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Ma and Pa head online

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 4, 2002
(Issue 2040, PC Creations)

When the Internet was first opened to commercial — i.e., business — use in the early '90s, there were two main schools of thought on this development — and they were about as far apart as you can imagine.

One school — the Internet optmiists — held that the Amazon.coms would soon drive the established brick-and-mortar enterprises off the face of the globe.

The other school — the Internet pessimists — argued that Big Business would soon take over the Internet the way it had already taken over the physical world.

Interestingly (but perhaps predictably) the reality has been about right down the middle of the two predictions. Yes, still survives and is perhaps the dominant player in online music and book sales — but Barnes & Noble hasn't exactly wilted away, either.

And what neither school really predicted was how the Internet would help independent merchants survive and thrive. It has created new niches, new possibilities for allowing the smaller business to expand its customer base and continue to survive in an age of Wal*Marts and Home Depots.

For instance, who ever thought the old-fashioned Little House on the Prairie style general store would migrate online? But there's the family-owned Vermont Country Store with its own online shop. Visiting their web site is like going shopping with your grandmother again. I found some old aluminum drinking cups for my brother's retro-decor house-warming party — I haven't seen anything like them in a store for probably 30 years now.

And remember those old Chuck Taylor Converse basketball shoes you wore as a kid? The red canvas ones? You might find a pair at the mall shoe store — maybe, if you're lucky. But go to and you can buy them right there without having to sort through all the $100-plus trendy plastic shoes with light-bulbs in the heels and air cushions in the soles and who knows what else.

Even those small firms that don't sell online can still use a web site to maintain contact with an increasingly far-flung customer base. Mike-sell's Potato Chips, for instance, maintains a site with product info, company history and a contact list. Would those of us who grew up in the Midwest and love Mike-sell's like to buy a case or two online? Sure, but at least now we have a place to find solace in a world of taste-alike chips that bore us.

Local and regional breweries that have a hard time gaining shelf space at the local grocery can also use the web to promote their products — even though they obviously can't sell online. (Anyone inventing the online beer tap ought to automatically get a Nobel prize ...)

Cincinnati's Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery has a handy list of the distributors that carry it in each state. So now I know that while I can't get a case of Schoenling Little Kings here in San Diego, I can drive a couple of hours to Arizona and load up the station wagon. Good information to have.

And Philadelphia's Yuengling Brewery (the oldest in the U.S., and still independent unlike Canada's Molson which claims to be North America's oldest) has a nice gift shop online where you can buy sweatshirts, hats, and other stuff with the Yuengling imprint.

There is even a small ice cream outfit in Hawaii name of Lappert's where you can order gourmet ice cream and coffee. Not sure how well ice cream ships, but at least you don't have to fly to Hawaii to see if it's any good.

Without the 'net, none of the above companies would have any hope of reaching the number of customers they now do. While I originally discovered The Vermont Country Store via a printed catalogue — and while they still print their catalogues — when I want to get something different and special for a birthday or Christmas present, I simply browse to their site. That's got to be cheaper for them that printing, addressing and mailing me a catalogue.

And as the health fascists continue tying to ban public advertising for beer, cigarettes and anything else that's not good for us, online marketing is likely to grow in importance for those businesses. Some of them — Yuengling for instance — already warn that you must be an adult to enter their site.

Which seems a reasonable compromise — and shows again the small but deep ways the Internet continues to change the way we do business.