice, this is more personalized and it’s local. People want to buy things online, but they still really want that personal, local touch.”

Ms. Wing plans to continue marketing goods and services on Shop Where I Live when she transitions to her new venture, Blush Cherry Studios, a photography and art gallery set to open in Ely.

But not everyone agrees that online retailing offers the best return on investment for small, independent businesses. Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird said that while online retailers like Amazon do well in categories like electronics and home goods, when it comes to apparel and unique, one-of-a-kind items, nothing beats in-store browsing.

“The national conversation around Amazon confounds a lot of people,” Ms. Bird said, adding that instead of chasing online sales, “Our group of retailers downtown tries to focus on carefully selected and curated lines with the goal of creating an in-store experience focused on quality and excellent service. We are lucky to attract a clientele that loves urban areas, exploring and discovering new things, and our retailers work hard at building experiences in stores.”

“That is so important in overcoming the challenges other places are seeing. I don’t think that story gets told very often.”

Some downtown Iowa City merchants are dipping their toes in the water, offering limited items on their own sites and via Etsy and other e-commerce platforms. Last year, Velvet Coat Owner Michelle Galvin partnered with Cedar Rapids-based designer Written to bring the online experience in-store.

Ms. Bird acknowledged the time was approaching when brick-and-mortar retailers would need to compete in the cyber arena because, “it’s becoming inherent to the way people want to shop – you know, ‘convenience is everything.’”

“We’ve talked about building [our own platform], but the reality is there is so much infrastructure and build-out – a jewelry store could take up most of the site with their store alone,” she added. “And we’re not trying to sell to the nation, we’re trying to sell locally, and that customer base is walking in our doors.”

Deb and Mark Weiser of DKW Art Gallery and Studios in Marion have taken something of a “tread lightly” approach to online sales so far. Mr. Weiser said it is difficult to sell expensive works of art based on online photos alone, but has had success with smaller items like his Celtic slate carvings, jewelry and glassware, as well as summer camps and classes.

“In my opinion, I don’t think someone is going to spend $5,000 on a piece just because they see it online,” Mr. Weiser said. “So, what we’ve done is come up with stuff that is sellable, and we’ve been very selective in what we put up.”

While sales aren’t a huge part of the gallery’s bottom line yet, he said, “the online market is something that’s necessary to capture in this day and age, if for no other reason than to get our presence out there.”