Here’s how these local businesses get the hits and bring in the dough
|Jim Clevenger, owner of RunningShoes.com, says he ships shoes around the world, to Asia and Europe and to soldiers serving in Iraq.|
Every time someone in New York City orders some bit of merchandise from his store in Bellingham, Alan Gardner said, he is baffled.
The 54-year-old co-owner of petStop, a pet supply shop in Fairhaven, said Bellingham-to-New York transactions — which originate via his company’s online store — occur with regularity.
“What could they not find on the island of Manhattan? I’m amazed,” Gardner said. “In the last couple of months, I bet I’ve sent a couple of dozen orders to New York City. You send me a corned beef sandwich, I’ll send you a gallon of Anti-Icky-Poo.”
Anti-Icky-Poo — an enzymatic cleaner — happens to be the name of one of Gardner’s best-selling items online.
“(Anti-Icky-Poo is) relatively new to the market, and different than most of the rest,” Gardner said. “It’s great stuff. It’s hard to find. I bet we’ve sent 300 gallons of it over the Internet in the last year or two. But it’s heavy … To ship this $34 bottle of stuff to the East Coast is going to be (expensive). I can’t help that, and there is no other way to send it.”
Shipping costs are just one of the challenges of doing business on the Web. For some local companies, Internet-based business is a vital part of a healthy profit margin, and for others it is simply an additional marketing and information tool that establishes an online presence.
Think like customers
Gardner doesn’t flinch when disclosing his impressions of his company’s e-commerce Web site.
“Our site is really lame,” he said. “It’s open-source software. It’s cheap. We got what we paid for. It’s not a complaint, but it’s not sophisticated.”
Gardner said his business started offering products online about two years ago. Currently, petStop has two Web sites — one for general store information (local customers) and one for e-commerce (out-of-area customers).
“You just don’t know which direction this business is going, and which direction the Internet may be going,” he said. “Being kind of a techno-geek inherently, playing with technology is always fun.”
Aside from the fun of it, Gardner said the e-commerce site generates some business, but at a level he considers “insignificant.”
“I could say we average maybe 20 orders per month,” he said — an amount he estimates is less than 1 percent of his total sales. “I don’t know how people are finding us, but they are. I’ll go two or three days without an order, and then another day I’ll have six.”
In fact, the petStop e-commerce Web site (www.Petstop1.com) features a message encouraging customers to shop in their own areas.
“Most of the items we offer for sale in store are available in your own hometown and we strongly encourage you to shop locally whenever possible,” reads the Web site, adding that the company is a member of the local group Sustainable Connections, which encourages shopping locally. “Because of shipping costs and time you can find most of the “mainstream” pet toys and treats cheaper and faster than we could ever offer them here. What we are offering on this site are items which may not be easily found in your area or are perhaps unique to the Pacific Northwest.”
On the contrary, another company in Bellingham, RunningShoes.com, lives primarily off what business it generates on the Web.
“(Web commerce) is the majority of our business,” said Jim Clevenger, who owns the company — a running specialty store — with his wife, Holly. The owners started the business on the Web with no physical storefront in 1996. The 1,100-square-foot store on State Street opened in the spring of 1999.
Today, RunningShoes.com ships to customers around the world, Clevenger said, including Europe and even to soldiers in Iraq.
“One of the reasons people go to the Internet is to find sizes that may not be available in their area,” he said. “We will get more odd sizes.” Clevenger said some of his online customers are also residents of more secluded areas.
“Some of our customers are in remote areas where they can’t find a running specialty store within a reasonable drive, so they are looking for convenience and to get that product they can’t find locally,” he said.
To make the product — and Web site — more attractive to customers, Clevenger said businesses considering online service need to put themselves in customers’ shoes. Simple Web sites with a mix of information and ease of navigation are important.
“You have to think from a customer’s standpoint, not your standpoint,” he said. Free shipping also helps, he said.
“We do free shipping for orders over $50,” he said, something he feels customers expect when ordering higher-priced items. “(Free shipping) is one of our major expenses, but it’s also a big advantage.”
Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, said his company has offered online shopping since the mid-’90s. While Robinson said the Web site generates “less than 1 percent” of the company’s total sales, its overall impact on business and marketing is important.
