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Get Back to Basics--and Bricks

Stand out in a crowded online marketplace by opening a traditional storefront.

Not too long ago, an aspiring entrepreneur opened a business in an office or storefront and if things were going well, expanded the business by launching a website to attract customers beyond the immediate market. An online presence helped a business to stand out from the crowd. Today, the first step many entrepreneurs take is to create a website, as a business cannot survive without an online presence anymore.

However, the internet is quickly becoming a crowded marketplace and a number of small business owners have actually decided to reverse the trend of the past few years by going back to brick-and-mortar.

An internet business selling jewelry for weddings--bridal pieces and bridesmaid gifts, for example--can very easily get lost in the crowd. An online search for bridal jewelry returns over 66 million results. Silverland Jewelry owner Ray Paquette decided the odds were strong he would not be found in a simple online search. He worked to optimize his website so his business landed in the top page or two of search results and his online business has done quite well since he launched it in 2005. However, he wanted to do more.

Paquette made the decision to open a brick-and-mortar store for a number of reasons. With 98 percent of his online orders coming from out-of-state, Paquette--based in Raleigh, N.C.--wanted more local foot traffic and to keep a closer eye on his inventory. Not to mention that a centralized production area gives him "better control of the product."

A storefront also gives his customers the opportunity to see the jewelry in person--sometimes to even see the jewelry being made. Several of Silverland's artisans work out of the store, so customers can see how custom jewelry is made. One of Paquette's concerns about his online offerings was that a webpage did not give the customer a true sense of scale and proportion, something easily rectified with a display case in a store.

For many of the same reasons, online clothing retailer Chan Namgong also opened a brick-and-mortar location after building a successful internet business. Namgong's site, for his online women's clothing business Bevello provides the models' measurements and corresponding sizes for customers to compare with their own measurements, he decided the time was right to open a store to increase foot traffic, and cash flow, to "nurture the online business."

Both entrepreneurs saw an opportunity in the real estate market and realized that this was the time to secure a physical location for their growing businesses. With many businesses closing and commercial property emptying, they were able to secure deals on their new stores that certainly contributed to their decisions. Both Paquette and Namgong said that they would not have been able to open their brick-and-mortar locations without the solid foundation of successful online businesses already in place.

The consensus seems to be that retailers must maintain their online presence since most shoppers begin with a search online, even for local stores. As Namgong pointed out, "some people are never going to shop online but some people want to shop online only."

However, with a crowded internet growing even more competitive by the day--just a few months ago, a search for "bridal jewelry" turned up a third of today's results--a physical presence may be necessary now to set a business apart from its virtual competition. As Paquette described the situation, "you can have the best product at the best price but if they can't find you." He added that "being found online is a major effort." Being found in a brick-and-mortar location may well be the new way for entrepreneurs to get their businesses noticed.

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