Economic Development

eBay Initiative in Warren, Akron Takes ‘Humanistic’ Approach to Tech

AKRON, Ohio – Rosalyn Hill, owner of 5 Grands Fashions LLC in Warren, says she is looking forward to potentially working with eBay.

Hill’s shop, which sells upscale women’s apparel and accessories, doesn’t do anything with the online retail giant, but she said she is looking forward to the opportunity.

“The partnership with eBay will help tremendously in regard to reaching more people,” Hill said.

Hill was among the Warren merchants, city officials and members of the business community who traveled Friday to Akron to join leaders there for the announcement that the two cities would be involved in eBay’s first Retail Revival project in the United States.

“We’re moving into a digital economy and the question that we all have is, ‘What does that vision look like?’ ” eBay’s president and CEO, Devin Wenig, said at the news conference, held in downtown Akron’s Northside Marketplace.

One vision is that technology is “kind of scary,” threatening to take away jobs and connect people in ways they aren’t comfortable with. eBay’s vision of technology is “a humanistic one,” he countered.

“It’s about people. It’s about small business. It’s about using technology to make people competitive and vibrant and put life into communities and not take it out,” he said. Through Retail Revival, eBay will put its energy, money and passion “into trying to help Main Street businesses become fully thriving participants in the digital economy,” he added.

Warren’s involvement in the small-business initiative came about through what Melissa Holmes, Warren Redevelopment and Planning assistant director, described as “a combination of good luck and our local entrepreneurs making a phenomenal first impression.”

eBay came to Warren as one of the cities it was scouting for the Retail Revival pilot, and city officials gave them a tour, focusing on downtown because Warren’s retail is concentrated there. While ultimately choosing Akron because of its demographics, among other factors, eBay officials were so impressed with Warren’s entrepreneurs “they couldn’t not choose Warren too” and invited businesses there to be a part of it, Holmes said.

When eBay officials visited Warren in October, area businesses “really did a great job representing the city,’ Mayor Doug Franklin said.

Warren and Akron are both “legacy cities” fighting the Rust Belt label, Franklin continued. “That’s a very old perception and that’s definitely not who we are now, and eBay has validated that,” he said.

Retail Revival will provide wraparound support services, training and marketing to help participating retailers expand their business through eBay’s e-commerce platform, said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan.

“This program is meant to help small local businesses and the broader community to harness the power of technology to participate in the global marketplace,” Horrigan said. The partnership with eBay “will provide our traditional brick-and-mortar retail businesses with the support they need to compete both globally and locally,” he added.

“One of the reasons we’re here is because we feel wanted,” Wenig said. “We feel wanted by small businesses. We feel wanted by two very progressive local governments that say it’s time for a change.”

The program is not only a program to assist Warren’s retailers, but also “an opportunity to showcase our community,” Franklin said.

What is most significant about Warren being involved in the initiative is that an international company saw potential in the city that “sometimes we don’t even see in ourselves,” he said.

Among the Warren merchants who traveled to Akron for Friday’s announcement was Jessie Fincham, co-owner and co-designer at The Burlap Shack, a shop that manufactures and sells upcycled merchandise. The business has engaged in some online sales but hasn’t done much on eBay so far, Fincham reports, something she looks forward to changing.

“To be involved with a big corporation like eBay will be huge for our small business,” she said. While partnering with the e-commerce giant will result in an increase in both foot traffic and online sales, “ultimately we’re excited for the partnership between our community of Warren with eBay,” she said.

“The technical assistance program is really going to be wonderful,” Holmes said. “They’re going to do anything from teaching entrepreneurs how to take good pictures, teach them now to use the eBay platform, teach them how to do international sales. They’re going to be there every step of the way.”

Businesses in Warren and Akron can apply to participate by filling out a submission form by 11:59 p.m. Feb. 9, according to a news release from the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, whose office worked with eBay.

eBay will accept 50 companies to participate initially, Wenig said. Details of the initiative are being worked out and more information should be disclosed in March, he said.

The initiative will rely on businesses in the two communities that already participate in the online platform.

Greg Bartholomew, owner of All American Cards & Comics in downtown Warren, was also among area business owners who attended the announcement event in Akron. He said eBay representatives were impressed with his business’ online sales operation and asked him to serve as a point of contact for area business owners selected for Retail Revival to help them get set up on the platform and with other aspects of e-commerce.

“One great thing about a platform like eBay is that it is a community, and people help each other,” Wenig said.

Bartholomew, who has sold on eBay for about 20 years, called it an indispensable sales tool that represents about 5% of his sales. He mainly uses it to move extra inventory for cash flow purposes or to move merchandise that would be too expensive for most local customers.

“I’m hoping since it will incorporate other businesses it will help the city of Warren as a whole,” Bartholomew said.

Amanda Chine, owner of Manda Bees Headbands, also was optimistic about prospects for working with eBay. She already relies on online sales for about 90% of her business using Esty, an online sales platform that focuses on vintage and handmade goods.

Chine did not attend Friday’s event but met with eBay representatives in Warren last year.

“Any exposure is good exposure for online retailers like me,” Chine said. “Social media is where we get most of our buyers so yes, I will absolutely apply.”

The goal is to replicate the Retail Revival model nationally, Wenig said. The measure of success will be whether eBay is able to help these businesses grow, allowing them to sell more merchandise and hire more people.

“We’re a business. We try to make money. But at the end of the day it matters to me the impact eBay has on communities around the world,” he said.

Pictured: Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, right, and Warren Mayor Doug Franklin were in Akron Friday for the launch of eBay’s Retail Revival program.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.