When the Web is a Small Business’s Enemy, pt. III

Filed in Miscellaneous by Matt McGee on June 11, 2008 15 Comments

KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, has a story online that follows a theme I’ve written about before: the Internet as a small business’s enemy. In the story, we learn that some small businesses in the town of San Anselmo are rallying together to ask local residents to do more shopping in town, rather than online. I’d love to embed the video here, but don’t see any way to do that. So here’s the link to KGO’s site:

Online shopping affects local businesses

Somewhat ironically, one of the primary speakers in the news report is the owner of a local flower shop – Helen Gregory of Bloomworks. Gregory’s main point might be summed up best in this quote:

“I want people to start thinking about what if every small business in their small town closed. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great deals and you shouldn’t buy on the Internet, I think everybody does, but not exclusively.”

When I interviewed Cathy Hillen-Rulloda of Avante Gardens in one of my recent Search Engine Land columns, she flat out said that the Internet has not been good for local florists.

As Gregory says, you’re never going to stop people from shopping online. She’s asking shoppers, though, to keep the local businesses in mind. So, the happy medium is when people shop local stores when shopping online. Problem is, though, that local search isn’t always really “local”, especially in the floral industry.

There’s no easy answer here; if there was, small businesses wouldn’t be struggling to make their online presence work. This is one reason why I’m profiling successful small business owners in my Search Engine Land columns. When you see how other small business owners are surviving and thriving online, it may generate new ideas for others to do the same.

Here are my two previous posts that address this theme:

(KGO news story found via Kelsey)

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  1. Blue Chip Marketing Tips | June 12, 2008
  1. john andrews says:

    The web is the enemy of the inefficient, or stubborn, or poorly-managed small business. If all you do for your customers is what Amazon can do from afar, you’re in trouble. Those who can’t see opportunity — online or off — will fail.

    Small business is entrepreneuring, and I see many small businesses today set up as outlets requiring little or no risk taking or entrepreneuring, beyond raising the initial capital. Those are very likely to fail. The blame needs to fall onto the investors and the process that caused them to go into business without a vision of how things would play out in a connected world.

  2. Matt McGee says:

    John, I agree on the whole — but I think your opening sentence might be a bit harsh. There are many excellent small businesses and smart small biz owners who just don’t get it where online is concerned. That might make them stubborn to some degree, but it doesn’t make them inefficient or poorly-managed, does it?

  3. Kathy says:

    Twenty years ago, Walmart was going to be the death of small independent business owners. Today, it’s the web.

    One thing is certain, the [insert name of current evil entity which is providing competition here] is ALWAYS going to be the enemy of the local/small independent business owner.

    Competition is always GOOD for business… and that’s true no matter WHAT size that business may be at the moment.

  4. Tim Flint says:

    Small businesses have always had it hard. But, they will find a way. It is fulfilling they need they see in their local community that will work for them.

    When you are that close to your customer you can’t help but have an advantage.

  5. john andrews says:

    Not harsh, Matt. I don’t pre-suppose anything about smb owners, but simply state that the web is indeed the enemy of the stuborn, inefficient, and poorly-managed ones. I don’t think it is an enemy of the rest :-)

    As for your statement “There are many excellent small businesses and smart small biz owners who just don’t get it where online is concerned”, I disagree only with the word “excellent”. Today a good percentage of their customers are using the web, and if they don’t “get it” where online is concerned, they are not excellent.

  6. David says:

    In today’s market local small businesses need to understand how to use the Internet as a marketing a business tool. My wife recently opened a specialty boutique and the Internet has been very good for us. We are not getting online sales but we are getting a lot of business traffic because people saw our products online and then came into the store to buy. I have to admit that most business owners in the small area of Michigan that we live in don’t get the Internet and this is probably true of a lot of business people. Just another case where good business people have to keep up on the trends.

  7. MaltaMom says:

    I agree with your comments, but like John, I think that small businesses need to distinguish themselves from internet retailers.

    Let me give you an example, we just had a specialty toy shop open up in town. I was very excited, because I called (after 3 attempts with no voicemail) and found out they carry my favorite brand, Haba, that until now I could only buy online. So I excitably strapped the kids in the car and headed downtown (it is birthday time). I got there and was disappointed. I wasn’t even greeted when I walked in, while I was there, I felt like they were annoyed that my 3 year-old was asking questions about the toys, and even though I asked for something that wasn’t there, they didn’t offer to order it for me. A friend went there and said she bought something on the way to a birthday party and was embarrassed to give her gift because they wrapped it so bad.

    So will this business be around in another year, I doubt it. Would a toy store that creates special programs for kids, writes a blog on upcoming toys with reviews, creates an email list that advertises current specials and promotions, has awesome customer service from the time you walk in the door to the time you walk out? I think so.

  8. Matt McGee says:

    @David – interesting to hear you talk about online driving offline sales. That’s becoming a prime model for small businesses. Glad to hear things are going well like that.

    @Malta Mom – I agree with what you’re saying. Poor service is a sure path to death. We don’t know what kind of customer service the businesses in this story provide. But I still think it’s smart for them to rally together an encourage shoppers to support local businesses, rather than always buying online from the Amazons, Best Buys, Targets, etc.

  9. David Mihm says:

    Matt, here is where I think there might be a distinction to be made between SMALL and LOCAL businesses. I agree that the internet has probably hurt Local businesses to a large extent because people are buying more and more products online…

    …but a lot of those sales are from smaller e-commerce companies. Just think of all the eBay stores alone, let alone the Mom & Pops who are making candles in their garage in Aberdeen, Washington and selling to folks in Aberdeen, Scotland. There are plenty of opportunities for well-optimized small business websites to capture great long-tail search traffic and make oodles of money.

  10. Teddy Garcia says:

    As someone who used to own a “main street” bicycle store, an online shopping mall for hundreds of “unique mom and pop merchants” and now earns a living helping other offline business owners grow their business thru local search marketing, I’m not sure I buy this argument at all.

    I help local offline business owners all day long grow their business by leveraging local search to find new customers. It works for just about every business out there when done correctly.

    Most people aren’t concerned about simply getting the best price. They’ll gladly pay more for prompt, courteous, and knowledgeable service.

    A perfect example is the owner of a used bookstore I met with today. You can read the story on my blog if you’re interested:

    http://twurl.nl/7p83t6

    @teddygarcia

  11. Local Hound says:

    “rallying together to ask local residents to do more shopping in town, rather than online.”

    This is the right idea in that it is community building… but wrong because it won’t last. People will do it once (if at all) and feel they did their part.

    However, if they continued to build the community on the web… they might have something.

    I’ve long thought the proper vertical in local search is not by product but by location. In the 50′s, this was done at the lodge over a cold one.

    Now, they need to move it online… the Chamber of Commerces are in a position to really help those they serve… they just don’t know it yet.

    I think the “location vertical” is a huge opportunity.

  12. grocer says:

    I agree with David.

    The internet provides the local store an ability to tap into marketplaces/increasing it’s “customer offering” by using the internet as a business tool, whether by online or in situ sales.

  13. Andrew Sokol says:

    The web is a marketing tool. It can help small businesses with online – as well as offline – sales. The problem isn’t with the web itself, but with the lack of an effective online strategy by the small businesses you mention.

  14. S.M. says:

    I agree with your comments, but like John, I think that small businesses need to distinguish themselves from internet retailers.

    Here is where I think there might be a distinction to be made between SMALL and LOCAL businesses. I agree that the internet has probably hurt Local businesses to a large extent because people are buying more and more products online…

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