Helping Independent Downtown Merchants Engage Effectively In E-Marketing: Part 2


This is the second of a two part article. Part 1 can be found at

Over the past year, DANTH Inc. has experimented with such social media as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest and revamped our website, blog  and email program. To support this effort we did a lot of research on what the various e-marketing tools do best and the challenges small firms like ours have in using them. In this two-part article I would like to share with the downtown revitalization community what we learned from our e-marketing overhaul, so that more independent downtown merchants (e.g., retailers and restaurateurs) might make an effective transition to e-commerce.

What we learned was the importance of an analytical process able to identify the e-marketing tools that will most effectively use an organization’s scarce resources to achieve critical marketing objectives. This process:

  • Starts off by looking at and prioritizing the organization’s marketing objectives
  • Then matches them with the e-marketing tools (e.g., website, emails, Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc.) that can best achieve each of those objectives. These two topics were covered in Part 1
  • And next selects those objective-matching tools that  can be implemented, because the organization has the required financial resources and either has or can acquire the needed skilled employees. This topic will be covered here in Part 2.

Selecting the objective-matching tools that  can be implemented, because the organization has or can hire the required resources

The types of resources required to use a particular e-marketing tool will vary by the package of objectives it is targeted to achieve and the amount and complexity of the usages that are required to achieve them. In my field observations, this is the second area where small merchants are likely to encounter problems — or have them made by consultants who just focus on the mechanics of using the e-marketing tools with which they are enthralled.

In Part 1, I argued that “being found” online is probably the e-marketing objective most independent downtown merchants should focus on first. The initial inclination of these merchants – or their formal or informal “consultants” – might be to create a complex website with many pages, a full catalog of its merchandise, a matching e-store purchasing capability and to fill the site with lots of short marketing movies. Nonetheless, many small firms plainly lack the resources for such a robust effort and, more importantly, they probably do not need it to accomplish their e-marketing objectives.

Here are three brief case studies DANTH encountered over the past few years to demonstrate this point

The High Effort E-Store For A Fast Food Shop. Last year, in a NYC neighborhood that had sustained impressive economic growth through the Great Recession, I interviewed a fast food operator in the 6-10 employees category, who was very interested in penetrating the rapidly growing nearby office worker and high rise residential markets. Though both market segments were strongly represented within a 5-minute walk of the eatery, neither accounted for many of the pedestrians passing by or entering its doors. The owner was interested in creating a website where office workers and residents could find and learn about the eatery and its menu, order from the menu and daily specials, have their orders charged to their credit cards, and have their food delivered to their workplaces or homes.

This small merchant was unaware of the intricacy and full costs of such an operation. He was expecting to pay consultants to set-up his website, merchandise basket and credit card charging. However, he did not foresee that he would also need:

  • Someone to update the “specials” daily on the website and to periodically keep the overall menu up to date. Updating and maintaining a website can easily eat up far more resources than creating it
  • Additional part-time employees to process the lunchtime orders
  • Additional part-time employees to deliver the ordered food
  • Someone to provide the copy for his website pages
  • Someone to provide the photos and other graphics for the website pages
  • To spend a lot more of his time and money  putting together the needed new team and then managing a complex new operation.

A year later, this small operator has no website, but has affiliated with a telephone-based service that takes orders and delivers food if customers know about the delivery service and call them. The eatery also does have a simple “name, rank and serial number” page on its BID’s website, a Facebook page with one like and no postings and is listed on a few special websites such as Foursquare. Right now, not much info is to be found on the web about this eatery. It still needs a much stronger “being found” on the web capability.

This could be accomplished by a modest website, without the e-store. It would successfully provide name and contact information as well as information about the menu and reasons to patronize this eatery. Such a website would provide an affordable and acceptably better, if not optimal, penetration of the office worker market. Website visitors, for example, could see the full menu and be invited to visit or phone the eatery to learn about and order the daily specials. An even simpler solution would be a substantial improvement of the information provided on the eatery’s BID web site page, combined with a campaign to get it listed on more special web pages.

The prime take aways from this case study are that:

  • Small merchants should be wary of complex uses of e-marketing tools that are beyond their resources
  • More modest deployments of these tools are often more viable and ultimately more effective
  • BID/SID web pages can be very useful for a small merchant if they do more than just provide the store’s name, contact information and business category. They need to also provide space for information about the shop’s merchandise and to tell the merchant’s story. This is the prime way that BIDs can help their merchant members gain a viable e-commerce presence.

