Solid web presence boosts small business

Tom Allen, of Kleen-Rite, stands in a promotional area the company uses to create online videos. (Casey Kreider / Staff)

For small business owners, getting online is essential to attracting customers.

But now that everyone has a website, simply building it doesn't mean they will come.

"Today's consumers are more sophisticated and are looking for evidence that a company is agile, responsive, innovative and competent. That's hard to convey with a static website that never changes," says Kae Kohl, of Kiwi Marketing Group, a Lancaster company that advises a variety of businesses.

Kohl says a website must prove itself by getting better prospects, and if it's not doing that, then it isn't doing its job.

"Pretty is good; effective is better," she says.

With more options to connect with customers, small businesses and entrepreneurs are getting more sophisticated about how they present themselves online.

A number of businesses have seen results from new efforts to expand their own reach while also working to distinguish themselves in the crowded online marketplace.

Sheryl Towner, owner of Etiquette School of Central Pennsylvania, put up a build-your-own website in 2008. But she says it never behaved the way she would have wanted, leaving people unable to find out about her etiquette classes.

"It was practically as good as nothing," she says. "People tell me, 'Oh, we were looking for something like you do but we couldn't find anybody online.'\!q "

But last year, she bolstered her site with search-engine optimization, an effort where small changes were made to her website to make it more likely to appear in web searches.

Now, when someone searches "etiquette" and "Lancaster" or "etiquette" and "York," Towner's business pops up.

Towner said this new effort "has just made all the difference in the world."

For a Columbia company, getting online has opened up a whole new world of customers - including some from around the world.

Kleen-Rite Corp., a retailer of car wash supplies based in Columbia has become a national and even international seller of car wash supplies.

The company began some 50 years ago when Harold McKonly began stockpiling replacement pumps and hoses at his car wash. His small inventory attracted other car wash owners looking for the hard-to-find parts, and a new business was born.

Now, Kleen-Rite has 100 employees, including ones in distribution centers in Las Vegas and Dallas, with a reach that has grown far beyond Columbia.

"What we're finding is - and you can quote me on this one if you want - the majority of our growth is coming through the internet," says John Tobias, the company's director of marketing.

But the company doesn't just put any old thing on its website; rather, it adds content that customers want.

For example, a recent video feature is "Tom's Corner" in which employee Tom Allen demonstrates such things as "How to Service a CAT 310 Pump" and "How to Change Your Vac Motor Brushes."

While those topics don't have wide, general appeal, they are of interest to the people who visit the company's website: owners of car washes.

And that's important, says Steve Wolgemuth, CEO of YDOP, an internet marketing company in Lancaster.

"Small business websites are most effective when they pay careful attention to who is coming to the site, and for what purpose, rather than publishing a website around what the business wants to say about itself," Wolgemuth says.

For many small entrepreneurs, websites such as eBay, Amazon and Etsy already are organized around the shopping patterns of customers. Consequently, tapping into that existing network can be a powerful way to get customers.

Jessica King, executive director of ASSETS Lancaster, which works with many potential entrepreneurs, says such sites give would-be business owners a way to get started.

"The web is creating a whole new market for niche products, but it takes saavy and strategy on the part of the entrepreneur to navigate the online options and the sheer volume of merchants, products and services available," King says.

For Sarah Young, her business selling books online through eBay and Amazon has morphed into a retail bookshop.

Young began Vintage Young five years ago, buying items at local sales and auctions. She wanted to sell the items through her own website, but didn't begin that way.

"I didn't intend to start by being an eBay seller, but that was the easiest, fastest way," Young said.

She soon found it easy to buy and sell books online, but also found that some of the good, quality books weren't selling well.

"I just couldn't get rid of these books, in particular, that were in really good shape, so I started saving them," Young said.

So, last September, Young opened a small bookstore in downtown Elizabethtown. While it doesn't make money, Young says the store gives her a physical identity while also giving her space for employees who help catalog the roughly 15,000 books she has. She still sells most books online.

Eventually, though, Young says, she'd like to move away from relying on other companies to handle her online sales and steer customers to her own website.

"I don't want to be an eBay seller for the rest of my life," Young says.

Another local woman was on the leading edge of small-scale online retailing, a head start that helped her build a business that now mostly sells to other stores.

Janell Almodovar began making and selling her handbags in 2004. She soon put a page on MySpace, which helped her attract her first wholesale client - a store in Hawaii. In 2007, Almodovar also set up an account with Etsy, years before the e-commerce site for handmade and vintage items really took off.

While Almodovar says Etsy helped her attract some of her 20 wholesale customers and was an early way for customers to pay with a credit card, it now accounts for only a trickle of her sales.

She recently redesigned her website and hired her first employee for what is "full-time hours and a full-time income."

Almodovar also says that while she got a head start on many small online sellers, they're not far behind.

"It is the new thing, and it is a little threatening," she says. "I have to stay on top of it all at times because so many people are doing it."

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