Customer Service, Community Are Small Biz Strength In The Digital Age | Local News

Laveta Brigham

Online sales were expected to reach record levels of between $10.8 billion and $12.7 billion in the run-up to Cyber Monday’s sales frenzy, according to data from multiple sources such as Bloomberg and Forbes. Yet local businesses have seen a mixed bag from the nationwide increase in online sales transactions. […]

Online sales were expected to reach record levels of between $10.8 billion and $12.7 billion in the run-up to Cyber Monday’s sales frenzy, according to data from multiple sources such as Bloomberg and Forbes.

Yet local businesses have seen a mixed bag from the nationwide increase in online sales transactions.

“We’re not really competing with Amazon,” Vince Mier, the manager of Harrisonburg’s Walkabout Outfitter, said of the $1.7 trillion multinational e-commerce company. “We’re competing with ourselves to give the local community the best service we can give them.”

He said Walkabout Outfitter increased its online presence since the beginning of the pandemic and offers sales by phone and orders shipped by mail or picked up curbside.

“For those who want to shop and support a downtown business, we’re doing what we can to make it easy,” Mier said.

But large conglomerates with massive online presences have a better ability to slash prices, undercutting local businesses and the employees who work for them.

“I don’t know that anybody can compete with Amazon,” Mier said.

An increasing number of local businesses have tried to expand their digital offerings since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Joyce Krech, director of the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center.

“It is a big challenge, as far as online, how you compete with the Amazons of the world and the Walmarts and other large department stores that have a [large] online presence,” she said.

Krech and other SVBC staff have been working with business owners to find the best ways to work more e-commerce channels into companies’ existing business structures.

“The No. 1 best tool for any business is their website,” Krech said.

She said a personal connection to the customer, as well as professionally providing the product they are looking for, is a big advantage for local vendors over large, faceless companies that may be able to charge less.

“Online, it’s possible to sort of lose that personal connection,” Krech said. “It’s really important to keep that.”

The trend of doing business online is no flash in the pan, according to Frank Tamberrino, president and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s here to stay and it’s really taken hold, particularly during the last eight months,” he said.

“Anybody who’s in business, even if they’re not selling online, still needs a presence — either social [media] or website to show what their products are,” Tamberrino said.

And an online presence, coupled with a strong tie to the community and customer service, are vital, according to Krech and Tamberrino.

“The customer service [and] the reputation that we have from that helps keep us in the market,” said Michelle Comer, the shipping and customer service manager with Virginia Classic Mustang Inc. in Broadway.

“We were worried with the pandemic that we’re going to get slow business because of everyone being stuck at home, and it’s the reverse,” Comer said.

Since people have been staying home more to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they have had more time to dedicate to home improvement and hobbies like Mustangs, she said.

The online share of Virginia Classic Mustang sales has not increased or decreased, though the company is having a better year than normal, according to Comer. Online sales are higher on weekends since the business floor is closed on Sundays and open only a half day on Saturdays.

She said many people still call to place orders and talk to experts to make sure they’re getting the right parts. When shipping online sales, Virginia Classic Mustang staff will double-check orders to make sure the parts fit together for the customer, according to Comer.

“I’ve had people tell us that ‘so and so’ had it cheap, but I’d rather buy it from” Virginia Classic Mustang, Comer said.

She said computer proficiency seems to be the main decider whether a typical customer orders online or by phone.

Stuart Mercer, owner of Elk Run Mining Co. in Harrisonburg, said the nature of a niche business, such as his handmade jewelry, does have an effect on growth potential for online sales.

“People want to buy [the products] in person,” Mercer said.

Mercer did have a website when the pandemic began, but it just showed his merchandise and customers would have to call him to place an order.

“I’d get a few sales, but not a whole lot,” he said.

Mercer temporarily closed his business two days before the first shutdown because there was no business to be done as downtown had become a ghost town since everyone was scared of the virus.

When he closed, he immediately opened a proper web store, though he said it has not brought with it a wave of new orders.

Walkabout Outfitter has seen an increase in sales and has also increased its offerings, not just in physical products, but in services for customers, according to Mier.

“In some ways, we’ve grown and become better as a company with the trials we’ve went through,” Mier said.

Tamberrino said a strong personal connection and professionalism provided by local businesses keep customers coming back or clicking the checkout button on their computers.

“People understand the need to help the local businesses that are giving back to the community and giving back from the standpoint of taking care of the customer,” Tamberrino said.

A quarter more of the money spent by a customer stays in the community when they buy from a locally owned shop instead of a chain, according to data from the Anderson Retail Economic Study.

“When any of our local nonprofits are looking [for support], they’re not contacting Amazon,” Mier said.

And the benefits of shopping locally, online or in-person, are not just seen in the Valley but across the nation, he said.

“No matter whether you’re in California or in Harrisonburg, when you buy from a small business, you get all those benefits of supporting a small business,” Mier said. “Jeff Bezos probably has enough money right now.”

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