When I joined Encore Studios in 1996 after owning retail stores for 15 years, I did so before retailing was going to change forever. At my first stationery show as Encore’s VP, I quickly grasped the industry issues. Retail storefronts that upheld a no-discounting policy resented home-based businesses because many of them discounted. Home based business and storefront owners and managers both were aware and frustrated by sister companies of their suppliers who sold direct to the consumer at almost wholesale prices. This still exists today. However, it seemed there was enough business for invitation businesses to get their fair share. Little did retailers know what was about to take place. With the birth of the internet, a whole new level of competition entered the arena. There are now thousands of web sites that sell invitations, most of them selling popular priced brands at deep discounts. E-commerce web sites that sell their own designs are becoming more and more prevalent. Packaged invitations that offer do-it-yourself printing solutions are increasing rapidly.

With all of this competition, it would seem the internet is a completely negative factor to retailers. From my perspective the biggest reason this perception exists is that the retailer has not responded effectively to the challenge. Almost every consumer now uses the internet to do research. That does not mean they will buy online or cannot be influenced to purchase from a retailer, if they were educated to the advantages.

Here are some of the challenges to this premise:

  1. Many retailers do not have web sites.
  2. Others have web sites, but they are either outdated
    or not reflective of their level of quality and service.
  3. When consumers search for local retailers, they
    cannot find them.

The website needs to be given us much attention as does the store’s physical design to create eye appeal and allure. It can be misconceived as a negative factor if a retailer does not have a web site. In today’s climate, a web site is the “front lobby,” a customer’s first impression of a business. This is a branding opportunity, and does not require that product be sold on line.

The biggest problem of all is when a consumer does a key word search on Google or Yahoo; they are rarely finding retailers’ web sites. If they are not finding retailers, they are far less likely to be exposed to the more upscale and exclusive products along with the service advantages that can inspire them away from their computer screens to get in the car and visit a store. Instead they are being served a set of thousands of online search results that create a false perception of the selection of invitations available to them. Many lower end invitations look nicer on the web than they actually are, factoring in paper quality and workmanship. Conversely, the web can never do justice to invitations that are engraved or letter pressed, textured,
beveled or thick papers.

The good news is that recently Google and Yahoo have created programs strictly to increase local business. But, there’s a problem, too. It is time consuming and a bit confusing to set up. Once set up, these search engines can identify the location of where the consumer is doing her search. For instance, a retailer in Omaha, Nebraska can come up locally, but not outside the area. This creates an opportunity to attract customers specifically looking for the products and services you provide in a manner far more targeted than any other method of advertising. This whole process takes time to learn and implement.

While this investment is hard to make when dealing with the day to day of running a store, it’s critical in today’s marketplace. What may once have been considered a luxury, I now regard as a necessity to stay relevant and to compete.

Retailers create the sizzle, excitement and service necessary to inspire consumers to purchase upscale, custom invitations. This experience is hard to replicate online. There is some great technology out there, but it doesn’t hold a candle to either seeing and feeling the invitations or experiencing the passion and knowledge of an experienced invitation retailer.