NORMAN — Shopping local is becoming easier as brick-and-mortar businesses evolve into the online marketplace. Many community-oriented business owners launched websites to better serve customers. Now, they’re expanding online services to compete with the burgeoning virtual shopping realm. It’s a matter of survival.
“I’m in a perfect spot to see the future,” said Barbara Fite, co-owner of Antique Garden, a clothing and home decor shop on Campus Corner adjacent to the University of Oklahoma.
“There has been a seismic shift,” Fite said. “People my age and my daughter’s age went shopping as a social activity.”
Today’s college women are not shopping socially, she said. Instead, they are shopping online.
“It’s a cultural change,” Fite said.
While Fite’s market demographic is impacted by this shift, she is growing her base of customers age 30 and older, while expanding her online presence to accommodate the shift in the college market.
The secret to successful entrepreneurship involves expanding beyond local boundaries to bring in outside dollars, adapting to constantly changing markets, and creatively marketing and packaging products in ways that enhance or create a unique market share. It’s a lesson many local businesses have taken to heart.
“We are at the very beginning process of our website,” Fite said. “It is going to continue to get bigger and better.”
While Fite hopes the majority of her customers will browse the site for ideas and then come into the store to shop, many items can be ordered directly online. However, she believes online-only shoppers are missing out on services and fun shopping in-person brings.
“We have awesome people who work with customers to find what they want and to get the perfect fit,” she said. “Customers get free real-world advice when they’re in here.”
Fite and her daughter, co-owner Mariah Pinkerton, have worked hard to create a unique and inspiring ambiance.
Feeling textures, sitting on furniture, gathering ideas from the constantly evolving displays of clothing and home decor are things that online shoppers miss out on if they don’t visit the store in-person, Fite said. You can’t touch and feel and try on a 3-D image on a computer screen.
But whether a customer prefers to shop online or in the store, Fite said the collections offered by local retailers like herself are the highest-quality merchandise, unlike many cut-rate online venues where significant discounts are offered on outdated fashions or items that fit poorly or were last year’s colors that did not sell well.
“I go to market,” she said. “My job is to go to market and pick the prettiest and best stuff.”
On the west side of town at Spurs & Sweets in Redbud Plaza, owner and entrepreneur Holly McGowen also recognizes the power of the Internet.
“Before I opened the store, I made sure the website was in place, because I think a website is just as important as a business card today,” McGowen said. “Consumers are very well informed when making a significant purchase like investing in a pair of boots.”
In some cases, that results in an online purchase, but many times, that results in a trip to the store.
“They do their homework,” McGowen said. “I have customers that come into the store and, before they even look around, they’ll tell me which boot they want to try on. They know the sizes that are available, and they’ve done research on the brand.”
Her store serves no specific age demographic.
“People can purchase my boots online, and I ship from New York to California,” she said. “People find our store. I have a lot of followers that don’t live in Norman or Oklahoma.”
Fite and McGowen emphasize that owning a small business is hard work.
“And hard work doesn’t always equal success,” McGowen said. “But there are free outlets you can take advantage of these days, and I just spread my brand wherever I can.”
Keeping up with a website and social media outlets is costly in time, but it’s a necessary evil in today’s culture.
“One of my friends is a graphic designer, and before I opened the store, I sat down and talked to her about my vision for the website,” McGowen said. “I wear the hat of webmaster.”
Designing the site was just the beginning. McGowen must update it and maintain it. She uploads new products weekly.
“It’s very time consuming,” McGowen said. “I try to devote a couple of hours at the end of ever week updating the site. My goal is to have everything I sell in the store available online.”
That means she photographs products, writes product information and removes products that have sold out. However, the work is “absolutely” worth the time investment.
“I don’t always see the sales online, but I hear on almost a daily basis that people have been online,” McGowen said.
More and more, local business are increasing offerings and information available online. For example, International Pantry, 1618 W. Lindsey St., has a lively Internet business in addition to walk-in traffic and local cooking classes.
In addition, most big box and junior box retail stores combine local shopping with online convenience. Stores like Sears, Target, Home Depot, Hastings and others allow customers to shop and order online, then pick up items at the local outlet. That keeps sales tax dollars local and usually eliminates shipping fees or other charges associated with online shopping.