Share this article

print logo

Era of e-commerce poses challenges for small business

When Gaetana and David Schueckler extended their TreeHouse Toy Store’s business hours during the Christmas shopping season, they had to alter the information on the store’s website along with five other places on the Web to ensure that people Googling the store would get the right information. They also had to update each of the store’s social media accounts, the store’s mobile app and consumer review sites such as Yelp.com.

In the old days, all she had to do was put a sign on the door.

In the age of e-commerce, even the tiniest details can have their own slew of complexities. When the Schuecklers opened their Elmwood Avenue store in 1996, the majority of their time went toward selecting toys, selling toys, working with customers and gift wrapping purchases. They still have to do all of that, but now they’ve also got to manage an online store, optimize their online presence for mobile shoppers, manage Facebook and Instagram accounts, send out catalogs, ship products and administer a loyalty rewards program. All of that added work is what it takes today to do the same thing they’ve always done: service customers and sell them the toy that’s right for them.

“It’s a whole other business. The mission is the same, but the steps to accomplishing it now are completely different than they were 18 years ago,” Gaetana Schueckler said. “There’s just a lot more required.”

For decades, mom-and-pop retailers have fought powerhouse big box retailers for a tiny corner of market share. Now, there is the added competition from behemoth online retailers like Amazon, which are a threat to brick-and-mortar merchants at the mall and on Main Street alike.

But even as the world of e-commerce gives small, independent stores an extra set of challenges, it creates a world of new opportunities. Yes, it increases competition, drives down prices and has introduced the problem of “showrooming” – the consumer practice of trying a product out in a store, then ordering it online at a lower price. And there’s the whole issue referred to as sales tax fairness, with some out-of-state online retailers opting not to collect state and local sales taxes, which is widely considered an unfair pricing advantage.

But at the same time, it takes a corner shop’s potential pool of customers from a surrounding neighborhood and opens it up to the limitless possibilities of a global market. It keeps a store open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which can keep the cash register ringing even as the store’s owners sleep. And it allows owners to serve more customers without significantly increasing overhead.

Many merchants take a can’t-beat-them-join-them approach, maintaining their independent stores and websites, but sell through Amazon Marketplace as well. On Amazon Marketplace, third-party sellers’ listings come up in consumer product searches on Amazon.com. Amazon collects the customer’s money, forwards the order details and pays the seller, minus commission and other fees. By adding that channel, small merchants can greatly expand their customer base, but the best-case scenario is to win the customer over with a great experience so they would come directly to the retailer in the future.

Kenmore-based drink accessory retailer KegWorks has a thriving online business of its own, but acknowledges it has to maintain a presence on Amazon as well, if only because that’s one of the first places many online consumers search for products.

“But we would always prefer an order go through our website than through Amazon,” said Tom McManus, KegWorks CEO.

Owners can’t afford to let the added work and responsibilities of keeping a small store viable in the Internet age take energy away from the in-store experience. Nostalgic charm and a close, personal connection are a small merchant’s greatest asset. But the good news is that in-store customer service and consumer loyalty pay off on the Web, too. Shoppers share their experiences on social media, rate retailers on consumer websites, review purchases on YouTube, even devote entire blogs and Web pages to favorite stores and products.

At the TreeHouse, shoppers snack on free caramel popcorn, gifts are beautifully wrapped for free, and the entire aesthetic is designed to “help people slow down and enjoy the experience of shopping in a small toy store.” They think of their store as more than just a business, they think of it as a special place in the neighborhood – a place grandparents can bring their grandchildren, a place kids can stop after school and pick inexpensive toys out of the buckets near the register, a place out-of-town visitors return to reconnect with childhood memories.

“I feel in my heart that when they leave here, they’re going home with more than just a toy,” Gaetana Schueckler said.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com