Sunday, April 01, 2001

Small retailers at home on the Net




By Anne Mitchell
Gannett News Service

        FORT MYERS, Fla. — While high-flying dot-com firms have been crashing and burning lately in spectacular fashion, thousands of small e-tailers are working from small offices and spare bedrooms, quietly taking a share of what has become a $45 billion-a-year online shopping industry.

        Even with giants Amazon.com and e-Bay dominating the online marketplace, there still are plenty of niches for small specialty vendors.

        And the Internet is a great leveler. Online consumers usually can't tell whether the Web site they are purchasing from is operated from a massive warren of cubicles, or someone's kitchen table.

        Some southwest Florida companies are proving the point.

        Bob and Barb Bloedel operate FunnyUndies.com, a global company that's open for business 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Orders have come in from as far away as Indonesia, Scotland and Australia.

        Their customers have no idea FunnyUndies.com's owners and sole employees are out fishing and golfing in the Florida sunshine most days and often fill orders at night in their slippers and pajamas.

        The shipping procedure involves stuffing the custom-embroidered undies in mailing tubes, sticking three first-class stamps on each, and depositing them in the mailbox at the end of their driveway here.

        In the case of another company, last Nov. 1, Yvonne Warren sold a Swedish flag key ring and a Suncatcher license plate holder online for a total of $16.34. It was her first Internet sale. The next sale was larger: $64.34.

        Her husband, Richard, runs A Swedish Affair gift store specializing in Scandinavian foods and gift items. They've operated it for 16 years, through many ups and downs of the Royal Palm Square shopping center.

        The couple recently branched out with an online version (www.swedensfinest.com) in the hope it will help their bricks-and-mortar business keep growing and offset any economic setbacks conventional retailing might encounter.

        Swedish-born Yvonne Warren quit her job as a legal secretary last year to start the e-tailing business. From a small office tucked behind the colorful, artfully merchandised store, she downloads and then fills orders from throughout the world.

        She's intrigued to note that some of their Scandinavian merchandise is being ordered from customers in Switzerland and New Zealand, as well as most of the United States. Many customers live in regions where Scandinavians have settled and where some of Ms. Warren's merchandise originates, such as Chicago, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

        So far, food is proving the most popular, especially the Swedish ginger cookies and ligonberry preserves. Calendars also sell well.

        For e-tailers like the Bloedels and Warrens, opportunities for success abound. By 2002, U.S. online consumers will spend one-third of their total “shopping money” via the Internet, says Ernst & Young's Global Online Retailing Report of January 2000.

        After running five other businesses during his career, Mr. Bloedel, 53, is loving the freedom his online business affords. The best part is this one runs with no other employees, no banks of phone operators, no office rental costs.

        They invested $40,000 in equipment, including two computers and three computer-linked sewing machines that tap out in silky thread on the underpants the messages he types into the computer.

        They estimate they will start turning a profit in 12-18 months if they can sell just 10 pairs of undies a day at $19.95 a pop. He does the math: 10 times 30 days equals 300 pairs times $20 a pair equals $6,000 a month.

        Their Web site receives 6,000 to 10,000 hits a week.

        The wonder of it all is not lost on them.

        “If you had a local store, you couldn't possibly succeed (with funny-undies) because there's not a big enough audience,” he said. “There is simply no other business vehicle ever invented where a retired couple can reach out to the entire world with a store that is open 24/7 and not need lots of phones and employees to do business.”

       



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