The Low Effort Ice Cream Parlor. In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned a very popular ice cream parlor in a New York City neighborhood. It is a unique and highly regarded operation that has been around for over 50 years and, for decades before that, it was an ice cream parlor under a different owner and name. Today, it is “a functioning antique,” with an old soda fountain, tin ceiling and marble small tile floor. It makes its own ice cream and is famous for its fresh home-made whipped cream.

When I spoke to the owner about his e-marketing activities, he smiled, reporting that he knew nothing about such things, but his workers, most of whom are high school or college students, had created a Facebook page that gathered 8,000+ likes. He felt Facebook definitely had helped generate some additional sales. The shop occasionally offers special flavors only to its Facebook page visitors, with the young workers doing the postings, and they are always quickly sold out. The owner said, with another smile and shrug of his shoulders, that he would like to do more with Facebook, but…. My guess is that the shop was doing well enough that there was no great need now to do more online marketing.

Googling the shop’s name showed that this ice cream parlor had a lot more going for it than just its Facebook page.. The search showed that its authentic, old time story and favorable customer reviews and contact information were available on a whole slew of specialty web sites such as:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, That these positive reviews were coming from customers and not the parlor’s ownership enhances their credibility and power.  Aside from the Facebook page, all the other listings, came about organically without any effort by the ice cream parlor owners or employees.

The net result is that this ice cream parlor, with little effort on its part, can be very easily found on the Internet and its story is certainly being told. The very nature of its limited menu means that people do not really need to know much about all the flavors to be convinced they should visit the shop. Consequently, it probably can do fairly well without its own website. On the other hand, given its ability to easily attract a significant number of Facebook likes, it also might easily garner many Twitter followers and  also use Tweets to inform followers of special flavors or coupons. It might then also use its Facebook and Twitter capabilities to further cultivate its existing store apostles –frequent customers who advocate a shop within their social networks– and garner new ones.

This ice cream parlor had very substantial name recognition and a bevy of store apostles well before or separate from any of its e-marketing activities. The strength of this non-electronic customer network substantially eased the challenge and costs of collecting 8,000 Facebook likes. A new ice cream parlor would need to expend a lot of resources to get enough Facebook likes to make its use worthwhile. The same is true of using Twitter. Indeed, one might ask if the use of these social media is cost effective for small merchants with say 30 transactions or less a day. Might they achieve the relationship building and customer service functions much more effectively and efficiently by focusing on face-to-face interactions? However, they still would need to be found online.

One thing the ice cream parlor owner probably should do is to have his young, Internet capable,  employees check their listings on the special web pages to make sure they are accurate and up to date. Research has shown that this is where most small businesses are apt to  fall down (1). Another thing he certainly needs to do is to keep hiring young employees who know how to use Facebook.

The prime take aways from this case study are that:

  • Strong small businesses that have been around for a while probably will have strong assets that can make their entry into e-marketing a lot easier than start-ups  or weaker operations
  • A robust easy-to-be –found on the Internet capability does not always require a complex website if the merchant has sufficient positive listings and reviews on the special website pages and a narrow range of products are offered
  • These special website pages are too often overlooked, especially by the food related operations that they so frequently cover and that account for such a high proportion of downtown businesses
  • Young, internet savvy, employees can often be a source of the internet related skills a small merchant lacks, but needs.

A Well-Calibrated Retail Website. A toy retailer has two brick and mortar stores in the Chicago suburbs and a very interesting website. The retailer quickly appears at the top of searches for toy stores in its two towns. Its website does not present a catalog of all of its toys, but has a page that shows all the toymaker brands it sells with their logos. It does not have an e-store that sells scads of different toy products online. Its e-store is limited to selling just one new toy a week. Customers can sign up to get the “new toy” newsletter each week via email. The website has short movies, one to two minutes long, for each of the new toys. The website shows that the “new toys” are sold out every week. That they are sold out so often strongly suggests that the retailer is building up a core of repeat purchasers. Repeat customers are the makings of a band of store apostles, a solid revenue stream and a strong word of mouth network.

The website reportedly was put together and is maintained by a relative of the store’s owner who is skilled in developing websites.

It also has a Facebook page that has garnered 604 likes. People in the 35-44 year old age group are its most frequent visitors and they are most likely parents.

I do not know what this merchant’s e-marketing objectives are, but I hope to connect with him in April, when I am again in the Chicago area. I am particularly eager to find out about their website’s impact on their brick and mortar store’s customer traffic and sales.

The important take aways from this case study are:

  • The one new toy a week strategy is a great example of how calibrating a small firm’s deployment of an e-marketing tool to its level of available resources can help assure its successful use
  • The site appears to be meeting all of the “being found” challenges, while also building a core of store apostles and making significant online sales
  • Family members can often be a source of the internet related skills a small merchant lacks, but needs.

