Old-guard local economy players avoid Web, overlook wider horizon

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Many small business operations like some of these on Brainerd Road in Chattanooga rely on word of mouth, physical presence and phone and Web yellow page listings to generate new business. Might the Web help?

I’m trying to figure out where my ideas about local economy are mistaken. Am I wrong to think of local economy as struggling against the national economy overseen by Ben Bernanke and his feckless ward, our dear Uncle?

I conjure in my mind’s eye that Christianity prospers best in a horizontal setting of liberty rather than in a vertical setting of the political economy, as depicted in the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill? Am I a simpleton, a goof whose understanding is a badly drawn cartoon and whose ideas have no capital value?

The sense that I am mistaken came at me sharply the other day when I spoke with the past-60 co-owner of a local business.

I introduced myself to her as a writer for a local website that I might be interested in a story about her family business. I got the sense of being someone on the wrong planet. “We don’t use the computer,” she told me. And therefore, whatever I did on a computer made no difference to her. She accepted my business card hesitantly.

“Don’t you think using the Internet would be a good way to find new customers?” I asked.

“We get new people in here every day,” she said, cautiously. I secretly doubted her.

Later in the day I rang her establishment, having discovered numerous negative reviews about her business on the Web. The young woman who answered asked if I had visited earlier in the day, and said she would pass on my name and number. No call.

The next day I rang, asking first for the family name. The lady on the phone, identifying herself as the owner’s wife, would not give me the family name. “We don’t give that out,” she said. “Everyone knows [my husband],” she said.

“I’m sure everyone does, but not me. I haven’t had the pleasure of having met him.

“You are the man who visited yesterday?”

Yes, I replied.

“I gave him your card,” she said sweetly. “We are not interested and I don’t think there is anything we can do for you.”

“Ma’am,” I said. “I’m not calling about anything you can do for me. I am calling about you and what I can do for you. Do you know there are negative things said on the Internet about your business? Are you aware of that?” I felt sure this information would give me access.

“Yes, I know. There are always complaints. That’s just what happens in business,” she said. I held in my hand a printout of the reviews. One said: “I’m seriously doubting coming back because I don’t have any sense my patronage is appreciated,” one said, “or, hell, at this point, am I invisible?”

“Well, ma’am, it would be good to talk with me to see what can be done to undo the damage. I think I might have an idea of what to do.”

“Well, we’re not interested,” she repeated. She was getting irritated and doing her best to be gracious to me.

No interest in Web potential

If I care so much about local economy, why should I make such an effort to interest this 40-plus year-old outfit in the worldwide Web? Every small shop in Chattanooga should have a website, or a webpage, and be findable there, one would suppose. My speculations in this direction could  strongly enhance local economy using the decentralizing power of the Internet.

You’ve read my suggestions as to how the Times Free Press could have launched a potentially profitable program to create scores of small business websites, then provide the newbies with socially connected news and other sites it supports. I proposed the use of a locally developed (but incomplete) automated local ad placement software.

While I was employed in the Times Free Press newsroom, I thought about the Internet and how to help the newspaper fully account for it. I made theoretical pitches for supercheap websites to people in several small businesses. “If the Times Free Press came to you and said we’ll build you a F$199 website, would you want one?” I asked. A hair salon operator who subscribes to the newspaper said yes. The owner of a Marine repair shop said he’d be interested. But a woman in an auto glass shop rejected the idea. “That’s just not anything I care anything about,” she explained.

People past 50 are often likely to refuse such suggestions. They are unfamiliar with the Web, or use it in a very narrow or shallow way. They don’t see how it could be an inexpensive way of being found by customers and gaining clientele. The Web revolution has passed them by, and they don’t care.

Serving the tiny shop

My business idea is for an enterprise to commit to local economy and find a way to profitably serve the tiny local advertiser invisible to any commission-based ad sales department. To accomplish this goal, that enterprise would need to consider itself a utility and put every small business in Chattanooga on the Web just to get them started.

Such a program would seek to build a relationship with the small shop overlooked in  the existing scheme of publishing. I theorize the Times Free Press could have exploited this bevy of new sites by becoming an ad broker. It would channel these sites’ ads to every local website and blog with a Chattanooga focus. Multiplying stacks of local-only ads across websites visited by Chattanooga-area people would give these small shops access to customers. For its part, the newspaper company would generate cash flow as middleman and utility, the enabler of relationships on the Web.

But how could such a program have worked, given the recalcitrance of the older generation, its skepticism or disdain of the Internet? My enthusiasm for the idea of local economy fails to take into account the backside of the bright thing I admire.

Using Web to enhance local economy

One thing I like about the local shop is that it a livelihood for a local family, it not being part of the economy “those people” (as Gen. Lee called the invading Yankees) command. Its origins are in the county, in the province. Hoorah. But provincialism is also narrow, unenlightened, stuck in its ways, uninformed.

Why reject the Internet when it can bring customers? Why avoid making a website or webpage when it can bring new fans, friends and visitors to your shop? Cannot a website help build loyalty and repeat business with real people, real local people? The insularity and provincialism that I espouse has a down side I have overlooked, one that age makes more brittle and more uncompromising.

This realization comes to me at the same time that I have encountered a local figure who is ahead of me, living out my high-falutin theories about local economy. While I am busy marshalling arguments for lococentrism, she is actually putting them into practice daily. Please check back.