Alex Browne photo Piya Sandhu, of White Rock’s The Handpicked Home, loves having a brick and mortar store, but feels that an online presence is an indispensable part of building her brand.

Digital strategies can translate to physical business

Brick and mortar stores and online marketing work hand in hand, local entrepreneurs say

The biggest impact on career planning over the last two decades has come as a result of changes to traditional business models.

There’s no doubt brick and mortar retailers and service providers – and small old-school businesses of all kinds – have felt the heat of online competition, and that this has led to downsizing and diminished expectations overall.

Too often that crisis mode – as understandable as it may be as an immediate reaction to declining profits – has resulted in a paralysis of entrepreneurial thinking, with a chilling effect throughout the job market and the economy as a whole.

The fact is, that whether yours is a long-established family business – or a recent start-up – there are strengths that can be built on and weaknesses that can be minimized through wise use of an online presence, without further erosion of the bottom line.

The key to being a part of the evolution of business in the 21st century – rather than its victim – is to recognize that the internet is neither an enemy to be defeated nor a beast to be tamed.

Rather, it can be a useful complement to the unique experience that only a physical location and personal service can provide.

Piya Sandhu of White Rock’s The Handpicked Home is an example of an entrepreneur who has grown up with the internet but has deliberately sought a brick-and-mortar presence for her business.

Her Johnston Road store, which opened in August of 2015, offers a wide range of decor and gift items for the home, ranging from soaps and fragrant oils to clothing, stationery, to gourmet foods, reclaimed furniture and quirky bric a brac.

“I love shopping – it’s one of my favourite things,” she said. “I want to bring that experience to people. They enjoy touching and feeling and checking things out – and not being behind a screen.”

In a small location, currently across the street from a major highrise construction project, The Handpicked Home would seem to be at some of the same disadvantages that have proved fatal to other small businesses.

But Sandhu has managed to communicate her joy in stocking her store with novel and unusual goods to her customers.

“It’s not a big space but there’s a lot going on,” she said. “It’s nice to help people feel like it’s a bit of a treasure hunt.”

And an integral part of that communication has been Sandhu’s use of social media, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“One thing went hand-in-hand with the other,” said the BCIT and Thompson River University business and marketing grad. “I started posting on social media even before I finished negotiating for the store.”

The big secret of social media communication is that it “really likes stories,” Sandhu said. “That never gets old.”

“I created a story for the shop before there was a shop, to get people pumped before the store opened,” she said. “I posted photos of the build-out, the shell of the store, the wooden pallets we used for our product wall.”

The results were gratifying, she said.

“There was this instantaneous reaction we got from customers who showed up within a couple of hours of opening.”

Sandhu said that while making regular postings on social media is a must, she doesn’t, herself, follow a set timed strategy, preferring instead the genuineness of “posting when I’m feeling it.”

Social media presence demands a real and personal touch, she added, noting that her Boston Terrier, Lula has also been regularly featured in her postings.

She points to Laura Cornale of Laura’s Coffee Corner, as another White Rock entrepreneur who has made good use of social media, particularly in regular postings of tempting bakery treats.

“Laura’s awesome at doing this – and whatever she posts, you know you’re getting her. She’s so personable like that.

“It’s all about building your brand,” Sandhu added, noting that Twitter is good for spotlighting products and promotions, while Facebook and Instagram are ideal for building a regular customer base.

It’s a common complaint of retailers that people will come into their stores to examine and price merchandise and then purchase it online, but Sandhu said she realizes that she can’t obsess over that.

“In retail there are always bad things that happen, and sometimes people with an attitude you don’t want in your store, but you can’t let that experience bring you down,” she said.

“I have to accept that those people are not my target market, and move on,” she said.

Sandhu also acknowledges that using an online presence, including social media, is intimidating for some business owners.

“It’s very understandable – it’s all developed so fast,” she said. “Even in my own experience – when I went to BCIT there were no courses about online marketing.”

Helping brick and mortar businesses realize the potential of an online presence is something that Grady Flinn of White Rock-based FlinnWest Solutions said he is passionate about.

While software development, digital marketing and multimedia production are the bread-and-butter of his business, he’s planning to offer a series of free workshops this fall – through the South Surrey White Rock Chamber of Commerce – aimed at helping old school retailers and services make the most of the latest online developments for building their brands.

“I grew up in this town – my heart’s here,” he said. “I will do anything I can to help the businesses that are the heart and soul of this community.”

And he said he is in no doubt that an online presence can translate into physical business for local stores.

“It absolutely can,” he said, noting that effective online information will drive brick and mortar visits and sales.

“I don’t often go to clothing stores, for instance, without going online to see what their location is, what the hours are and what they have to offer. It used to be you’d put the family and the kids in the car and drive to the store to see what they had, but we’re a lazy society now – we don’t live that way anymore.”

But if people can get the information they need online, and see that the retailer is nearby, they will definitely visit the local store, Flinn said.

It’s clear that there are obstacles to overcome for some businesses to make online work for them – including fear and feelings of intimidation.

“People are scared of new things,” he said. “There are trust issues there, and people also feel dumb, and they shouldn’t. All of this is very new.”

And some businesses have had bitter experiences with early attempts to capitalize on an online presence, he said.

“We see that every day,” he said. “We have people who tell us they’ve spent anything from $2,000 to $50,000 on online marketing and it’s done nothing for them.”

Companies can spend a lot of money having websites created for them that look nice but yield little in the way of actual business, he said.

There are simple low-cost methods for building an online presence – including social content optimization (SCO) techniques for improving a business’ results in online searches – that can have huge impacts, Flinn said.

“We had one customer who went from making $2,000 per month to $45,000 per month, through that alone,” he said.

If you’re interested in furthering your own post-secondary education to start your business, or if you’re trying to find the right job, visit the next Black Press Career Fair in Surrey on September 26. You can find more information here.

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