Web Publishing- Small Town Style

Andover, Mass., is the headquarters of industry giants CMGI and Engage, not to mention the birthplace of our beloved ClickZ Network. But Andover is actually quite old-fashioned and provincial in its ways.

The downtown area has suffered over the past 30 years first due to the opening of major malls nearby, then later due to the rise of tax-free Salem, New Hampshire, a mere ten miles to the north with its proliferation of huge superstores in every possible category.

Andover’s office supply store was crushed by Staples and OfficeMax. Its hardware store was no match for Home Depot. The citizens of Andover have watched as a succession of well-meaning but naove merchants opened and closed stores, offering a limited selection of standard, major-brand merchandise which could be purchased for less just minutes away.

However, over the past year, Andover seems to be attracting some merchants who understand the new realities: We have a new gallery offering original works from a stable of local artisans, two men’s stores offering high-quality clothing you would have to travel to Boston or New York to find, an athletic clothing store offering high-end active wear you won’t find at any department store or athletic superstore (especially that with Andover branding), and a women’s clothing store offering unique fashions from cottage suppliers you won’t find anywhere else.

So Andover is finally getting to a place where – competitively speaking – they’re giving the locals a good reason to stay close to home and buy from them.

But Andover’s merchants only have a population of a little over 30,000 people to draw from. Many Andover citizens are busy, active professionals who don’t have the time or the inclination to do the leisurely shopping of yesteryear. And since most of them didn’t grow up here, they don’t have the loyalty the townies do.

How will these brick and mortar businesses (offering unique products to this attractive, well-heeled, but small market) survive and hopefully thrive in the coming years?

Just like you and me, fellow online publishers, they need to find cost-effective ways of maintaining mind share and give the citizens of Andover every excuse to wander back through their doors. They also need to find ways to reach out to a larger population than what they have currently from their Main Street location.

To Alper’s Art Gallery, Andover’s newest downtown merchant, I would suggest starting today (even before launching a web site), capture the email addresses of every person who walks through their door and shows more than a passing interest. Those will prove to be vital as time goes on.

Because they offer original works from no more than two dozen artisans, I might suggest that in developing their web site, they ignore the temptation to be simply an online catalog for their current inventory. They should strive to be a great content play for the artists themselves; the artists after all, are the brands they offer.

If I went in there and bought a watercolor by the world-renowned Fridiric Bielaszka-DuVernay, I can assure you that I’d like to see some other works he’s done, just to get a sense of his style. And when friends are admiring his paintings that are hung prominently in my home, I’d love to be able to speak with some degree of knowledge about his other works.

I’d like to read his bio, peruse the comments of fans, and be able to freely wander through an extensive online directory of his other works. I’d like to know when he’s going to be in town (hence one of the many reasons you should grab my email address) for a showing. In short, why not build a community hub around each of the artists?

As I walked through Alper’s Main Street gallery, there were a handful of artist’s works that resonated with me. I’d love to subscribe to a notification service that would let me know about (as well as preview) any new pieces that have arrived from my favorites. The fact that I’m aware that other like-minded fans have received this mailing might put a little pressure on me to respond quickly, if you catch my drift. So Alper’s could enjoy high turnover and be able to demand higher prices on hot artists, simply because we all know that there is scarcity involved here and others who are interested.

Reaching beyond Andover, Alper’s could place small ads in the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine, the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine and a handful of other newspapers and magazines catering to a sophisticated audience. The ad doesn’t have to do much more than offer a compelling image (perhaps a picture of one of their recent offerings) with a URL that drives them to their site. Just keep doing that over a sustained period of time and before you know it, they have an international presence from their brick-and-mortar Main Street store.

Creating an online space that is great content, great community and an interesting place to go (whether or not you actually want to buy something) is the key for many of these Main Street operations.

You heard me right.

I’m saying that in order for you to create a great e-commerce operation, you create a great content site that really feeds your potential customers and gives them a place to check back to often. You aren’t just an online catalog. You’ve got to go way beyond that if you want to survive and thrive.

I’m saying that a small brick-and-mortar business can and should be a fabulous base from which to launch a successful online business. It really isn’t an either/or situation. Both feed the other.

I’m saying that your clicks and mortar business can be a vibrant, growing space with color and passion and interesting people. The love you feel for what you do should ooze through your site just as it does from that wonderful store you created.

And we haven’t even touched on the many ways that you can create additional revenue streams through cooperating with non-competitive merchants both in and outside of the community you serve. We’ll save that for later.

For now, take a closer look at how you can make your business a greater presence in the lives of your customers. Think about how YOU might like to be served by a store such as yours.

And let us know how it goes. We’d love to hear from you.

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