Tobin Brogunier fell in love with small-town mom-and-pop shops at age 15 when he worked for his local comic shop in Bangor, Maine. Fast forward a decade or so and Brogunier has watched shopping transform from something built on relationships and personal service to a business of clicks and online forms.
It has also hurt the local economy. According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, for every $100 spent locally, $45 dollars are funneled back into the community, compared to only $14 when that same $100 is spent at a big-box store.
Brogunier is developing an online service, VirtualStorefronts.co, to match neighbors and merchants in small towns. He wants to help keep money in the local economy and put the focus on people, not the internet.
“We want to do our job and get out of the way,” he said.
He believes people are “techno pessimistic” and lack trust in automated buying. “Our customers don’t want a relationship with Facebook,” he said. “They don’t have a good relationship with Google.”
He sees online shopping as “a one-sided bully relationship.” And he thinks plenty of shoppers want to support local businesses
Brogunier launched his pilot project in Cherokee County, North Carolina, the westernmost county in the state. Most of the businesses currently participating in the project are based in Andrews, population 1,800, or Murphy, the county seat, with a population of about 1,600.
So far 45 businesses have signed up for a one-year contract for $99 each. Although that’s a fraction of the county’s locally owned retail businesses, Brogunier hopes to grow locally, regionally, and nationally because, he said, the need for his service is there.
As Brogunier watched the Amazon and big-box kingdoms rise, he saw a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what local merchants need and what they are served by what he calls “big tech.” For shop owners to compete with the slick, automated transactional sales online, “they were forced to mimic the online store model,” Brogunier said. “[This] means local merchants are stuck with solutions that don’t work for them.”
He thinks small-town shop owners have no interest in building fancy websites with pretty pictures of their entire inventory.
“They don’t need more work to do,” he said. “The local merchant’s advantage is that they are not transactional. These merchants are relational. And they are experts on their inventory.”
Virtual Storefronts allows users to search local stores for specific items. Then it displays the results based on the distance from the user to the store. Unlike internet search engines, the platform does not return lists of online or big-box retailers – only local, bricks-and-mortar stores. And to be on the platform, local businesses don’t have to spend time and money to create an online presence, as they would for most social networking platforms like Yelp.
To complete the transaction, customers need to call or visit the retailer, rather than ordering with a click.
Brogunier’s platform does not require the shop owner to brand herself or create lots of online content. Brogunier claims that “one third of all small business owners don’t even own a domain or URL,” which means they are not interested in conducting business on the information superhighway but would rather travel the back roads that lead to Main Street.
“Humility is huge part of being in a small town” because merchants are “the front face of community,” Brogunier said. “They do not live in an online world.”
Making local people aware of the service is one of the challenges. “We are starting with local media,” he said. “For example, our local radio station, WKRK, now has a ‘shop local’ button on their website, which logs thousands of visitors each day.”
He cited a study that said half of all shoppers prefer to shop locally but had no efficient way to connect with their neighborhood shops online. Brogunier’s search engine “will help the locals see through the fog” of online shopping to find exactly what they were looking for right in town.
“Shoppers don’t need more screen time; they don’t need more isolation,” he said.
He champions his “locals only” search engine solution because it will also eliminate the “character assassination” he sees happening in online comments. “There is no accountability” in some online platforms, he said. “Anyone can say anything about a product or service” aiming to discredit a fellow seller.