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Small retailers at intersection of social networks, foot traffic

| Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Nan Alexander Dowiak, owner of Dragonfly Castle, a toy store, in Lawrenceville stands in her storefront window on Nov. 12, 2014.

Dragonfly Castle Toys had been open for about a half-hour one recent Tuesday when owner Nan Dowiak made her first sale of the day.

Her phone made the sound of a cash register — cha-ching!

“I just sold something on eBay,” she said.

It was a small order for an accessory for Lego figures, worth only a couple of dollars. Still, a sale is a sale, and pushing products online is a key part of her strategy to capture holiday shopping dollars after opening her store on Hatfield Street in Lawrenceville on Oct. 6.

This year, 40 percent of holiday spending will occur online, according to a survey by financial consulting firm Deloitte. Mobile is fast becoming a favorite platform for shopping, with nearly a quarter of all consumers planning to use smartphones, up from 18 percent last year, according to Accenture.

Small retailers can't afford the level of investment that Wal-Mart or Macy's makes in their websites, mobile platforms and marketing campaigns to capture online shoppers. But they are taking advantage of third-party websites, such as eBay and Amazon.com, to capture online dollars.

But, for some, online sales are secondary. Many independent retailers use social media and their more modest websites to coax customers into stores, where they believe they have an edge by offering a more personal and better shopping experience.

“As you think about small businesses, a lot of them have very active social sites,” said Anne Zybowski, of industry consultant Kantar Retail Market Insights in Boston. “They are leveraging mobile more aggressively as part of their overall marketing and engagement with customers.”

Four out of five small and medium-sized businesses — between $1 million and $50 million in annual revenue — use social media to drive business growth, mostly through marketing, according to a recent study by market research firm TNS and social media site Linkedin.

Local chambers of commerce have combined traditional advertising with social media. The Shadyside Chamber of Commerce is promoting Nov. 29, known as “Small Business Saturday,” on Twitter, Facebook and advertisements on public transit. An ad in Port Authority's light rail trolley urges shoppers to “Think small not the mall.”

Businesses in East Liberty started a social media campaign to promote Small Business Saturday as well, tagging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts with “#slibertylights.”

The campaign is a first dip into social media for many East Liberty shopkeepers, said Tom West, owner of Trim Pittsburgh, a menswear boutique on Baum Boulevard.

“For a lot of people, the small businesses that have been here for a while, the social media is new for them,” he said.

But some small retailers are opening websites to sell directly to consumers.

Lawrenceville gift store Wildcard began selling products through its website at the end of October, five years after opening for business.

The handcrafted cards and Pittsburgh-themed clothing and art prints represent only a small portion of Wildcard's inventory, said owner Rebecca Morris.

The e-store is more of an appetizer than a full meal, offering Wildcard customers a taste that, hopefully, draws them to explore the store on Butler Street.

“I do think there is something about having items that are exclusive to the store,” Morris said.

Shadyside clothing boutique The Picket Fence has sold items online since 2004. Today, roughly 10 percent of its sales come through the website, said Maureen Staley, co-owner.

Still, the website and posts on social media are more about advertising and connecting with customers than a means to ring up sales, she said.

Staley uses her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to promote store events, such as “trunk shows” where a designer shows off clothing lines that she doesn't have space to carry.

“I've just found that our brick and mortar (store) is more successful, so that's where our energy needs to be,” Staley said.

Staley even digressed to 20th century communication.

She recently stopped sending mass emails to customers in favor of mailing post cards.

“As people are inundated with emails, people actually appreciate getting snail mail,” she said. “It's not something that you can delete.”

No retailer, large or small, can ignore the consumer drift toward e-commerce, said James Russo, senior vice president of consumer insights at Nielsen.

But the strategies for using it vary drastically.

Some campaigns are about engagement, using the Web to start buzz and excitement that will lead to sales.

“It is the Wild West,” Russo said. “It's all over the place. I don't know of many companies that have cracked the code.”

Dowiak, of Dragonfly in Lawrenceville, uses social media to show off toys, promote store events and deals, but like many of her peers, it's more of a marketing tool.

Her sales chiefly come through eBay, in-store and her website.

She's two-thirds of the way there. The store and eBay are up and running, but the website is not. She had hoped to have it going by Nov. 1, but now expects that will be after the holidays.

She hasn't had time to photograph her inventory of American- and European-made and environmentally friendly toys for the Web.

The website will be important to her success, but she intends to keep its appearance humble. It will have far fewer products than a national retailer such as Toys R' Us, for example, and balance the sales portion with educational blog posts about early childhood development.

There is something attractive, she thinks, in appearing like a “funky backwater place.”

“Every small retailer is trying to emulate the big guys,” she said. “I don't think that's the way to go.”

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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