When the Web is a Small Business’s Enemy

Filed in Small Biz Marketing by Matt McGee on May 20, 2007 10 Comments

We talk so much in the search marketing industry about how the Web can level the playing field for small businesses … and how it opens the door for local businesses to reach out and attract new customers anywhere in the world … and how it can help a small business position itself just a click away from bigger competitors. All of that is true — sometimes.

But not always. Amidst all that talk you’ll occasionally find stories where the Web is the enemy. Our local newspaper had one such story today, about a local comics, cards, and games shop closing its doors, and in the process, leaving a lot of kids without a place to hang out after school with friends. They say the Web is a big part of the problem.

Children just don’t buy comics anymore, John said. Even fewer buy sports cards. And locally owned stores cannot compete with retail giants or the Internet for sales of collectible game cards like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering.

“The major contributor is the Internet,” Steve said. “All small businesses really cannot compete with online Internet stores.”

Shoppers are lazy and just want to look for a deal. Though Steve said he is “more friendly than a computer screen,” customers have left to go online.

I think the kneejerk reaction would be something like, Hey, if you can’t adapt, you won’t survive. But since the Internet is a game-changer, it only makes sense that some will win and some won’t. Small bookstores are struggling to deal with the Web and plenty of independent music stores are going out of business, too.

It’s a reminder that every silver lining is attached to a cloud….

Comments (10)

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  1. MaltaSEO says:

    I have seen other instances of the web being a small business’s enemy when the small business doesn’t have a website. Because there is generally very little competition for the business’s name online, all it takes is for someone (customer, employee, competitor, client) to post something negative about a business on MySpace, their blog, etc. and then when people type in the business name, up pops the negative information.

  2. lori says:

    Wow, I think I disagree with this post in its entirety. Where to start?

    First of all, to agree with you, I would have to accept the premise that change is bad for business. You say, “I think the kneejerk reaction would be something like, Hey, if you can’t adapt, you won’t survive.”

    That’s not a knee-jerk reaction, that’s a fundamental principle of business that applies to everyone, small businesses and large businesses alike.

    Second, there is simply not enough information given (even in the article you link to) for me to know exactly why people would choose Amazon over a local bookstore. “Shoppers are lazy and just want to look for a deal”? Come on, what kind of preschool-level analysis is that?

    For all we know, the buyers in question had been to the small bookstore before and didn’t like it. Maybe they get gift certificates for Amazon from their credit card company. Maybe they were buying more than just books, since as we know, Amazon sells just about everything. There is no justification given for the assumption that purchasing a book at a bookstore is
    “better” (or less lazy) than buying it online.

    The gist of your post, as I read it, is that the internet can be an enemy of small business. But that’s not really true, is it? Small businesses have always been at the mercy of larger ones, even when they were all brick & mortar. You’re blaming the venue, which is a misdirection.

    Have the small business owners you mention even started to research what the internet could mean to their businesses? Or are they just assuming that they can’t compete in the internet arena because they can’t compete in the brick & mortar arena?

    This is so misleading: “Our local newspaper had one such story today, about a local comics, cards, and games shop closing its doors, and in the process, leaving a lot of kids without a place to hang out after school with friends. They say the Web is a big part of the problem.”

    What exactly does “problem” refer to? The fact that the store had to close? The fact that kids in this town have nowhere else to go? The fact that business is always, has always, and always will be changing?

    All of these issues are different, and whether any of them is a problem (or a problem that can be blamed on the internet) is not a foregone conclusion.

    Normally I really enjoy your posts, so I was surprised by my reaction to this one.

  3. evolvor says:

    I think it’s funny you made this post. I just started working on a site/blog for my local comic shop, as a way to increase their sense of community. They don’t sell their books over the site, just use it to keep everyone updated and sharing information. They were doing fine before (with an older site, mind you) but will only do better now. I wouldn’t blame the net per se, but maybe the store owner just never tried hard enough to stay afloat. Whether it’s comics or any other goods or service, the customer experience is key – if the net’s convenience outweighs the experience, then you’re doomed.

  4. Matt McGee says:

    Thanks for the comments, folks. Lori, I appreciate your thoughts and respect your viewpoint. I’d like to respond if I may.

    The gist of your post, as I read it, is that the internet can be an enemy of small business. But that’s not really true, is it? Small businesses have always been at the mercy of larger ones, even when they were all brick & mortar. You’re blaming the venue, which is a misdirection.

