E-commerce takes bite out of traditional retail – Allentown Morning Call
Being America’s oldest bookstore is one thing. Being behind the times is another, and Lisa Girard, general manager of the Moravian Book Shop, wants no part of that. And it’s exactly why her shop’s next big undertaking is giving the website a complete overhaul.
Although the Moravian Book Shop has a website, many of the store’s offerings are not listed for purchase, and it’s a problem in Girard’s eyes. She knows that to have more online sales, and even to bring more customers into her store, the website must be more aesthetically pleasing.
As consumers increasingly shift from going to shops to going on their phones and computers to shop, functional websites are a must, even for small businesses such as the Moravian Book Shop, which has locations in Bethlehem and Allentown. Those that fail to incorporate e-commerce into their business models risk falling victim to the wave of closings and consolidations affecting dozens of bricks-and-mortar businesses, including J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Sears.
“If you want to survive, you have to partake and make it a positive part of your business,” Girard said. “I definitely want to see an upswing. I could never keep up with Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but I still want to make a statement on e-commerce and have ourselves out there in a positive light.”
In-person sales at the Main Street Bethlehem store account for 80 percent of sales, Girard said. She hopes online sales will make up more than 20 percent when she finds the right company to upend the website. The goal, then, is that when out-of-towners research the area — for example during Musikfest — they’ll like what they see from her shop’s website, and put it on their must-see list when they arrive in town.
But being able to make the same purchase online as they would in the shop is a must.
“I want them to look at the site, get a feel for who we are and then come here and have an experience and shop,” Girard said. “But if they are in California, that’s not going to happen. I want those people to be able to shop online. And then there are others who check us out and come to the area. I want them to think, ‘This store is worth checking out.'”
Some companies and small businesses are dependent on their online presence. Take, for example, Etsy shop owners. The online marketplace for handmade sellers is now home to 1.7 million shops.
Kateland Kelly graduated from DeSales University in Center Valley in 2008 with a biology degree and two minors, including one in creative writing.
She works as a physician assistant at an urgent care facility in Vermont but has a booming Etsy shop, The Write Assistant, which opened in January 2015 and provides critiques to other shop owners. She offers her expertise in copywriting and editing to help her customers write descriptions of items being sold; gives insight into how to most efficiently craft their bio/shop story; and advises them in search engine optimization and photography — all key elements for online sellers and buyers.
Kelly has surpassed 126,000 views and 2,600 sales, which means her online sales are double the national average, which is 1 sale for every 100 views. She also operates a stand-alone website and is editor of The Handmade Seller magazine.
“While I could easily retire from working as a physician assistant, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I love the balance the writing provides along with my medical trade. I get to listen to my patients’ stories, and then I get to go home and write my own, which satisfies two very different parts of my soul.”
Sarah Sewell, an e-commerce consultant from Georgia who is well-known in the Etsy community, went from working in retail to owning her own e-commerce business.
Already a mom of one and four months pregnant with baby No. 2, Sewell, lost her job when the Linens-N-Things store she managed went out of business in November 2008. Unable to support her family and help pay for the wedding she was planning, she needed to do something.
“There was not really a store you could go to for wedding decor then,” she said. “You could go to a florist for your flowers and David’s Bridal for your dress. But when it came to decor, you had to search online for favors and linens and decorations. I didn’t have the money to do any of that.”
So Sewell crafted her own decor and was blown away by the compliments she received. Many people who saw her creations encouraged her to turn her hobby into a business. Finally, she took the plunge, and in late 2008, opened an Etsy shop, “The Paper Nook.”
Within a year, she was making six figures, she said.
Sewell no longer operates her Etsy shop. In 2015, she started The Joyful Entrepreneur, a 41,000-member e-commerce consulting company specializing in advising small business owners as they begin their journeys into the world of handmade goods and all that surrounds the opening of those shops.
E-commerce, she said, “has changed the whole landscape of what it takes to be a successful business owner.”
It’s also drastically changed where people shop. Now more than ever, consumers are plopped on their couch or standing in an elevator when they simply can tap a button on their computer, smartphone or tablet to complete a transaction. Fewer people shop in malls with any sense of regularity, and it’s created a massive decline in sales for many stores and closures for others.
Things likely will only get more challenging for traditional stores such as Sears, which this year announced it would sell its iconic Craftsman brand, which debuted in the store’s catalog in 1927. According to CNN, Sears, owner of equally troubled Kmart, reported a loss of $748 million in the third quarter of 2016 and may also sell off its Kenmore brand. According to Forbes, Sears has lost more than $10 billion since 2010.
Although department stores such as J.C. Penney, which just announced it will close 130 to 140 locations nationwide, and Macy’s have issues of their own, Jeff Green, president and CEO of Phoenix-based retail consultant Jeff Green Partners, said Sears’ problems are easy to pinpoint.
“Sears and Kmart I put in a totally different bucket,” he said. “They never put the resources needed to gain a strong online presence. Online retailing is so much different. You can’t really have people with a brick-and-mortar mindset running an online division. I don’t think they were willing to make the commitment to hire specialized people for that.”
In the meantime, e-commerce is booming and there are countless reasons why, said Lehigh University’s Oliver Yao, chairman of the Department of Management. One is that it’s easier to start selling online than it is to sell in a standalone shop or a mall. If you’re working out of your home — as many Etsy sellers are — there’s no rent to be paid, no additional time requirement to set up displays, no work clothes to buy, etc.