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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 00:00

Online shopping not taking a big byte yet, say store owners

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

This Christmas season, Laura Ammons has scoured for presents for her loved ones, checking off her list as she scoops up the perfect item. Rather than encountering a mad frenzy of crowds, however, Ammons sits quietly and peacefully (to the envy of many harried shoppers) while she does her Christmas shopping — online.

A growing number of Americans are turning to online shopping as a way to avoid the bustling crowds that fill malls and stores nationwide each holiday season. The Friday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, even has its own online counterpart a few days after, known as Cyber Monday. According to ComScore, a tracker that follows online shopping trends, this year’s Cyber Monday was the heaviest online shopping day ever recorded, with online buyerss shelling out $733 million. This year, shoppers spent 21 percent more online than they did in 2006.

Yet that number remains exceedingly low when compared to the billion plus dollars spent by Americans that same weekend. And locally, retailers say they aren’t yet seeing an impact from shoppers that opt to go online for their purchases.

 

Online and local

That’s not to say local retailers don’t attempt to attract shoppers online. Some area businesses have Web sites to showcase their offerings.

Deanna Schleifer, owner of Christmas Everyday in Waynesville, was one of the first to get in on this trend when she started her site 11 years ago. She offers hard to find Christmas decorations, like a Moravian Star, on the site. So far, that tactic has served Schleifer well — she has boxes of items ready to go to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Raleigh, she said. Still, Schleifer says, “online is not a significant percentage of my business.” She mainly has the site for people that have visited her store and want something they’ve seen, rather than gearing it toward online Christmas shoppers who aren’t already aware of her offerings.

Mike Kesselring, owner of Kesselring Photography in Bryson City, also runs a Web site for his business — and says most of the people his site attracts have already visited his gallery.

Still, Kesselring says the site has been an asset. He’s able to put pictures up on a web-based photo gallery and take orders from people who’ve attended family reunions and other events he photographs. Before, Kesselring would order proofs and they’d get lost, copied, or not sent back, he says.

 

Internet information

A Web site’s not profitable, or necessary, for every business, however. Kevin Massie, who runs Massie’s Furniture in downtown Waynesville, says his store has a website, but it’s solely for informational purposes — nothing is offered for sale.

Furniture is a whole different ballgame though, Massie says.

“I think it’s like shopping for a car — people have to see the furniture before they buy it,” he said.

Gil Crouch, owner of Gil’s Book Sale in Bryson City, has his own reasons for not investing in a Web site, though customers ask him frequently why he doesn’t have one. He says he enjoys his freedom and doesn’t want to be responsible for shipping something to a customer within a set number of days (as online booksellers like Amazon and Half.com must do). He also says he doesn’t care about getting the extra dollars or business that come with having a Web site.

“I’m not out to make a fortune. I’m satisfied with my life,” says Crouch.

And why should Crouch change his ways? He says he can’t see any impact from people choosing to shop online rather than frequent his store — to the contrary, business has grown every year since Crouch started 14 years ago.

Crouch says this is likely due to a breed of customer he can always count on — tourists. For many, the experience of shopping is a critical part of a visit, and the customer base that feels that way will likely remain a constant source of revenue.

Crouch, like others, relies on creative and niche forms of marketing to attract shoppers who may otherwise buy from bigger stores online. He offers the biggest collection of Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the Southeast, and uses that designation to carve out a niche of dedicated shoppers. Additionally, Crouch knows places like EBay sometimes charge for the shipping and handling of items.

But, Crouch says, “the main thing with online is that you don’t have anybody to talk back to you, and you can’t see and feel the merchandise.”

Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers in Waynesville, agrees that there are benefits for customers when they visit a store in person.

“If you come in and you get to see books, you might see something you didn’t even know you wanted. Also, we have personal assistance, recommendations, and help with special orders,” she said.

A key issue for those in the retail industry is making customers aware of benefits they won’t necessarily derive from shopping online.

“We try really hard to help people understand what we do for the community we live in. Our money stays in town, and our tax dollars stay here. So we try to help people understand they’re not just supporting the bookstore, they’re supporting the community,” Osondu said.

As for the bookstore’s own Web site, it hasn’t yet been successful in reaping the benefits of the growing trend toward online shopping. Osondu said her online sales make up only 5 percent of her total sales.

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