Web shopping that keeps dollars local

How do you keep shoppers happy down on Main Street, once they've seen Paris - or any of its sparkling equivalents on the World Wide Web?

To draw back shoppers lured away by the online convenience of national retailers, local businesses - already competing with big national chains at suburban malls - are finding new ways to match up online with Internet juggernauts like Amazon.com and eBay.

One increasingly popular method: local Web portals. These Internet-based neighborhoods serve as a virtual Main Street, hosting sites put up by businesses, government organizations, and nonprofits based in the same physical area.

For consumers, local portals represent a way to keep dollars close to home. For small companies, they provide new hope of staying afloat.

Portals already come in several types. Most large search engines, such as Yahoo!, divide their content by region. Independent companies - even big ones - are setting up portals for the communities in which they are based.

These represent the kinds of "communities of interest" - though not the kind based on geography - for which the Internet is known.

Many of the busiest local portals tend to be run by community newspapers plugged into both regional businesses and citizen interests.

Such papers have a vested interest in their communities, and staff on the ground to sell the idea to local businesses and gather information, says Michael Moran, the head of koz.com, a Raleigh, N.C., company that newspapers hire to help set up local portals.

The new battle on the Web is for local content, says Wayne Braverman, community advocate for Town Online, a local portal near Boston. And while search engines scramble to get local content, local papers have content coming out their ears. All they have to do is put it online.

Today, getting local stores to join local portals rarely takes a sales pitch, says Mr. Braverman.

Businesses pay a monthly fee -from $30 to $400, depending on the Web-hosting services the portal provides - while nonprofits and government organizations are usually posted for free.

"I think what a lot of people's interest is, is what's in their local community," Mr. Braverman says. "Certainly the public gets it."

And the public "gets" e-commerce, too. Within three years, experts predict 30 percent of all retail sales - $2.7 trillion -will happen over the Internet.

The trick for sellers, of course, will be knowing how to grab a slice of that money. "The people who benefit [from the Web] are the people who can afford to advertise their Internet names," says Phil Saxton, who sets up local Internet portals for Unisys, a systems-integration company based in Blue Bell, Pa.

Since local stores can't shout as loud as national ones, they benefit from being wrapped into sites that attract local shoppers, rather than having their own obscure Web sites.

Michael Rungo, manager of the College Store in Tempe, Ariz., got a lot of out-of-state alumni when he connected his store's Web site to azcentral.com, the local portal run by the Arizona Republic. "I think people would go there to see what was going on in Tempe," he says.

The benefits can go further. Towns need local businesses to survive, because they pay taxes and contribute to the community. National online retailers don't necessarily. Consumers benefit by retaining local choices, because local stores often provide better service.

"People can go shop on the Web, but if they can find a local store, they may get the best of both worlds: They can buy from somebody they know. And if there are problems, the item can be returned or repaired easily," says Braverman.

And, allowing for the shipping and handling fees associated with Web shopping, local stores may also have lower prices.

Local stores are even finding ways to beat Web warehouses at their own game by offering same-day delivery, says Mr. Saxton.

The Web empowered consumers by giving them "virtual mobility," says Mr. Moran. What consumers need now is trust, loyalty, and serviceability with their purchases. And that's what linking consumers with local business online provides, he says.

*Comment to evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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