These days, most small businesses have a Web site, it seems. Bakeries and bars. Dentists and doggie day care centers. Restaurants and retailers.
The Yankee Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, says about two-thirds of the nation's 5.5 million small businesses have Web sites. More and more small businesses recognize the Web can be a highly effective sales tool.
Andy Fein sure does.
Fein sells violins, violas, cellos, and string basses in his small shop on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. He imports most instruments. But Fein makes a few himself every year. He sells hundreds of instruments a year, at prices ranging from about $200 to more than $10,000. Fein's Web site accounts for up to 90 percent of his sales.
"Before the Internet, our customer base was mainly the Twin Cities and Upper Midwest," says Fein. "Now it's all over the world. We have good client bases in Puerto Rico, Guam, England, all over the U.S. Everywhere really. We have sold instruments on just about every continent, except Antarctica."
“Before the Internet, our customer base was mainly the Twin Cities and Upper Midwest. Now it's all over the world.”Andy Fein, Fein Stringed Instruments
Many people would be wary of spending thousands of dollars on an instrument they can't play and hear first. But Fein says the Web helps with that problem as well because it allows word of mouth recommendations to span the globe.
"People communicate all over the world," says Fein. "We have 800 people who play music who get their music heard though our myspace site. They spread the word. Many have become our clients also."
On his Web site, Fein also posts buyers' comments as well as a list of customers, including former president George Bush, who bought a music stand.
To boost customers' confidence in him, Fein gives customers 10 days to decide if they want to keep an instrument. And return shipping is free.
Many of the other small businesses crowded along St. Paul's Grand Avenue seem to consider a Web site to be as valuable as a phone.
"They're using it for frequently asked questions, for hours, where their location is," says Amanda Schultz, executive director of the Grand Avenue Business Association.
She adds that about 80 percent of the group's members are on the Web.
"We have some who have either created their own programs or purchased programs where they can send out e-mail blasts," says Schultz. "People are becoming quite savvy about what they want to send out."
Wuollet Bakery is another Grand Avenue business won over by the Web.
The bakery takes online orders and will deliver them. But Jim Jurmu, one of the owners, says the bakery's Web site primarily serves as an online brochure, helping customers, especially future brides, plan purchases.
"Just about all the brides nowadays are on the Web," says Jurmu. "So, we've got pictures of the wedding cakes. That helps brides focus a little bit before they give us a call."
University of Minnesota business professor David Hopkins says a Web site is pretty much a prerequisite for any business today.
"There's no novelty in it now," he says. "It's something everyone realizes they must have. Consumers have grown up with the technology, the comfort factor is there. And it is something they expect."
To be sure, the sophistication of small business Web sites varies greatly. Some are very simple, built using templates provided by online services such as Yahoo. Yahoo will host a basic Web site for about $10 a month.
But an increasing number of small business sites are custom-built to meet the needs of a business. Many retailers, for instance, want to be set up to sell goods online. A professionally-designed site can cost hundreds --or thousands-- of dollars.
"There are a ton of options and the pricing ... you pay for what you get," says Pat Kallemeyn, one of the owners of the Saji Ya Japanese restaurant in St. Paul.
Kallemeyn says Saji Ya's owners felt it was worth the money to be on the Web because that's where people look for answers.
"For every phone call that's coming in saying, 'I'm hungry I want to order some stuff off your menu. Can you explain your entire menu?' It's a Japanese menu, with about 500 things on it. You say, 'Hey, hit the Web page and call back when you know what you want.'"
Kallemeyn says the Web also allows him to better measure how effectively he spends marketing dollars. The Web site, for instance, helps him gather e-mail addresses. He can use the addresses to send out special offers and then see how much business the e-mails generate.
"It's the best direct voice I have to my customers, other than just having them come in and having me say, 'Thank you,'" says Kallemeyn. "It's something I would never give up."
Nor would Andy Fein, not with the boost the Web gives his instrument sales.
It's made his business into a world-wide enterprise.
"It has," he laughs. "And this is the world headquarters."