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Local retailers seek the right cyber/storefront mix amid shakeout

TAMPA — There is a battle to survive waging between on-line and brick-and-mortar retailers.

And apparently, they're meeting in the middle.

Online behemoth Amazon recently purchased Whole Foods to expand its physical store presence. Walmart, meanwhile, acquired Jet.com to remain competitive in the online space. Experts say these moves illustrate a trend that if businesses want to thrive in this changing retail industry, they must have two things — a strong online footprint and a brick-and-mortar — to accommodate both types of consumers.

Both retail giants, who started on "opposite ends of the process," have figured they must invest billions of dollars in the competition's expertise to "keep their market share strong," said Isaac Gold, a real estate expert for Skilken|Gold, a real estate development firm.

The same process is playing out on a smaller scale in Tampa Bay's shopping scene.

First came the wave of stores with physical locations hanging up a cyber shingle on the internet.

Now many companies which started as e-commerce only are opening store fronts with a focus on the customer experience. Others are using the physical space to offer classes and create additional streams of revenue.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa entrepreneur Roberto Torres launches new venture Blind Tiger Cafe

"A lot of the weaker players might be whittled out here," if they are not willing to adjust to the changing landscape of how people want to shop, said Gold.

Blind Tiger, a Tampa-based coffee shop, is one of the local companies that started as an online business and has expanded its retail real estate portfolio.

The coffee shop serves as an anchor for its clothing boutique Black&Denim, which was originally started online. The name Blind Tiger has roots from the Prohibition-era of a speakeasy, a place that illegally sold alcohol in plain sight of the police.

That is the goal.

The coffee shop "feeds more sales to the boutique," said Roberto Torres, 38, owner of Blind Tiger and Black&Denim. Blind Tiger, with two locations in Ybor City and Seminole Heights, plans to open a third on S. Howard Avenue by the end of the year. The store's neighbor Ella Bing, a local online retailer for wooden bow ties and sunglasses, plans to build a glass wall and interior entrance to cross-promote business. This is Ella Bing's first physical location.

Selling coffee is not the only way Torres plans to capitalize on foot traffic. He also tries to create "Instagrammable moments" throughout the store.

"We don't spend that much on advertising but spend money on the customer experience," he said. "We are trying to harness the power of social media. People will walk into the store, then (we) make it so they don't want to leave."

Ella Bing wants to attract the 'shop local' consumer market.

"Small retailers are coming back," said owner Brent Kraus, 35. "People want that one-on-one experience."

Having a physical store will allow customers to touch and feel the product — some of it made on-site — and allow for face-to-face interaction and consultations, said Kraus.

"I want our store to be 100 percent experience driven," he said.

Companies such as Macy's — which remain valuable because of real estate holdings despite a decline in national sales — prove there is value investing in commercial property.

Paper Seahorse, a Tampa-based stationery specialty store, originally planned to open as an online only supplier. But it "flip-flopped" to open a physical store first on S. Howard Avenue in 2015. Owner Tona Bell said research showed there was a payoff for small specialty shops to invest in an actual store. Six months after the store opened, she launched its online site.

While "everything is digital," she said, "people miss the experience of having one-on-one interactions with someone. Nothing replaces having a conversation."

That is what her store offers customers: a "technology break" with a focus on creativity and mindfulness, Bell said.

Another benefit of the storefront is Paper Seahorse can offer a range of classes such as calligraphy, origami and painting. It also rents and sells vintage typewriters.

"People want to slow down, look at things and hang out," she said.

Contact Tierra Smith at tsmith@ tampabay.com or (414) 702-5006. Follow @bytierrasmith.

Local retailers seek the right cyber/storefront mix amid shakeout 09/07/17 [Last modified: Friday, September 8, 2017 5:39pm]
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