How Entrepreneurs Are Working Both Sides Of The Sales Street, Online And Brick-And-Mortar

By Kathe Tanner The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Kathe Tanner speaks with local entrepreneurs regarding the balance between operating a business online and brick and mortar stores. 

San Luis Obispo

As more high-profile brick-and-mortar stores close because of internet competition, is selling on the crowded web really the sales panacea that it appears to be?

Not necessarily.

Some North Coast entrepreneurs, such as photographer and ceramicist Patty Griffin, operate almost totally online. Others like photographer Bill la Brie are learning that it takes lots of time and money to wind up at the top of Google search results.

Even John Linn, who has sold Linn's jams, pies and more online for years, says online sales are not a moneymaker for his family's Cambria-based company.

According to Linn, only about a small percentage of Linn's 2018 sales were from online shoppers, and it's expensive to ship the food safely and maintain the site.

Cambria business owners trade stores for online shopping There are many reasons that people can't get out to shop locally -- from scheduling conflicts to transportation challenges.

But while online shopping may be ideal for some customers, it doesn't work well for every entrepreneur.

Recently, some North Coast entrepreneurs with so-called "brick-and-mortar" stores have joined the e-sales wave, establishing websites and direct ordering mechanisms that allow their customers can order what they want.

While not every item in a store winds up on the website roster, the assortment can give shoppers a snapshot of what the retailer offers and allow customers to select from various popular offerings.

Some local small-business owners operate mostly online now, such as Griffin and La Brie.

Griffin closed her Studio Gallery on Main Street in 2017. She had quite a following and online presence before she made the shift.

Griffin sells directly online, and even offers her clients special buying opportunities like her recent "Mug-O-Mania" event.

Some of her work is still available locally at the Chambers Gallery in Cambria and Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. In addition, she teaches eight workshops a year and participate in special events such as Cambria's Art & Wine Festival, which runs Jan. 24 through 26.

"About 60% of my product sales are done online," said Griffin, who sells bowls, vases, mugs and more at www.patriciagriffinceramics.com.

La Brie, who closed his Visions of Nature Gallery on Main Street in 2019, uses his website as a catalog from which customers can call him and order prints. He said he's learned that it takes lots of time and money to wind up on the coveted first page of a Google search.

"You can have a nice website with all your work on it, but unless somebody sees it, it doesn't help," he said. "You've got to have somebody work it for you. It's tough, and it can be expensive.

"If somebody searches for Bill La Brie, they're going to find me. If they search for nature photography, maybe not. So I'm relying mostly on return business, on the people who already know me."

La Brie also maintains a small gallery in Cambria's industrial area, at 2421 Village Lane, unit A, but customers usually need to make an advance appointment to make sure he'll be there.

Learn more at www.billlabriephotography.com.

Selling art via brick-and-mortar gallery, websites

Some businesses work both sides of the sales street, online and brick-and-mortar.

For instance, artworks from Lynda Laylon's Vault Gallery -- which has been open in Cambria since 1991 -- are showcased on two websites -- including www.vaultgallery.com, which Laylon has had for about eight years.

Vault Gallery is also one of the more than 1,300 vetted art galleries featured at www.artsy.net.

Laylon said she doesn't post prices of pieces on the sites, "so yes, clients must contact me for the price."

However, those contacts net her a lot of sales, she said, adding that her own website produces "about 20% of my business."

Does it pay to sell mail-order food?

Local food purveyors frequently try to showcase and/or sell their products online and through mail orders. Linn's offers everything from pies and muffins to jams, mixes, syrups on its website.

But how well does it work, and does it generate profit for the business? According to John Linn, the business been shipping its products to customers since 1979.

"(But) mail ordering food is not a moneymaker," he said, as proven by the bankruptcies of such powerhouse mail-order food firms as Harry & David. Online business represents only a sliver of the sales that Linn's makes each year, Linn said.

Linn's 2019 sales figures weren't complete by press time, but Linn said that "only 3.4% of our total sales in 2018" came from mail orders or online purchases at www.linnsfruitbin.com.

"It's tough to mail order and sell online a product that's perishable, breakable, heavy and expensive," Linn said. "All those factors combine to make mail ordering food not a very good deal for anybody but the shippers."

"Send a shipment to the East Coast, and the shipping cost is three to four times as much as the food cost itself," he added. "The dollars and cents simply aren't landing in my pocket."

For instance, he said, "I shipped quite a few pies to a customer in New York, and the shipping cost alone was like $800."

"Say I'm shipping a pie. After I subtract all the other expenses" such as the box, dry ice and packing and shipping costs, Linn said, all the firm is really doing from a sales-and-profit standpoint "is retailing a pie as if they walked into the store and we sold it to them."

"If we're forthright, we consider online shopping and mail order to be a customer service, something we do to keep our customers happy," Linn said. "But it's not like retail sales, when our customer is standing there right in front of us." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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