    Well, I’m not blaming anything – the business owners are. But if you don’t think the internet can be the enemy for some, I’d again suggest the examples used in my post — small bookstores, small music shops, etc. I’m a music fan and grew up frequenting independent record shops. I still try to to this day, 20-25 years later. But it’s tough, because many of them are long gone. I think it would be naive to think the early popularity of CDNOW and then the rise of Amazon had nothing to do with those shops shutting down.

    That’s not a knee-jerk reaction, that’s a fundamental principle of business that applies to everyone, small businesses and large businesses alike.

    I agree it’s fundamental, and perhaps “kneejerk” wasn’t the best word choice. My point there was to say, essentially, let’s not just turn our eyes and dismiss these kinds of stories, let’s not just stay on the surface. Let’s look below the surface a bit, where I believe we’ll find that not all small businesses are appreciative of the “opportunity” that the internet presents.

    This is so misleading:

    With all due respect, I don’t appreciate the suggestion that I’m misleading my readers. The sentence I wrote which you quoted is not misleading; it’s an accurate summary of the newspaper article. If you’re referring to the article as being misleading, then I apologize for this part of my comment. But it appears you’re suggesting that I’m misleading people.

  5. lori says:

    Thank you for responding to my post, Matt. I wrote it when I was in a bad mood, and it surprised me later when I read it again. It’s definitely not my usual posting style, so apologies if it came off as harsh.

    I tried to figure out why I had such a strong reaction (after all, I read stuff everyday that I don’t agree with, and I don’t feel compelled to say anything), and I think it’s because I started my business on eBay and that gives me a unique perspective.

    I spent several years running an eBay store, and in the process became a part of the eBay community – posting in forums, answering questions in the answer center, etc.

    Along the way, I encountered droves of people just like the ones you mention in your article – small business owners who found themselves losing business, or having to close their B & M store altogether – because of competition with larger businesses. But rather than give up their dreams, they re-crafted them and jumped into the world of e-commerce.

    They – like me – found themselves getting a crash course in web design, marketing, photography, copy writing, and SEO just to make their eBay businesses viable. Those are difficult subjects to master, and most people vastly underestimate how much work it is to run an online business. (Only my husband and God know how much time I’ve spent on mine…)

    I like what you say here (see, I can be positive!): “Let’s look below the surface a bit, where I believe we’ll find that not all small businesses are appreciative of the “opportunity” that the internet presents.”

    You’re right, not everyone finds it easy to leave one dream behind and latch onto another one. It is a ton of work and success can be elusive. But in that case, wouldn’t the true enemy be the fear of change, not the internet? I think that was the point I was trying to make in my ramblings.

  6. Matt McGee says:

    Wow, I have total respect for anyone running an eBay business. My wife and I tried that about 4 years ago and decided it was too much effort for the little time we had. And the rising eBay fees and postage didn’t help. :)

    rather than give up their dreams, they re-crafted them and jumped into the world of e-commerce

    Which is what the guy who owns the card shop says he might do. But it still doesn’t cushion the blow of losing a physical location where the regular patrons had built a community, including kids keeping themselves out of trouble after school.

  7. lori says:

    Yes, after the increase in eBay store fees this past summer, I decided eBay wasn’t for me anymore. eBay is a frustrating place to run a business, but I learned so much while I was there.

    Many sellers I know were able to keep their physical locations afloat by using the internet to supplement their businesses, so maybe that will be the case here.

  8. anton says:

    The problem small business owners have is that a large portion of them just don’t have the resources or proper knowledge to actively and competitively participate on the Web.
    And the web itself changes very fast and dynamic. Specially certain industries.
    My particular business has not had any business web site 4 years ago. But today, almost all of my younger customers get in touch with me through the web. It is just a fact. Even I’m surprised. A fact of live.
    Now I do get a very large portion of business through the web. I never thought of it 4 years ago.
    A lucky early move to create a web site and constant work helped me to make my business known to the local market through a web presence.
    I also learned not do think any more only locally, instead focus nationally with the web site as that way one gets a better exposure. (This may not apply to every business)
    One just has to copy the large Sharks and try to on a constant basis to beat them. In some cases it works out quite well. But it is not easy, takes a lot of time and effort.
    In my case the web has made me more dynamic and aware that change is a must. I do use it for a large portion of my business.
    Further websites like SEM are a great resource and great help to improve further.

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