How Can Downtown Organizations Help?

The transition to e-marketing calls upon small merchants to innovate, something most of them feel very uncomfortable doing. DANTH’s experience with trying to get them to improve their facades suggests that many more – but not most – would innovate, if innovating can be made easier for them  to do (4). This means providing them with needed information in easy to digest terminology and helping to bring the costs of their innovation down to affordable levels.

Some questions to which they may need answers are:

  • What can they do and accomplish with e-marketing, what are the benefits and how much will it cost?
  • Are there local merchants who have made this transition who they can talk to?
  • Which types of skilled people will they need help from to get into e-marketing? Where can they find them? Or who can do a whole package for them?
  • How can they afford to create and maintain the e-marketing effort?

Here are some actions downtown organizations and other EDOs might take:

  • Post a 20-minute webinar or podcast on the organization’s website — that the merchants can access at their discretion, when they have sufficient time —  focused on what small merchants can do with e-marketing, its benefits and costs
  • A tie-in to SCORE or other free or low cost consulting assistance to help clarify the connections between the e-marketing tools and the frm’s overall marketing objectives
  • A mentoring program that connects e-marketing “newbies” to local merchants who have successfully made the transition
  • Provide a vetted list of technical assistance providers
  • Most importantly, offer each merchant who lacks a website a web page on the organization’s website that can provide name, contact information, information about products or services sold and the firm’s story.
  • Perhaps the downtown organization can charge a fee for an “enhanced page”, i.e., updating, writing copy, supplying graphics, creating movies, etc., that would be meaningfully lower than what the merchants would have to pay if they did it by themselves
  • Provide website consultants to merchants at a lower than market rate cost, because the downtown organization can aggregate member demand and “buy in in bulk”
  • Provide an expert, on a reduced fee basis, who can help merchants get listed on special web pages. This is something different than search engine optimization
  • Use a downtown organization’s strong Facebook and Twitter presences to help the merchants get sufficient likes and followers to be able to effectively use them. It is getting followers, not setting up and using the Facebook or Twitter page that now impedes most small merchants from effectively using these e-marketing tools
  • Set up an “e-department store” where merchants, like the toy store described above, would only sell a few items. A dedicated and limited e-department store may be a good way to strengthen a downtown niche.

N. David Milder

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mark Waterhouse of Garnet Consulting Services for his input and editorial assistance.


  1. MarketingCharts staff, “1 in 2 Small Businesses Fail to Update Their Online Listings, Find Inaccuracies”  February 6, 2013,
  2. Mitch Lipka, “These Big Companies Are Abandoning Twitter And Facebook For Customer Service” Business Insider 1/18/13
  3. Findings of a survey of small businesses conducted for the Center for the New West as summarized in an email by the center’s former CEO, Phil Burgess
  4. N David Milder, “BEING A DOWNTOWN CHANGE AGENT: Facilitating Change for Downtown Business Operators” June 3, 2007,

Invitation: Please join me at Session S681: Integrated Small Town Planning at  APA’s 2013 National Planning Conference in Chicago, April 17, 2013, at 10:30 a.m. I will be presenting along with Andrew Dane of SEH.

Downtown Multichannel Retailing

DANTH, Inc. has just released a research paper I wrote on downtown multichannel retailing.  I prefer to think of it as backdoor retailing, with electronic and non-electronic variations. In any case, the topic is important because downtown retailing is undergoing an enormous change — one that will not be reversed even when the economy recovers from our Great Recession — towards multichannel/backdoor retailing. Downtown merchants and leaders who do not adapt to this new paradigm will be left behind, more dross produced by capitalism’s creative destruction.

You can download a free copy of the research paper at:

N. David Milder

Backdoor Retailing

My October 29, 2009 posting on the new normal for downtown retailing prompted a number of requests for additional information about “backdoor retailing.” I am very happy to comply since, for some time now, that has been a topic I have wanted to write about, but just never got to.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Downtown merchants with backdoor operations have two customer streams and revenue sources. First are the walk-in shoppers they draw from the downtown’s pool of visitors. Every downtown business can draw from this visitor pool. Firms with backdoor operations also:

  • Sell to local businesses, organizations and even municipal agencies. These transactions and relationships fit in well with downtown sustainability strategies.
  • Sell to consumers, but out of their stores, and independent of walk-in traffic.

My observations suggest that firms with significant backdoor operations are usually stronger and stay in business longer than other firms in their downtowns. Moreover, these merchants are not inclined to passively sit on their duffs and just wait for shoppers to come to them, but they are more inclined than other merchants to be savvy about social marketing, both face – a -face and online (the subject of a future article).

