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Stores try to find a place on the Web Internet works for and against small retailers

Compared to the all the revenue generated by people walking in to buy tennis balls, rackets and the latest baby-blue lycra mini game skirt at JB's Tennis Shop in Williamsville, the store's cyberspace retail operation can't compete.

"If I had to survive on Internet alone, we'd be out of business," said Phil Primerano, manager of the Main Street shop for the last 11 years.

While the occasional order does come in at - some 2 percent of sales - Primerano and others in the local retail trade have been trying to make their Web sites work, not as online catalogs, but as publicity tools, luring people to get into their cars, drive to the shops and spend money once they walk inside.

Local retail Web sites do this by posting store events such as book signings, coupons to print for CD discounts and online games to win a store gift certificates.

"I think you need it," said Primerano of his Web site. "If people call your store, it adds to the credibility of your business."

A few hundred people now routinely sign up online just before the big international tennis tournaments, trying to predict how well Serena Williams and the rest will do in the Australian Open. It works to draw business in couple of ways.

The winners usually come in and spend more than the $75 on their gift certificate. And the people who join the pool online may then think more about the Main Street store with its calendar listing of sales on tennis balls and Nike tennis outfits. "It gets people more excited about tennis," Primerano said.

In the past five years that he has seen the Internet take hold as a business force, he and others in local retail say the new price competition has made their operations leaner.

Primerano now checks prices at tennis-warehouse. com, as his customers do, and he is quick to make sure his prices match the competition's.

"Years ago we could just let a racket sit out there and it'll sell eventually," he said. "Customers get better prices because of the Internet."

> Selling CDs

Record Theatre, a local chain, has a leaner staff than it used to. Since over-the-counter sales have dropped, stores now have two or three clerks instead of three or four, said Brandon Delmont, senior buyer with a desk in a back room of the Main Street store.

Transcontinent Record Sales, the company that owns the stores, has delved into online record sales by diversifying: A former Record Theatre store on Main Street now has staff handling the online division and the orders for discounted bulk stock that come through its "dcbuys" eBay account at and elsewhere.

The five Record Theatre stores sell some of the same stock. "We can get rid of some of our inventory through the stores," said Delmont. "They kind of work together."

To him the bigger puzzle is finding ways to get people to come inside and shop when so many find their music online downloading by the song, or click-shopping with Amazon.

"It's definitely a struggle," Delmont said. He's been thinking of new enticements to add at along the list of staff CD picks and a 25 percent-off coupon posted earlier this month.

"Right now our Web site is just like an informational site," Delmont said. "It's more like a pamphlet."

He'd like to offer more discounts, song samples, video clips and auctions of rare CDs, such as the out-of-print work by the Tom Petty-Roy Orbison Traveling Wilburys collaboration. "Anything that might attract people to the site to buy stuff from us," said Delmont.

> The Amazon factor

Local book purveyor Talking Leaves, with a Web site that features upcoming author book signings, has seen sales dip as well.

"I think Amazon to some extent has probably sort of hurt every ground store," said Jonathon Welch, owner of Talking Leaves on Main Street and on Elmwood Avenue.

Welch uses the store's Web site -, featuring a motto "Independent and Idiosyncratic since 1971" - to promote store visits more than online shopping. "It's a miniscule part of what we do," he said of the site.

Click on "specials" and a page announces, "We've got plenty of titles on sale right now . . . Come on in and check it out! You may save a bundle . . . "

During the holiday shopping season, business picked up as Christmas got closer and people knew it was too late for online mail ordering. "In a weird way, we benefit from the fact that they can't deliver the night before Christmas," Welch said.

Although so-called "big box" stores and online sellers have cut into Welch's sales, the ease of buying and learning about books on the Internet has books more accessible to people. A bookstore has less "an aura of privilege than it used to," he said. "It's not intimidating . . . I think that's a good thing."

> Camera shop adapts

The 2-year-old Novaphoto. com site accounted for about 25 percent of Chuck Terranova's business during the holidays. People went there to upload digital photos and pick out greeting cards decorated with candy-cane borders and Christmas ornaments. That way they saved one trip, stopping in at Nova's Main Street store only when the pictures were ready.

Many were new customers.

For Terranova, setting up shop online is part of a continuing photo lab transition as people go digital and abandon film cameras.

"It's what people have to do to continue doing business," said Terranova.

About a 1 1/2 years ago the drop in film processing led him to cut staff and worry that he'd have to move to a smaller store. Now he still has less staff, but he hasn't moved and revenue is up. The Web site is working. Business isn't the same as it was when people were developing film, but it's getting better.

"It's picked up enough with the digital," said Terranova. "The transition is continuing."


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