Economic Development

eBay’s Retail Revival Teaches Warren Businesses

WARREN, Ohio – Evaline’s Bridal has been a Trumbull County institution for more than 70 years, first in downtown Warren and now at 5000 E. Market St., where the bridal shop relocated.

It is now in the early stages of entering a new retail space, the world of online sales via the platform of e-commerce giant eBay.

“It’s an amazing journey for us,” says Lori Dubasik, owner of the bridal shop. She knows how to “turn on the lights” and operate a traditional retail store but is less familiar with ecommerce. “That is what they are teaching us, which has been so amazing,” she says.

Evaline’s Bridal is among 40 businesses in the Warren area that are participating in the eBay Retail Revival program. In January, eBay announced that it had selected the cities of Warren and Akron to participate in the pilot program, which aims to help traditional bricks-and-mortar stores use the ecommerce platform.

Although eBay settled on Akron as the main focus of its efforts, Warren businesses impressed eBay representatives enough that the city was included in the initiative as well.

“The challenges Warren sellers face are similar to the challenges faced by other small businesses across the country: reaching new markets and staying competitive with other retailers,” says Chris Librie, senior director of Global Impact and Giving at eBay. “Warren business owners seek to grow and scale their businesses in a global economy. With the Retail Revival program, adding e-commerce as an option gives sellers access to customers around the world.”

Retail Revival is “a really interesting project because we are the first,” says Melissa Holmes, program manager for Warren Redevelopment and Planning Corp. “It’s very much a pilot so there’s learning by doing happening.”

Businesses have received training in how to do online sales and participated in webinars, she says. Among the things they have learned is how to take photos using a light box to showcase their products online, how to prepare a proper description for their products and – one of the hardest things – how to ship cost-effectively, Holmes says.

“They also have technical support as a concierge service,” she continues. “They can pick up the phone and call any time they have a question.”

In additional, Greg Bartholomew, owner of All American Cards and Comics in Warren, has served as a resource for participants. Bartholomew has sold comic books and related merchandise on the e-commerce platform for more than two decades.

“One sale that you do online that you don’t do in store is an extra sale,” he says.

Participants have had questions mostly about shipping, insurance, tracking and delivery confirmation, Bartholomew says. “A few people had a lot of questions about taking pictures and how detailed descriptions would have to be,” he adds.

“We have found that the businesses who have taken advantage of that support and are active in listing products are doing well,” Librie says.

“We have also found that unique inventory is always advantageous on eBay – like the fashions at Five Grands or jewelry at Thom Duma Fine Jewelers,” he adds. “We love sellers with a unique perspective from Ohio – it really resonates with consumers elsewhere in the country.”

Many of the major brands at Thom Duma Fine Jewelers don’t allow the store to sell their items online but the store joined the Warren Retail Revival initiative to help support its success, owner Thom Duma says.

“For us, it became a vehicle for us to sell some brands that we decide not to move forward with,” Duma says. Movado, for instance, is “a great brand” but “just didn’t fit our merchandising plan,” he says.

Normally, he would have waited to liquidate the watches during its fall or winter clearance sales but eBay provides a vehicle to liquidate that inventory more quickly, he says.

Like other retailers in the program, Duma appreciates the concierge service eBay provides the Retail Revival participants. The company also has hired a full-time person based in Akron dedicated to the 120 participants in the initiative, he says, including the 80 in Akron.

“They’re always checking in, which is nice, too. And they have webinars that we all participate in to learn new things,” says Gina Samuels, sales associate, who oversees the eBay operation at Thom Duma.

The e-commerce platform also is good about communicating promotions retailers might want to try via email. “They’re really on top of it,” she says.

So far, eBay sales account for a “very small percentage” of sales, Duma says. With the brand restrictions on his store, he says he likely wouldn’t have entered online sales without Retail Revival.

“It has opened my eyes,” he says, and he hopes eBay will provide an additional revenue stream.

“My experience is a little bit different,” says Shauna Krafft, owner of Handkraffted in Cortland.

Krafft began Handkraffted two years ago, leaving her job as a teacher at the end of the 2016-2017 school year to devote her attention full time to her business. It manufactures and sells handmade, natural, organic skincare products.

“My business is 100% e-commerce,” selling on half a dozen online platforms and wholesaling to shops locally and nationwide, Krafft says. Because eBay is the only platform she uses for global sales, international shipping made her nervous.

So far, sales are stronger than she anticipated. Her products are not something commonly found on eBay, but sales are picking up She made her first international sale to a customer in Japan, she reports. The e-commerce platform still represents a small percentage of sales but she has “high hopes that the momentum is picking up and this will continue to grow,” she says.

Other local resources available to the Retail Revival participants include Kent State University at Trumbull. The KSU branch, in Champion Township, has provided meeting space for the Retail Revival participants, reports Lance Grahn, dean of the campus.

“We can provide for them not only a place but also the opportunity to come together as a group of business owners for conversation in ways that they just can’t normally do,” Grahn says.

In addition, the campus plans to provide a cadre of university interns to help the retailers, he says. Those interns will provide content for, and even build, websites and offer business expertise. “We are planning to have accounting majors, business majors, information technology majors — even English majors — providing support for the business owners,” he says. KSU Trumbull also plans to provide access to faculty expertise, he says.

The platform also has provided opportunities for Warren retailers to move merchandise that might otherwise sit on their shelves, Holmes says. Five Grands Fashions, which has to buy items in “a multitude of sizes” from its wholesalers, often has a difficult time selling the small and extra small sizes. Using eBay, the store sold several pieces to a customer in California, making a profit on what might otherwise have been a loss.

Duma “is probably one of the luckiest entrepreneurs out of the group,” since his merchandise is has a high price point and items are easy to ship, Holmes says. “Some of the other vendors, it’s a little bit more complex selling larger items,” she continues. Ebay encourages free shipping but “it’s really hard to ship a wedding dress for a cost-efficient price,” she says.

Evaline’s Bridal hadn’t made any sales online as of early June. The store was still taking photos and putting together descriptions, Dubasik reports.

“We have to list each item’s measurements and dimensions,” Dubasik says. “Wedding gowns have so much information.” She also is determining which boxes to use for which dress.

One concern Holmes raises is that the name of Warren is “not out there as much as we thought.” The eBay page declares, “Akron is always open on eBay” and advises visitors of the site to “Shop Akron,” with no mention of the city in Trumbull County, although products from its vendors are featured on the site.

“For the launch of the program, we wanted to create a single destination to make it easy for people to shop and learn about the businesses in the area,” eBay’s Librie says. ”In the coming months, we plan to market and highlight the stories of a number of individual sellers and Warren businesses will be part of that effort.”

“Quite frankly, we thought there would be more exposure with the eBay program,” Holmes laments. “However, the learning experience makes it all worth it.

Evaline’s Dubasik agrees.

“The education and the opportunity that we got has been phenomenal,” she says. “Their goal is to make us very successful.”

Duma also appreciates the tools and help eBay provides, but it will take at last a year’s worth of sales to gauge the impact of the program on the bottom line, he says.

Retail Revival is helping sellers transform their businesses by using eBay to reach an entirely new base of customers, Librie says.

“Retail Revival sellers have shipped to all 50 states and 49 countries,” he says. “It’s great to see local businesses use eBay to extend their reach beyond northeast Ohio.”

Holmes allows that the initiative has been challenging for participants. “It’s taking them out of their comfort zone and it’s letting businesses learn from the best of the best about how to expand the market,” she says.

Pictured: Thum Duma Fine Jewelers owner Tom Duma is among the Warren business owners participating in eBay’s Retail Revival program.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.