If you can't beat them, join them - online

It was a different retail world in Chippewa Falls, Wis., when Rick Rada's parents opened their men's clothing store on Bridge Street in 1966. Since then, almost two dozen discount stores have sprouted at malls around the historic town, giving Mr. Rada head-on competition.

Now the shopkeeper fears his sales may be slipping away to a newer, more elusive challenger: online shopping, or e-commerce.

Some retailers like Rada believe Internet trading is undercutting their business. To help out, Congress is considering taxing goods sold online, which are frequently offered at a discount that retailers in the real world say they can't match. But in small towns across the US, many shopkeepers see e-commerce as a life raft, giving them the edge they need to stay afloat.

"The Internet is a tremendous revolutionary event for small business - indeed, for the world," says Mark Goell, owner of Arcadia Antiques in Amherst, Mass. Mr. Goell says sales through eBay, an online auction site, to customers as far away as England helped him over the hump last year, making up for a lack of browsers willing to venture out into the cold.

Even Rada, who is reluctantly considering posting a Web site, admits that it's better than being shut out of the marketplace. "It's something that's grown so quickly," he says, "you'd be foolish not to look into it."

Ironically, as the high-tech trend propels retail trade into the future, it's provoking tremendous interest in historic downtowns, whose retailers say it could buoy them as they compete against nearby malls.

"I don't think e-commerce is going to hurt small business at all. I think it's going to help them thrive," says Kennedy Smith, director of National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Center.

In Chippewa Falls, for example, a sports card trader did so well on the Net that he closed up shop and went strictly electronic.

In Madison, N.J., population 16,000, florist and admitted computer novice Christine Alegria is bypassing the FTD middleman through a Web site that will transmit orders directly from customers.

Last year, online sales tripled to $9 billion, according to the US Commerce Department. And they are expected to more than triple again this year. But that still pales compared with last year's $2.7 trillion for all retail sales.

About 39 percent of America's retailers currently offer their products online, the Commerce Department reports.

The National Main Street program found that among 1,500 communities, more than twice as many businesses used the Web for business in 1998 than in 1997. E-commerce will be a major topic at the group's March 21 to 24 National Town Meeting on Main Street.

"The retail world gets tougher every year. Those that have stuck around know they have to be a little bit better and sharper than in the past," says Ms. Smith.

A WEB site can let smaller stores express their personalities, giving them an edge over chains, says Smith.

"For a lot of them, a difference in 5 percent of sales a year can make a difference in going belly-up or not. A Web site can do that.... It lets them be nimble, increase business without adding parking spaces."

As e-commerce gains ground, local officials are getting involved to help their downtowns keep pace. In Madison, where pharmaceuticals and high-tech industries have replaced a century of rose-growing, Mayor Gary Ruckelshaus has called a special April 17 conference on doing business on the Web. While such town-wide meetings are uncommon, e-commerce is a hot topic in chambers of commerce from Walla Walla, Wash., to Portland, Maine. Mr. Ruckelshaus says he has enough trouble coaxing shoppers to walk just two blocks from a municipal parking lot to the downtown center.

As consumers warm to the comfort of shopping on-line, he's concerned they might dwindle even more. "All we're trying to do is empower our retailers," said the mayor while sipping a drink at The Nautilus, a local diner. "E-commerce is a fact of life. It's growing faster than anyone expected. If we ignore it, our downtown may very well slip away."

Author Richard Sclove, who tracks "the malling of America," contends that the Internet's global, 24-hour marketplace just extends the chain-store phenomenon, sapping local trade and threatening to shut down historic downtowns.

"And when you lose that downtown life, you impair democracy," says Mr. Sclove, author of "Democracy and Technology." "The real idea of a democracy is that you can influence the local economy. We can't influence multinational corporations."

Nick Sherwin, a jeweler in Paso Robles, Calif., says he'll follow the money. Planning to go on-line with a catalog of 25 items, he says, "If I can have a retail store and maintain a Web site, well hunky dory. If not, I'll have to follow whatever the trend is."

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