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Surviving the net

Metro retailers find ways to overcome the online revolution.

Dawn Watson November 21st, 2012

The Internet has revolutionized the way people shop, but some Oklahoma City business owners aren’t letting online competition get in their way.

Instead, they are finding creative solutions, whether that means bringing superheroes to their stores or using the e-commerce world to their advantage.

Every two weeks, visitors to New World Comics, 6219 N. Meridian, can get a lesson in being a superhero at Superhero School while also browsing through comics.

“We try to make it as entertaining as possible when they come through,” said Buck Berlin, the store’s owner.

Although the Internet has meant serious competition for bookstores, it also has spurred some people to start collecting comics, he said.

“When the Internet fails them, they find us,” Berlin said. “I’m kind of like an encyclopedia for this type of stuff.”

Each May, he and his employees host special events for the annual Free Comic Book Day. This year, they started the Superhero School, which Berlin said has increased foot traffic.

“At the very least, it gets us out there and gets kids interested in superheroes and reading,” he said.

Playing to strengths
Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway, long has felt the effects of Internet competition, said owner Jim Tolbert. The answer to that challenge seems to be concentrating on strengths.

“Books were probably the first segment that experienced a real loss,” Tolbert said. “That unquestionably changed the way we do business.”

He said he always has tried to make the longtime store a hub of activity. Because of online competition, he enhanced that aspect. Twelve to 15 times a week, Full Circle hosts events such as children’s story time, book signings, book clubs and music in the café. It also publishes exclusive, localinterest titles.

“People like the fact that they can talk to somebody who reads. That’s obviously our strength. Amazon can’t do that,” he said. “To compete with the Internet, you have to recognize what you do best, and do it better.”

At Bedford Camera and Video, 3110 N. May, that means service, said Eric Williams, general manager.

When people buy camera equipment online, they might receive defective equipment or confusing instruction. If they buy at Bedford, they’ve got the staff’s expertise as a resource.

Employees host classes for those wanting to learn how best to use their equipment. They can answer questions to ensure shoppers end up with the right type of camera.

No teeth-gnashing
Justin Sowers, owner of Guestroom Records, said that although the Internet is a big competitor for record stores, that’s mostly with CDs.

“We opened up post-Napster. We knew what we were getting into,” Sowers said. “There’s no use gnashing your teeth about the Internet. It’s not going anywhere.”

When Guestroom opened in 2003, the merchandise was mostly CDs. Since then, however, its three metro stores have become vinyl-focused.

And vinyl is better in person, Sowers said.

“People love instant gratification, coming in and finding a record you didn’t know you were looking for, and taking it home and listening to it,” he said. “You can’t really browse the new arrivals of eBay. You can’t really ask eBay for a recommendation.”

Events such as concerts, special sales and bands playing on Record Store Day each April help draw customers as well, Sowers said.

The Internet doesn’t have to be a hindrance, either. Guestroom has 3,500 followers on Facebook, which Sowers uses to promote the store.

Michael Brown, owner of RetrOKC, a ’50s and ’60s furniture and housewares store at 1708 N.W. 16th, said he also uses the Internet to communicate with customers.

“Facebook is my biggest tool,” Brown said. “It’s a connection tool.”

But he doesn’t sell items online.

Brown posts about his products on Facebook, prompting people to call with questions or visit the store.

Once newcomers visit the store, they’re drawn in and he begins to build a relationship with them, Brown said. And that’s the goal of any small business.

Online Changes
The U.S. Census Bureau reports online sales have increased from 4.6 percent of total sales in the second quarter of 2011 to 5.1 percent in the second quarter of 2012. American consumers are projected to continue their online spending by 62 percent in the next three years, according to research firm Forrester Inc.

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