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Internet provides global possibilities for local shops

January 26, 2010

Dick Rosemont, co-owner of Flat, Black & Circular, sorts through used compact discs purchased from a customer Tuesday at the store, 541 E. Grand River Ave. Flat, Black & Circular is one of many stores that utilizes eBay to generate revenue.

Since 1973, Ray Walsh’s Curious Book Shop at 307 E. Grand River Ave. has been 18 feet wide. And although the store is about 100 feet deep with three stories of inventory, it still gets overlooked among the hustle of the downtown.

With the Internet, though, Walsh’s store is of limitless proportion — and finding it is as easy as the click of a mouse. With more East Lansing businesses using the Internet and Web sites such as Amazon and eBay to sell their products, small businesses have found customer bases beyond traditional borders — but not without complications.

“We’re selling more through the Internet than we did before when we put out catalogs because it’s a consistent sale,” said Walsh, who also owns Archives Book Shop, 519 W. Grand River Ave. “The (shopping) attitudes have changed, and I’m kind of in an odd position. We’ve been here so long that I have people bringing in their grandkids.”

Even in a recessed economy, e-commerce has found a way to thrive. Amazon exceeded Wall Street’s fourth-quarter revenue and earnings predictions of $6.4 billion, as it experienced an 18 percent boost to $6.7 billion during the quarter compared to that same period last year.

Dick Rosemont, co-owner of Flat, Black & Circular, 541 E. Grand River Ave., said the Internet has been advantageous because some items that aren’t coveted by East Lansing residents have greater value elsewhere. He said he once sold a Velvet Underground record on eBay for more than $1,000, although such instances are rare.

But selling products online isn’t as easy as buying them. EBay in particular has a laundry list of fees that reduce profit. For example, any music, movie or video game product with a “buy it now” price $50 or below comes with an extra 15 percent charge to eBay. Additional expenses include using more than one picture, an initial listing cost, using a decorative border and adding a second row of type on the listing’s title. EBay announced Tuesday that it will lower its listing price and eliminate them for some products in an attempt to ease small-scale sellers’ burdens.

Time also limits businesses in e-commerce. Andrew Morrow, owner of 21st Century Comics & Games, 515 E. Grand River Ave., previously used Amazon and eBay to sell products but stopped because “it ended up being more trouble than profit for us.”

Rosemont said eBay’s restrictions, such as providing original pictures, descriptions and details for each product, consumes enough time to constitute a second job. Walsh said he has one employee working almost full time with mail orders and listing books on eBay, search engines and the store’s Web site.

Despite the menial work and nickel-and-dime fees involved, business owners agreed their customer base expanded by using the Internet. But it comes down to a question of whether the profits outweigh the investment, said Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan.

“I think some small businesses have experience using that process, but others just dipping their toes in it are shocked by the paperwork involved and all the fees,” he said. “You have to balance the time and hassle of it all with the revenue.”

The Internet has led to another sort of balancing act because once hard-to-find products now are readily available. Walsh said this often has driven down the prices he can charge for books because consumers have many other options.

Then again, in 1973, Walsh never imagined the reach his 18-foot-wide book store would have. Now, he’s an international bookseller — and it’s tough to predict what could happen next.

“We put a variety of different things on eBay, and you never really know what to expect,” he said. “That’s the fun part of the challenge of selling books. It is a different business than it was a few years ago.”

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