Just back from a Florida vacation, my Missouri cousin decided she wanted some merchandise she had seen at a store in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. But when she contacted the store, it had only one of the beachy items left. Fortunately for cousin Linda and the store, Beall´s, there is a Web site. And what transpired next is a real-life example of the value of online retailing. My cousin not only bought what she wanted off the Web site, she bought more than she would have bought over the phone.
As lucrative as Internet retailing can be, however, it´s trickier than it may seem at first glance, particularly for smaller retailers. Knowing this, researchers at the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at Vanderbilt University´s Owen Graduate School of Management wrote a book to help smaller retailers and local search engines — such as Citysearch — cut through the confusion.
There is so much useful information in "Beyond the Basics: Research-Based Rules for Internet Retailing Advantage" (eLab Press) that I decided to devote three blogs to it, this one being the first.
"A scrutinous local shopper searching for information online presents smaller retailers with an opportunity to win sales from larger stores," conclude editors Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak, "provided an online advertising strategy that connects with local shoppers´ needs is present."
That latter issue is one of the tricky parts. Before the Internet, the Yellow Pages leveled the playing field for local mom-and-pop stores. Then the Yellow pages began migrating online.
"Ironically," write the Vanderbilt researchers, "the Internet — which many tout as predicated on notions of equity — currently creates a distinct disadvantage for local businesses that lack a Web presence. Already battling the ever-expanding reach of national and regional giants offline, these mom-and-pop stores now face an Internet-based proliferation of product and service alternatives, informational content and purchase event opportunities."
As a consequence, say the university experts, it is increasingly difficult for mom-and-pop stores to reach shoppers whose needs would best be met by local merchants. The way to remedy this is to figure out who is predisposed to shopping locally and how leading search engines can help. Search engines are important for small retailers because most mom-and-pop stores do not have their own Web sites.
The first part of the solution offered in this book applies to search engines; the second to retailers. Search engines that want to help direct traffic to local retailers should integrate rich content that leverages such technologies as digital photography and streaming audio and video.
And, if the search engines make this available, then smaller retailers should learn to shoot and upload digital photographs of, for instance, their storefront or unique items in their store. Also, perhaps, they might wish to record a message from the store owner to be broadcast via the search engine. Such a message would be used to communicate the sense of trust, friendliness and community that can be a key selling point for mom-and-pop stores.
Local online search tools, further, could enhance their sites through features that build on the notion of community held by local shoppers. These features could include rating systems, feedback forums and expert opinions.
As far as the advantages that local retailers have over the nationals, this book notes that most mom-and-pop stores possess "order winners" that make them a more attractive option than national retailers. "Order winners" refers to the unique qualities of a business that allow it to differentiate itself from its competitors. "Order winners for a florist, for example, might include the staff´s exceptional skill for creative arrangements."
The merchant attributes that endear mom-and-pop stores to local consumers can be reduced down to four main "order winners," according to Vanderbilt, and these are: expertise, product specificity, reputation and convenience.
Next, in part II of this blog series on online retailing, a look at the Internet-based marketing sites available to mom-and-pop stores.