In 2013, US retailers experienced about half of the holiday foot traffic they had three years prior. That same year, Amazon reported its best holiday season yet. The effect of the Internet on the retail experience is undeniable, which got us wondering: will online shopping kill actual storefronts? We asked four local small businesses—Hello-Lucky, Iko Iko, and Manready Mercantile in the Heights, and Myth & Symbol in Rice Village—about the trials and successes of opening brick-and-mortar shops in the age of the Internet.
Teresa O’Connor and Camella Clements, of Hello-Lucky and Iko Iko, respectively, had been running their separate clothing and accessories stores for a few years, with little online presence, when they decided to team up and open an online shop selling American-made, fair-trade goods, called Hunter Gatherer, in mid-2013. Clements says they made the decision after observing friends’ success on the Internet and recognizing that “part of really growing is online.” Comparing running an online store to a physical one, she says, “It’s just a matter of mastering a different set of tools, and a different set of skills,” like search engine optimization, which products look best online, and how to effectively photograph them.
The duo runs Hunter Gatherer from the back of their stores, with a photo studio at Iko Iko, while continuing to grow their physical shops. With hindsight, they think they did things backward, strongly advocating starting online and going from there. Physical storefronts can distract with issues “like oh, the A/C is not working or it’s pouring rain,” says O’Connor. “You can really put 100 percent of your energy into the aesthetic of your [online] store.” Clements asserts she would have seen a larger financial return much more quickly if she had initially put the “tens and thousands of dollars” necessary for permitting and construction into a web shop.
Travis Weaver, owner of Manready Mercantile (and style icon spotlighted in our current issue's Elements of Style section) on W. 19th St. did just that, starting his business online first—with iPhone pictures on Shopify, no less—back in October 2012, with the idea of taking products typically marketed to women, like candles, bubble bath, and bath salts, and rebranding them for men by packaging them in old whiskey bottles, for example. Weaver says he made his first sale within 15 minutes of uploading his site. Soon he was selling products from other small-batch, American-made brands and growing his social media presence. Finally, online sales grew so much, he and his small team were forced to look into real estate to relieve the stress on what had become his “unlivable” apartment headquarters. “My laundry room,” he says, “was a fire hazard.”
At first he planned not a shop but a “production facility,” until he realized a storefront could cover some of the overhead. By March 2014, Manready had opened, with a showroom upstairs and a shipping and receiving center downstairs. With his inventory continuing to expand. Weaver explains that his team tries to add items available in the store to the site constantly but often can’t due to the time required to keep up. He estimates that the physical store represents about 70 percent of sales, as opposed to 30 percent online, which has been something of a shock. “We didn’t anticipate the sales we had in the store,” he says. “We didn’t think we were going to grow straight up in the store.” His goal is to “expand more online, because that’s where it’s at,” and to benefit from the much larger potential offered by an online customer base. Weaver echoes O’Connor and Clements’ recommendation to begin online, but cites social media as a most important part of this step, to gather loyal followers who will follow you to your actual store.
Meanwhile, Myth & Symbol in Rice Village opened in July 2012 with practically simultaneous physical and online stores. Trang Nguyen, who founded M&S with a few others, including her sister, opened the store with an emphasis on independent, high-quality, hard-to-find brands. They had thought they would focus entirely on the physical shop at first, since they had put so much money into it and were worried that people would only come into the store to look before making purchases elsewhere online.
They realized very early on how crucial a web shop was to their success—customers, it turned out, demanded it. By Christmas, almost their entire store was posted online, “and our inventory moved much faster with the web shop.” For her part, Nguyen does not recommend starting online first, because a lot of the designers she carries will only sell to retail outlets with physical presences. She does say that looking back, she would have launched the website at exactly the same time as the store. Today, sales are usually about even between shop and site, with larger purchases more likely to happen online. “I’ve noticed that people will place $800 orders online,” she says, “and it always happens late at night.”
And so, the consensus seem to be that the Internet will not kill retail, as long as shop owners recognize its importance. It’s even possible to make more money with a brick-and-mortar store than a website, but definitely do not leave out the website. No businessperson should miss out on the chance to get those midnight binge shopping orders….