“It’s just another means of ordering that book, rather than picking up the telephone. Or if they are ordering at 1 o’clock in the morning as they are sitting at their computer, or while they are at their desk at work,” said Robinson. The Web site also lists events occurring at the store, which attract more customers, he said.
“We ship very few books to folks in Whatcom County,” he said. “They are using the Web interface as convenience for them, making sure that we have the book and getting the response before they come into the store.”
Because books are readily available to customers around the country, Robinson said, he understands that his company is not catering to out-of-area customers — although he said he does sell a good amount of cyber textbooks to students studying online courses through Western Washington University who are living throughout the state.
“Our primary customer is the Bellingham customer. Books are a pretty fungible product,” he said. “It’s a title they can get anywhere if they are going to order it online. They are not likely going to buy it from us rather than one of the big boys. We’re not a price-point seller.”
Marketing the site
Gardner said he realizes much of his clientele will probably not become avid Internet shoppers.
“There are the tactile amongst us that prefer to look, touch and feel — and want service. And that’s never going to change,” he said. “We’re in a low-tech business. The enthusiastic pet owner is not a particularly tech-savvy individual, but that is changing.”
Because of his more locally oriented customer base, Gardner said, he doesn’t pay big money to register with search engines.
“I don’t really care that if you Google something, we’re on page five instead of the top of page one. It doesn’t really interest me,” he said. His advertising is primarily through the Yellow Pages, he said.
For Clevenger, whose bread and butter is Internet sales, marketing is done in a different way, he said.
“We do a lot of cost-per-click advertising,” he said. Cost-per-click advertising is an arrangement in which search engines, acting as publishers, display clickable links from advertisers, in exchange for a charge per click. “We come up very high on the searches for running shoes. But if a customer is looking for Asics, which is our No. 1 brand, we generally have to pay to get a good location.”
Once customers are found, it is important to identify who they are, Robinson said.
To keep track of his customers, Robinson said, the bookstore receives reports from the American Booksellers Association, a family of independent-bookseller Web sites which runs the site BookSense.com.
“There are some real good statistics that are there for us so we can see where people are coming from and the orders that they do,” he said.
The costs in time and money
Even though RunningShoes.com has a store with walk-in customers, most of Clevenger’s time is spent on the Web, he said.
“Our staff is multi-trained, and we do a bit of everything, like a lot of small businesses.” All five employees have had to do work on the Web from time to time, he said.
In addition to employee time, Clevenger said, selling on the Web is more expensive — per transaction — than selling in the store. Credit-card fees and expenses can add up, he said.
“That’s another huge expense,” he said. “Online (fees) are more than the fees charged at the store when the customer is present.” Online customers are also required to pay the Washington state sales tax with every transaction, he said.
With much less online customer traffic, Gardner said, dealings with online customers don’t take up the time of his seven employees.
“I handle it myself. It’s not enough to bother employees with, and it keeps me busy,” he said. “Late at night, when I’m done with my e-mails, I’ll check to see if there are any orders and print them out.”
Robinson said several employees at the bookstore help organize and manage the different components of the site, and customers receive a status-of-order e-mail from Village Books within 24 hours of ordering online. All told, however, the total employee time spent on Web-related issues isn’t significant, he said.
The next big thing?
While Gardner doesn’t do a lot of online business, he said his presence on the Web could become important in the future.
“We’ve got the site up and running,” he said. “You don’t know which direction (things will go). This could turn into a big thing, or mean nothing. We don’t work it hard. We don’t put a lot of effort into it.”
Robinson said people seem to be getting more and more comfortable with online shopping.
“I can tell you that the total sales is increasing. We’re seeing an increase of more than 30 percent over last year’s online sales,” he said. “I think one of the challenges for us is just making sure that people know that we have an online presence and that they can order from us that way.”
Clevenger said online competition has become stronger in recent years, and sales have been flat for the past three. One change he wants to make: He hopes to revamp the company’s Web site next year to include a real-time listing of inventory.
As far as rating Bellingham as a place to do online business, Robinson said he feels online shopping often occurs in areas with lots of desk jobs and offices — something Bellingham doesn’t necessarily feature as much as other towns.
“I’m guessing that Bellingham, not being the tall tower, office town that Seattle is — there is probably a smaller percentage of people who are ordering online here,” he said. “But I also think on the other hand that it’s a relatively sophisticated, high-tech town.”