These days, small businesses often struggle to compete in a world where a growing number of consumers do their shopping on the Web, online retailers have a global reach, and technology evolves quickly.
However, even mom-and-pop merchants can harness the power of the Internet and social media and use it to boost their businesses. Two of these businesses discussed their successes during the session "Clicks Supporting Bricks: Using Social Media and the Internet to Bolster Main Street Businesses" at the July Annual Meeting.
Helping local merchants understand how technology can expand their customer base is an important role for local officials. "Traditionally, cities and towns have assisted local merchants by supporting local Main Street programs, providing a physical environment appealing to shoppers, and sponsoring special events," commented Miriam Hair, Municipal Association executive director. "Educating merchants on how to use the Intranet and social media to access new markets is just another way to bolster traditional "bricks and mortar" businesses."
Ten years ago, Aimee and Greg Talbot opened their business, EuroLux Antiques, in downtown Newberry. Both have MBAs in International Business and lived and worked in Europe. They used that experience to establish their high-quality, direct-import antiques business.
The couple personally selects pieces in Europe and ships them through the Port of Charleston. Initially, they sold pieces in their Newberry Main Street storefront and took them to sell at antique trade shows across the country. A year and a half in, they took their business online.
The Talbots stopped going to trade shows to devote their time to establishing their online business, which took about six months. Times were lean for a while, Aimee Talbot said. Their sales dropped by half when they stopped doing shows. But after they got established online, sales were double what they had been before.
"It was the right decision," she said.
Antiques are one of the harder things to sell online, Aimee Talbot said. At one point, they had 2,000 items for sale, and one piece might have 70 accompanying photos to highlight its details and intricate handiwork. Greg, who has accounting and software experience, built custom software to manage the photos and information. The couple sells their wares on 12 different Internet platforms. They also have their own website and a social media presence designed to drive people to their site.
"We-re in a sleepy town on Main Street," Aimee Talbot said. "If we hadn't been online we probably would have been out of business."
EuroLux stocks about 700 items in its Newberry gallery-which Aimee Talbot described as their warehouse and is open to the public. The business also has some 6,000 items online. The couple has also expanded into drop shipping new furniture, particularly those with antique-inspired designs. With drop shipping, the seller accepts payment for an order, but the customer receives the product directly from the manufacturer.
"Retail is changing. More and more people are doing their shopping online. To stay relevant, you have to change your business model. To compete, you have to be online," Aimee Talbot said. "If your business is not online, you-re definitely not going to survive."
Beppie LeGrand, Main Street manager for the Municipal Association, said it is important for small businesses to have an Internet and social media presence to be part of the larger marketplace.
"We will always have the brick and mortar shops because we are drawn to them as downtown destinations and special places in our communities, but these businesses are learning to use the Internet and social media to increase their presence and, in turn, their bottom line," said LeGrand.
LeGrand said she advises Main Street businesses to always update and stay current with technology.
"If you don't know how to navigate the Internet and other social media sites, call on experts that can help you," she said.
Robin Hornberger, owner of Robin's Nest on Main in Laurens, has increasingly used social media to promote her gift shop business since opening last year. Initially, all the duties of being a business owner left her little time to create social media sites. But Hornberger knew it was something she wanted to use to market to her younger customer base, so she began with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She eventually brought on a media and sales associate who developed a more consistent social media presence and streamlined all of the accounts.
Businesses need to get on board with social media trends because that is often how customers prefer to communicate, Hornberger said.
"We understand that small staffs and financial burdens can make this task seem impossible, but the fact that creating a virtual presence typically involves minimal costs is another positive feature," she said.
Hornberger advises that small business owners do not have to be social media gurus, they just have to establish an online presence, even if it is gradual.
"Do not sell yourself short and think it is something that you cannot develop with the resources and time you currently have. Many of the 'set-up' pages and editing options are very user friendly and a process that the least tech-savvy of employees could handle," Hornberger said.