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Bricks and clicks: hybrid local businesses

Brian Russell

Recently, I’ve gotten to know a lot of local business owners. Many of them are running retail shops selling products and services, but there are also a lot of people working in offices both downtown and in their homes. A large number of them use the Internet to make a living. The primary difference between these two groups is market size and how it makes or breaks businesses these days.

Many retail businesses have a finite market size, while an Internet business can have a global market size. Traditionally, a small retail business that sells physical products out of its building on Main Street can only sell to whomever walked in the door, meaning its total potential number of customers, or market size, is the number of people who live in the area plus a small number of tourists. However, not everyone in that group is interested in purchasing from a local business. The number of actual customers can be quite small, especially in bleak economic times like these.

Contrast that to a business in Carrboro that operates out of an office and has its store online. It provides electronic products and services and doesn’t have money wrapped up in physical inventory. Its potential number of customers is in the billions. The actual number of paying customers can be quite large, even in rough times.

So, the difference is just math, really. Local business has to make it by selling to a small number of people. Global business can get it done by selling to a large number of people. Which do you think has a better chance of success?

In the new local economy, there is a type of business that combines the physical and Internet. It’s a hybrid business that sells with bricks and clicks, kind of like a hybrid car that runs on gas sometimes and electricity at other times. It’s a transitional business type that helps people adjust to new business realities.

Carrboro needs new kinds of businesses that do a bit of local retail and a bit of online sales. The traditional business isn’t going away; we will always be physical beings that require physical space, and will always prefer to touch and smell things before we buy them.

Here’s a hypothetical example of a brick-and-click business: Jane’s Art Gallery on Main Street has a small storefront. She participates in 2ndFriday Artwalk and shows work by local artists all week long. But while folks are milling around looking at the latest painting in her store, Jane is putting pictures online and selling them, both on her own website and community sites like Etsy.com. To add to the mix and increase her chances of a good profit, Jane has licensed a line of jewelry to a big retail chain. That work is submitted online, and negotiations with the customer happen via email. Payment comes electronically too. She also sells graphic-design services to clients in Australia that love her style. This is but one of hundreds of possible online businesses that mix a physical retail business with an online one.

As existing local businesses look for new revenue streams, they should consider our global neighbors as potential customers. They are local to us, thanks to the giant Internet highway. The money made on a sale to a person in China could end up in Carrboro – a place where we welcome diverse groups of people and ideas from all over the world.

Brian Russell is the owner of Carrboro Creative Coworking.

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