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Published January 25th, 2017
Online Purchases Rain on Some Local Merchants During Holiday Shopping
Sarah McDonnell of McDonnell's Nursery poses with her decorative offerings. Photo Victor Ryerson

With the Bay Area's economy running in high gear, retail businesses made a good showing in Lamorinda during the holiday period, but the allure of online sales nevertheless affected many shoppers. No one is claiming to have had a banner holiday shopping season, and some merchants are annoyed with what might be called bad internet etiquette as a source of lost sales. And they are gently pushing back.
Overall it appears that 2016 was a "pretty good year, better than the previous year, but the holidays were slow," says Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. A sampling of local business owners generally agrees. They offer many reasons for relatively lackluster holiday sales, ranging from the early holiday adjournment of schools to the gaping sinkhole at the intersection of the Rheem Valley Shopping Center's principal thoroughfares. But one thing most agree about is that internet selling poses a threat to small retailers in the community.
In a Dec. 9 memo about its "shop local" campaign, the Lafayette Chamber reported to its members, "One of the comments we hear from merchants is customers coming into your store, asking questions, taking photos of products and then ordering them on line from their smart phones." The solution? "Consider making a little card you can hand your customers that reminds them why it is so important to shop local." The reasons include maintaining the vibrancy of the downtown and keeping the local tax base strong. At its basis, though, the issue of online shopping is usually price, as well as the convenience of ordering items from the comfort of home while dinner is cooking.
Several local business owners agree that customers engage in buying behavior that amounts to using their stores as showrooms. Bill Snider, owner of Moraga Hardware and Lumber, has seen customers scan the UPC codes from his merchandise with their smart phones, then leave the store to order online. The owner of a service-oriented retail business in Lafayette, who asked not to be identified, reports that customers have come in to make a selection, photographed sample merchandise, flipped the items over to photograph the codes, and then departed, never to be seen again. This seems to be a common occurrence in certain types of businesses where the merchandise can be substituted, like hardware.
Some businesses succeed in combating such behavior by cultivating a loyal base of customers who wouldn't dream of abusing the owners. Other businesses have taken an even more successful tack, at least from the competitive standpoint: they offer unique or unusual items that cannot be found online. Moraga Hardware and Lumber, for example, offers items such as pickles from Colorado, high-quality flashlights, and hand and foot warmers to draw customers in. These sold well as stocking stuffers this holiday season, bolstering the store's bottom line. Its associated store, Across the Way, sold gift items such as homemade cutting boards fashioned from distressed Berkshire Mountain hardwoods, flat scented candles and designer place mats and napkins that are simply not available on Amazon. Although sales at the two stores are gradually trending downward according to Snider and general manager Susan Marconi, these specialty items helped rescue this season's sales results.
Sarah McDonell, owner of Orinda's McDonell's Nursery, agrees. She has been expanding the store's offerings by increasing the selection of holiday ornaments, gifts and d├ęcor that cannot be ordered online, resulting in a better season this year than last. And Nicole Jarotzky, owner of Whimsy, a children's' clothing, toy, and accessory store in Lafayette, attributes her good year to offering many unique items, although her holiday season sales were "somewhat disappointing," she admits. If there is a pattern, it seems to be related to the willingness of shoppers
in affluent communities like
Lamorinda to overlook price in favor of individuality and uniqueness when shopping for holiday gifts.
Nevertheless, the impact of online sales is undeniable. One local merchant said her vendors confirmed that brick and mortar stores suffered from slow sales this season. Although local UPS Store owner Doug Meyer does not handle many inbound packages because they are delivered directly to customers, his post-holiday package business is running 15 to 20 percent ahead of last year. "Returns," he explains. Those items were not purchased locally.
Although catalog sales have been around since the days of Sears Roebuck without destroying local competition, only time will tell what strategies will be effective for local businesses to meet the more daunting challenge of internet buying in a changing world. Perhaps we will know by the time drones deliver the packages and whisk away the returns.


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