This is not to say that they are untouched by economic downturns, as restaurants in NYC with large corporate catering businesses have recently demonstrated. In addition, the reduced dependency on downtown customer foot traffic potentially makes these firms less tied to their downtown locations as their backdoor operations grow. However, favorable downtown quality- of- life conditions can reduce the proability that they will actually relocate.

Traditional, Non-electronic, Backdoor Operations

Today, there are electronic and non-electronic variations on backdoor operations. But, the best way of conveying what these operations are like is to provide some examples of the traditional, non-electronic variety:

  • A retail tobacco shop in downtown Rutland, VT, that also was a distributor of tobacco products to merchants in Rutland and the surrounding region
  • A vitamin shop on Bergenline Avenue in West New York, NJ that both manufactured and distributed vitamins to merchants in the region
  • Paint stores in Englewood, NJ and West New York, NJ that have very large building contractor clienteles
  • A women’s clothing shop that took its wares to model and sell at local women’s clubs, PTAs, etc. (Unfortunately, while I remember reading about this on the web, I can’t find the citation in my files.)
  • Sporting goods shops here in Kew Gardens, NY and elsewhere that sell equipment to sports teams, leagues and schools
  • The plethora of restaurants in most downtowns doing off site catering
  • The Carvel in Bayonne, NJ – and I image elsewhere — that sell desserts to local schools, social clubs, etc.
  • A bakery in Woodbury, NJ, that supplied many local eateries with donuts, danishes, etc.
  • A well-known fish market in Maplewood, NJ that supplies over 40 restaurants
  • Nevada Meat Market that supplied many restaurants in Manhattan
  • A fruit and vegetable shop in Kew Gardens, NY that supplied local restaurants

Many downtown service operations also have backdoor components:

  • A dry cleaner in Kew Gardens does uniforms and work clothes for businesses throughout NYC
  • An upholstery shop in Washington, NJ that does work for well-known furniture stores in Northern New Jersey
  • Some hair salons and barber shops that serve non-ambulatory clients in their homes, nursing homes and hospitals

This list of examples of back door operations, though limited in length, is sufficient to show the broad gauge of their potential– and that such operations are certainly not confined to food products.

Online Backdoor Operations

The internet has brought a new dimension to backdoor operations. Merchants that have online storefronts with shopping carts and actual sales are engaging in electronic backdoor operations. The individual shoppers need not ever come to their stores. They are not walking in from the street. They may live in different states or even other nations and never have visited the merchant’s downtown.

On a more modest scale eBay allows downtown merchants to sell online a few items or groups of items without having to create and maintain a storefront of their own.

According to reports in the media and from downtown managers, a properly functioning web store can definitely strengthen some downtown merchants. I have seen a women’s apparel shop thrive because of their online store and I know of a collectables shop that survived through tough times because of its eBay sales.

But some perspective is needed here. Foremost, online sales make up only about 4% of retail sales. Also, most of our downtowns fall in the small and medium-size category and the overwhelming majority of their shops have modest annual sales revenues and very small staffs. Many of them may be able to create and maintain an inexpensive, uncomplicated website that provides simple information about the shop, its location and the types goods and services it sells. That might help drive some more customers into their shops. However, most cannot mount, operate and maintain a web store. Keeping the online inventory current and product shipment too often become killer tasks for small merchants. Some can do better by selling in a controlled manner on eBay. Most are probably best off not attempting electronic backdoor operations because they lack the computer skills, staff and money needed to succeed.

Cultivating More Backdoor Operations – Planting The Seed And Networking Local Businesses

While most merchants will not develop backdoor operations, my sense is that most downtowns have the potential for doubling or tripling their number. Over the years, my informal discussions with merchants suggest that more of the innovative types would try to develop backdoor operations if they simply had thought about them. This suggests that seeding the idea in the minds of the right merchants and then perhaps hooking them up with district merchants who already have successful backdoor operations might be a fairly simple and low cost way of starting to make it happen. Face to face meetings are probably a sure way to go. A low key workshop also would probably produce results – if the right merchants attend.

Also, a good starting point for many merchants is to explore what they could sell to the other businesses and organizations located in or near to their downtown. Downtown organizations can provide real help here by developing a “matchmaker” role. For example, the Long Island City Business Development Corporation’s staff has developed a role of matching the needs for goods and services of their district’s industrial firms with local suppliers.

The Takeaway

Increasing the number of strong stores is always an important objective of a sensible downtown organization. Growing the number of firms with backdoor operations can help make that happen. It should be an essential cog of your organization’s business retention program.

N. David Milder