Even Dick Ryan indulges in a little Internet shopping now and then.
"It's pretty hard to get parts for my DeLorean (automobile) in Steamboat," he said.
Ryan, who owns Off the Beaten Path Bookstore with his wife, Leslie, operates in the middle of what he describes as a revolution in retailing. Internet shopping is changing retailing and consumerism. It's never more apparent than at the holidays, and the book-selling business has been affected dramatically. As chairman of Main Street Steamboat's promotions committee, Ryan is pretty sensitive to shopping downtown Steamboat first.
"We buy office supplies from Pilot Office and so on down the line," Ryan said. "Price is usually not our deciding factor. I know that sounds elitist."
Still, when his exotic 1983 gull-winged DeLorean refuses to take off, most often he goes online to a warehouse in Humble, Texas, where he can track down the parts he needs.
Amazon.com broke open the online book-selling trend and dented the fenders of independent bookstores like the Ryans' all over America. This week, Amazon was e-mailing customers with more creative ways to rack up holiday Internet sales. At Amazon's new "gift central," gift ideas from 40 glossy magazines are compiled with convenient shopping links to allow instant gratification. Amazon also has joined forces with DailyCandy, the clever new e-commerce site that emphasizes cultural opportunities in major American cities while taking a soft-sell approach to merchandising.
Ryan said his business responded to the Internet challenge by diversifying. Off the Beaten Path's cafe brings in another revenue stream and also brings in customers who might not have otherwise visited the store. Often, they spontaneously purchase a book. In addition, Off the Beaten Path has expanded its line of gift items, which are typically sold at higher margins than books. They also offer the advantage of not having a fixed price printed on them the way book jackets do.
Main Street vs. Cyberspace
Main Street Steamboat, the nonprofit that is working to strengthen downtown Steamboat's commercial district, is urging people to shop locally first this holiday season.
Executive Director Tracey Bar--nett said Main Street surveyed local shoppers earlier this year and learned there was a strong perception that downtown Steamboat does not offer enough variety, and that merchandise is more expensive than people with modest incomes can afford.
Barnett said the goal is to invite Yampa Valley shoppers into independent retailers to discover that most of the things they want and need are in stock, and that prices are closer to Internet prices than most shoppers think, or in many cases equivalent to the prices of mass merchandisers.
"The perception among some locals is that they should not waste the time looking downtown when they can find what they are looking for on the Internet or in Denver or Grand Junction," Barnett said. "The thing they seem to overlook is the cost of shipping and the high cost of gas for driving long distances.
"If those items are taken into account, there is very little that they can't get here for a similar price."
Barnett said shopping locally pumps money into the local economy.
"The circulation of money within our community is benefited by buying locally," she said. "Local merchants most often circulate their money throughout the community about four times, using local services such as accountants, supplies and advertising.
"If our local money leaves the valley, this circulation of money is diminished. It is a loss for all of us."
Adapt and overcome
How do independent Steamboat retailers adapt to the revolution in Internet shopping? Some, such as Jenny Wilson at Moose Mountain Trading Company, Will and Beth Bashan at Steamboat Art Company and Steve Kennedy at the Homesteader kitchen shop, have embraced e-commerce whole--heartedly.
"We've been averaging four to five Internet sales a day," Kennedy said. "I don't think it offsets the growing number of people shopping online. But I'm reaching customers who have never ever been in our store."
Kennedy said he was surprised this week by a customer in a different state who searched for and found a "Brazil on My Mind" pizza stone at his Internet shop. The consumer received a flat $5 shipping charge and did not have to pay sales tax in his home state.
Bashan said he comes in some mornings to find a $1,000 Internet sale. And Wilson said she made an $800 sale this week of a Norwegian Oleana sweater that is so exclusive in Colorado that they retail only in her shop and Gorsuch in Vail.
"That was like a yee-haw on a day when it's snowing outside and there aren't as many people in the shop," Wilson said.
Web site management
But not every morning is like that, and maintaining an e-commerce site is hard work, Bashan and Wilson agreed.
"It takes quite a bit of time to deal with it," Wilson said. "It's a lot of hard work and it is expensive.
"Our Web site is a good addition. It allows me to stock more merchandise in my store, but it's a fraction of our sales at this time. We think it has tremendous potential."
Bashan said maintaining his e-commerce site became far easier when he acquired a piece of software that links his point-of-purchase inventory tracking with the 400 items on the Web page. Now, if his staff sells the last of a certain item from the Lincoln Avenue store, the software automatically posts an alert to the Web page. A visible alert informs consumers the item is temporarily out of stock and invites them to call a toll-free number to get an estimated delivery date.
"We don't have a business that lends itself incredibly well to the Internet in some ways," Bashan said.
Bashan isn't selling commodities but unusual handcrafted gifts.
"We have to generate our own traffic," Bashan said. "But for us, the Web does a few things. It allows us to keep in touch with all our clients. They go home and remember something they looked at in the store. They go to the Web, and when they don't find it, they call us."
Bashan said if he had to value his e-commerce site strictly on sales, it might be a losing proposition, but as a promotional tool, he finds it very valuable. His customers come from across the nation and the world. He has built a mailing list of thousands of customer who have asked to receive an e-mail newsletter and drives customers to his online merchandise.
Among a town's assets
Wilson said she wants her local customers to know that independent retail shops are an asset to the community that is worth supporting.
"It's a legitimately hard job that takes creativity, and frankly, backbone to face the competition of the Internet," Wilson said.
Bashan, who purchased a new headlamp from Backdoor Sports on Thursday for cross-country skiing at night, said he understands that online shopping will continue to grow. He has lived in major cities where people who lived five minutes from the nearest shopping mall still shopped on the Internet.
"We've undergone a paradigm shift in retailing," he said. "I think it's a fact of life. Online shopping offers variety and convenience.
"It doesn't offer a lot of the things you get in a downtown environment."
Ryan said area retailers will continue to adapt while working to strengthen their relationships with their customers.
"What we retailers can do is keep re-inventing ourselves and offering the kind of service you can only get one on one across the counter," Ryan said.
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