Birding Business September 2015 : Internet-proof Your Small Business

Internet-proof Your Small Business

BY JOHN E. RIUTTA | Contributing Editor

Beat the big Internet sellers at the sales game.


WHILE THE INTERNET HAS ALLOWED SOME TRULY revolutionary things to be accomplished during our lifetimes, not all of those things have been for the best - particularly if you’re a small business owner with a birding and backyard nature shop. Gone are the days when so long as you maintained a good selection of the items best suited to the interests and preferences of your local customer base, and provided good customer service, that you could count on a fairly steady level of trade. Now, with most everything for sale - and too often at prices discounted beyond what “brick and mortar” stores could possibly sell it for - with just a few clicks of a mouse, more and more people are choosing price over proximity in their shopping habits. However all is not lost; you can still beat the big Internet sellers at the game if you give a little thought to where your strengths lay and play to them as much as possible. It’s a little thing I like to call Internet-proofing your business.

As a birding and backyard nature shop owner or manager, you have one particularly strong product group that will never be effectively sold online: seed and feed. Seed is heavy in relation to its price at retail, which is exactly the type of product that large scale Internet sellers hate most. It ruins the model of “purchase this dollar amount and we’ll ship it to you for free.” Just think about it; how much does thirty five dollars worth of black oil sunflower seed weigh and how much would it cost to ship a package of that weight to an individual customer? And as for suet, at a buck or two per cake, it doesn’t take much time at all to realize that if a person just wants one or two cakes that the shipping is more than the retail price for the purchase. Of course, even though seed and feed is Internet-proof, it isn’t big box store proof; which is where quality comes into play - but that’s another subject entirely.

Then there are feeders. After all, if you’re drawing customers in for seed and feed, they’ll naturally be needing the apparatus from which to dispense that food. Being somewhat bulky and often needing large boxes to pack them securely for shipping, many feeders are another strongly Internet-proof item - particularly as both the postal service and the parcel carriers are adjusting their pricing schedules to place more importance than ever before on the size of a package being shipped. Additionally, feeders are one of those items among nature enthusiasts that seem to benefit from being able to be seen and touched before being selected for purchase.

“But,” you might say, “doesn’t this just mean they’ll be ‘show-roomed?’” Not necessarily. Show-rooming, the practice of a customer looking at a product in a shop and the buying it through an Internet retailer instead in order to save a few nickels, requires that the product be easily locatable online. While it might be easy to find a few of the big-name feeder brands online, finding the exact model is often quite difficult, and with lesser known brands often all-but-impossible. And even when they are found, we get right back to that “large box size” dilemma.

So long as we’re on the subject of feeders, take a look around your local area and see if you can find some models that are made by local artisans. Such feeders - as well as a large number of other decorative backyard items made by small artisans - are some of the best Internet-proof products available. Building relationships with such local producers not only strengthens your business ties with the local community, it gives you a selection of items that your customers will never be able to find online.

Of course, there are some other products common to birding and backyard nature shops that are anything but Internet-proof; books, for instance.

With independent book sellers going out-of-business at an alarming rate all across the country and even large national bookstore chains struggling against the massive Internet retailers, many small birding and backyard nature shop owners are opting to pass on books entirely. While in some ways this is not at all a bad decision, at the same time the idea of such a shop having no field guides at all just seems wrong. So while you may not wish to stock heavily on a wide range of titles, having the staple field guides on hand is still a good idea if for nothing else than public relations alone. And so long as you have those, seeking out and stocking very localized guides to your particular area is always both worthwhile and worthy of praise - particularly as such publications are often the product of local small publishers and local authors.

Books having now been addressed, we thus we reach biggest Internet-proofing bugbear of them all: optics. With optics so widely available at such steep discounts through the largest of both general and camera Internet retailers, why even bother? It’s a fair question indeed. Certainly there’s no realistic way around the fact that if you stock optics in your shop that it will regularly be used as a show room for purchases that will later be transacted online. But so long as you’re willing to accept that, there are still things that can be done should you want to sell optics which can make your business not exactly Internet-proof in this product area but perhaps at least Internet-parallel.

Discounts and margin points aren’t everything; policies can sometimes be even more important for the long term viability of a product category. Look for optics brands that have and enforce MAP. Many have long since given up the practice but there are still those that retain it and it’s well worth asking the sales rep if his or her products are supported in this way. Not that there aren’t still “letter versus spirit of the law” ways around MAP practiced on the Internet today, but it’s a good place to start a conversation. Another is to ask about limited distribution product lists. Some optics manufacturers identify a certain selection of products that they will not sell to the big Internet retailers specifically in order to try and help smaller and medium size businesses remain competitive with their products. Even if a brand only has one of these two things, it’s a strong step in the right direction for your business if you choose to add optics to your stock list.

When you come right down to it, Internet-proofing is really mostly common sense. Take a look around your shop and for each product category ask yourself “could someone just as easily buy this online as from me?” Play up those things where the answer is “no.” Where the answer is “yes,” think about if those things are important to your customers. If not, close them out. If they are, then think about what you’ve read here and you’ll likely find a way to continue offering them in a way that will make your business healthier in the long run.