Bricks and clicks: hybrid local businesses

BrianR's picture

Recently, I’ve gotten to know a lot of local business owners. Many of them are running retail shops selling products and services, but there are also a lot of people working in offices both downtown and in their homes. A large number of them use the Internet to make a living. The primary difference between these two groups is market size and how it makes or breaks businesses these days.

Many retail businesses have a finite market size, while an Internet business can have a global market size. Traditionally, a small retail business that sells physical products out of its building on Main Street can only sell to whomever walked in the door, meaning its total potential number of customers, or market size, is the number of people who live in the area plus a small number of tourists. However, not everyone in that group is interested in purchasing from a local business. The number of actual customers can be quite small, especially in bleak economic times like these.

Contrast that to a business in Carrboro that operates out of an office and has its store online. It provides electronic products and services and doesn’t have money wrapped up in physical inventory. Its potential number of customers is in the billions. The actual number of paying customers can be quite large, even in rough times.

So, the difference is just math, really. Local business has to make it by selling to a small number of people. Global business can get it done by selling to a large number of people. Which do you think has a better chance of success?

In the new local economy, there is a type of business that combines the physical and Internet. It’s a hybrid business that sells with bricks and clicks, kind of like a hybrid car that runs on gas sometimes and electricity at other times. It’s a transitional business type that helps people adjust to new business realities.

Carrboro needs new kinds of businesses that do a bit of local retail and a bit of online sales. The traditional business isn’t going away; we will always be physical beings that require physical space, and will always prefer to touch and smell things before we buy them.

Here’s a hypothetical example of a brick-and-click business: Jane’s Art Gallery on Main Street has a small storefront. She participates in 2ndFriday Artwalk and shows work by local artists all week long. But while folks are milling around looking at the latest painting in her store, Jane is putting pictures online and selling them, both on her own website and community sites like Etsy.com. To add to the mix and increase her chances of a good profit, Jane has licensed a line of jewelry to a big retail chain. That work is submitted online, and negotiations with the customer happen via email. Payment comes electronically too. She also sells graphic-design services to clients in Australia that love her style. This is but one of hundreds of possible online businesses that mix a physical retail business with an online one.

As existing local businesses look for new revenue streams, they should consider our global neighbors as potential customers. They are local to us, thanks to the giant Internet highway. The money made on a sale to a person in China could end up in Carrboro – a place where we welcome diverse groups of people and ideas from all over the world.

This opinion piece I wrote was originally published in the Carrboro Citizen on August 18, 2011. I cross-post it here with their permission.

issue: 

Total votes: 0

6 Comments

Linda Convissor's picture

Chapel Hill Bricks and Clicks

Brian,There are several busineses in downtown Chapel Hill doing both storefront and on-line retail.  Glee Kids comes to mind www.gleekids.com/index.html.  The Bookshop also.  In the same vein, many of the restaurants (Panera, Med Deli) do extensive catering to augment their walk-in business.  Our local businesses are challenged even more than most local retailers- a 9-month year and not much of a Christmas season.  You're right, anything they can do to increase their customer base and their sales year is critical. Linda

That makes sense but

That makes sense but consider that if people around here believed it then we  wouldn't be expanding the physical structure that holds the CHPL in order to store more physical books so that physcial humans could go there and staff the new bigger physical structure and give out more physical books to more people who physically go there.The analogue to that with regard to this discussion would be for me physically come to your house at 3 in the morning and knock on your door to tell you this instead of just typing it on this website.  Would that make sense considering it's so much easier to communicate on this website?  No.   And you are right about the local stuff but beware because that is sacrelige to some in this area.  "Local" at this point in time is essentially "Earth" even though some people think it means CH/C town limits. If someone in Carrboro offers to sell a product to someone in China and the person in China agrees to the deal because Carrboro offers them a better product than does China, then is that good or bad?  It's good.  And it's also good if a person in Carrboro chooses to buy from someone in China (or Europe or  Africa or South America or Des Moines, Iowa) instead of Carrboro if those others offer a better product than does Carrboro.When people buy smart ultimately everyone everywhere benefits.

Mark Marcoplos's picture

Definition of a better product

It is always important to know how a product was made, if the workers were paid fairly, if environmental corners were cut, etc. There are many who just use the price as a determinant. That's why Wal-Marts and other similar stores are so popular, even though the abuse of workers and the environment has been documented for many of their products.Jose, you have been a vociferous champion for workers and their rights to affordable housing located near their work., so I'm sure you are a proponent of supporting businesses and products that treat workers with respect.

And let me guess, you'll be

And let me guess, you'll be the one to determine what is fair and what benefits the environment and what constitutes respect.  And your view will differ from those millions that shop at Wal-Mart.  Am I right? I'm all for treating workers with respect (all of them, including when they're not at work and are acting as customers instead).  Employers should have to treat employers decently and they should have to pay the true costs of their product rather than push the true costs, environmental or otherwise, onto society in general.  But beyond that, people should buy from whoever serves them best IMO, regardless of physical location of the store.  Common sense tells me that right off the bat but even if it didn't, I've had too many cases of companies based elsewhere treating me well and companies based locally treating me poorly to adhere to a policy of buying based on solely on location.And although price is a factor in peoples' decisions on who to buy from it's only one of many. 

Mark Marcoplos's picture

You would be right

I base my decisions on available facts. And those facts are not known or valued by the millions who regularly shop at Wal-Mart. If you support Wal-Mart because it provides inexpensive stuff and thus helps the local working poor, you are simultaneously supporting company policies that oppress the working poor in other areas. Although in Wal-Mart's case, mistreatment of U.S. workers has been documented. It's obviously not consistent or fair to support the working poor in your town while aware that it is being done on the backs of working poor in China, Indonesia, etc.