By Tom Lutey Billings Gazette, Mont.
Because shopping trips begin online, even for local customers, Montana small businesses need to be digitally connected, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Friday.
Speaking to small-business owners gathered in Billings for a one-day workshop, Daines told the audience they needed to be found easily online by shoppers who increasingly consult their smartphones for shopping advice even when buying locally.
Roughly 97 percent of shoppers use the Internet to find local goods and services, according to Google, which partnered with Daines to bring the business class to Billings.
"How many times do you see people walking down the street with their heads in their phones?" Daines said. "They're probably on Google, and they're probably trying to find maybe a business, a restaurant, they're trying to find something they want to buy," Daines said. "I was in Bozeman the other day, and you look at downtown Bozeman during the summer and you'll see the tourists there with their phones out and they're trying to find you."
Small businesses are underrepresented on the Internet, said "Googler" Hillary Ross, who flew from Google headquarters to her hometown of Billings for the event.
"Fifty-five percent of small businesses don't have a website, but four out of five people looking for services use the web," Ross said.
A business that turns up in a shopper's Google search gets visited by that shopper 38 percent of the time. And 29 percent of the time those inquiries result in a purchase.
But those transactions start with Internet traffic, not traditional retail foot traffic. Most of the Google seminar focused on growing small businesses online by using free tools offered by Google.
The company had developed free applications to build websites, track a business's Internet traffic and analyze the words and phrases shoppers most often use when searching for a business. The applications presented in the class are available to the public at www.google.com/apps.
There were 87 businesses represented in the Billings class at the Crowne Plaza. They ran from a Red Lodge homeowners association trying to promote timeshares online, to Bill and Joan Bergin's ranch retreat for prairie dog hunters in Melstone.
The Bergins lease their ranchland to a big-game guide, but see an opportunity in gopher hunting retreats. Prairie dogs are hard to kill, a true aim-small, miss-small target that appeals to skilled shooters.
"We're only doing prairie dogs because the deer and elk and antelope are already leased out," Joan Bergin said. "It's always been there because it's a rural thing that city people don't realize. Some people have really gotten into it, they have specialized equipment and enjoy it a lot."
The holes prairie dogs dig and the disease the rodents carry are problematic for ranchers, Bergin said. Now, Bergin and her husband just need the right search words to grab hunters' attention.
For businesses attending the Google class, the takeaway should be that opening a storefront on the World Wide Web is free, and something entrepreneurs can do without a lot of expertise, Daines said.
"The statistics show that businesses online are growing 48 percent faster than businesses that aren't. So it's very, very important to have an online presence because that's where the consumer is moving," Daines said. "Increasingly, ecommerce is where the transactions are happening in this economy. Wayne Gretzky had a famous line, he said 'I was successful because I skated where the puck was going, not where the puck was at.' These are business owners today that see where it's all headed."