E-biz navigates tangled Web

Web sites: Every business seems to have one, and if they don't, they're probably working on one. Some entrepreneurs skip the storefront altogether and go straight to the Web. But local business advisors and experienced owners warn that moving online doesn't mean instant success.

"I think a lot of people go into it thinking 'It's a slam dunk because I buy stuff online all the time,'" said Jack Vitacco, director of the Small Business Development Center associated with Southern Oregon University. "It's not that easy."

About one in 10 of the startup proposals Vitacco sees as a business counselor are for Internet business, he said. Those businesses require just as much planning and financial analysis as a bricks-and-mortar store, and the competition can be much stiffer. A business in Ashland might compete with a store in Medford, but online operations could compete with the entire world.

"You go online and the competition is ten-fold because there are so many more options from all over the world," he said. "You're a smaller piece in a much bigger pie."

When Emily Desmond created her natural soap business Emz Blendz eight years ago, one of the first things she did was launch a Web site. But even now the Web site alone isn't enough to support her business, or even pull her through the tough winter months in Ashland.

"The Web site continues to be a sideline to my business," she said. "If I close the shops, I couldn't make it just on my Internet sales. It's really like a glamorized business card. Customers go there to learn more about my business."

Computer-savvy relatives helped her set up a Web site and grow her business when she began selling her homemade soaps at local farmers' markets, long before she had a store to call home. Eventually, her products worked their way into bed and breakfasts and retail shops around the area before she opened the first of two stores in the area. Desmond said she worked nearly as hard generating Web traffic.

"When I first opened up my Web site, I was hardly getting any people coming to it," she said. "It's definitely not like you put up a Web site and all of sudden you have all this business. When you open up a store you're sure to have people walk by."

A Web site adds an entire set of concerns beyond a retail store, including security issues for online ordering and a separate advertising strategy. The Web site has not been as effective in the non-tourist months of doing business in Ashland as one might expect.

"Web sales are just as seasonal as the storefront is. During the summer people are buying more and of course during Christmas," she said. "I think that a lot of businesses don't plan for the tough months. You have to really store away a cushion during the busy months to make it through the tough months in the winter."

Entrepreneurs such as Desmond are successful not because they have a Web site, but because they have a Web site in addition to another business component, said SOU Professor Charles Jaeger who specializes in e-commerce.

"We talk about three kinds of businesses," he said. "Slicks are catalogs, clicks are online businesses and bricks are where you actually have a storefront. The magic formula these days is a combination of slicks, clicks and bricks. The object is to be responsive to your customer wherever your customer wants to get in touch with you."

Nancy Morgan, owner of the specialty travel product company Dreamsacks in Ashland, uses "slicks" and "clicks" to reach her customers. Although she doesn't have to pay rent for a store front, hosting fees, professional Web designers and security features for credit card orders all cut into the profits.

Like Desmond, Morgan said her Web site is mainly informational, but it still requires a lot of attention.

"On the Web you just have to be really active," she said. "You have to update your Web site frequently, you have to make it new, you have to make it inviting, you have to have a lot of outreach."

After 10 years in business, Morgan has learned to leverage her online presence to make it through slumps.

"At slow times, it is handy," she said. "You think, 'OK, what can I offer?' I can reach customers through the Web site and give them a promotion. It's a good way to promote products or do a special offer."

Even when a company does most of its business online, it's important to think of the Web site as a store to keep it from feeling impersonal, said Nick Medinger, the manager of Funagain Games. For example, Funagain provides a list of recommended board games on its Web site, just like a customer would receive if they walked in the store.

Ninety-eight percent of Funagain's business comes from online orders, he said, but the original store is still an important part of the company.

"It's so much easier to help somebody when you're standing right next to them," he said.

Combining the store and the Web site provides the best of both worlds, because it allows Funagain to provide a giant selection of games while still receiving in-person feedback.

"I think we would be really sad not to have the storefront," said Merry Vediner, one of the stores four co-owners. "There's nothing like somebody who comes in the store and says 'Teach me a game.'"

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .comment on this story, go to .

Share This Story