Expert Opinion: Broadband or Bust?: Pike Place Market Meets the Information Superhighway

Broadband's Impact, Expert Opinion, States, The Innovation Economy June 7th, 2011

, Founder, MIO

The goal of connecting consumers with businesses has remained unchanged for thousands of years. But the manner in which that connection with customers is made evolves with technology, time and culture. Broadband-based e-Commerce is just the latest variation. To understand the challenges that businesses face in developing a more technologically savvy business and the benefits to those that are further along in the process, we surveyed 77 vendors in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a historic tourist spot and favorite local attraction that attracts 10 million visitors annually.

One vendor stated that having a website is “as important as having a business card. Indeed, not having a business website to show people what they can buy is like having phone service without voicemail.” However, of those interviewed, 35 percent don’t have websites. Why? When today, almost eight out of 10 adults in the U.S. are on the Internet, and one out of three adults are online globally. Common reasons are a lack of time; a low comfort level with technology; lack of access to the right resources; and a fear of overwhelming  demand and possible customer dissatisfaction. While those that do have a website appreciate being able to conveniently reach more customers, they too acknowledge the challenges that having a website poses: namely, the time, technical and financial commitment needed to build and maintain one.

The Pike Place Market has a general website, but it’s neither comprehensive nor interactive. Information about vendors doesn’t seem to be current, and its usefulness to both vendors and consumers is limited. Among the 50 vendors that do have websites, 17 are informational and 33 are interactive. And the degree to which websites are interactive varies. Some allow the user to contact the store, but few allow the user to make purchases online. And only a handful are set up to enable the business to easily post updates or push out promotions. Finally, most of the interactive websites are either not updated or don’t make all the vendor’s inventory available online.

Those businesses without fully interactive websites don’t seem to see online retail as an extension of their existing business. Instead, they see it as a separate venture – one they’re not prepared or equipped to handle. One vendor described it as “like opening another store.” They already spend their time running one enterprise and can’t imagine running another one. The goal is to show these vendors how interactive websites are valuable customer tools and an important way of staying in business in the coming years.

In Seattle – one of the most technologically savvy cities in the country – it’s surprising that small metropolitan businesses appear to be as much part of the digital divide as rural businesses are. Apparently, affordable access to broadband isn’t on its own enough to encourage businesses to leverage the economic opportunities that the Internet offers. So what will it take? Based on the experiences of these businesses and the current level of Internet use, we believe that the following practical steps can be taken to help vendors of Pike Place Market feel better about being online and flourish at the same time:

  • • Educate vendors on an on-going basis about the specific business benefits that the Internet offers.
  • • Identify affordable and reliable resources to help vendors create and maintain customized websites.
  • • Provide IT assistance to solve Internet, website and social media problems.
  • • Provide customer service support to manage online orders, questions and complaints.
  • • Offer guidance on how to manage scale. (Most businesses in Pike Place Market are small and independently owned, so they don’t know how to scale up for the demands of online sales.)

One creative and resourceful way to meet these needs would be to develop a student–‐based program (Web development, Web design, social media, customer support and IT) to work with and support the Market’s vendors. This youth move it online program approach would be mutually beneficial. The vendors receive the affordable services and help they require to get online. And students develop the skills they need to become valuable resources for our community through practical experience while also helping to guide the Market into the 21st century. Since the reasons that the Market’s vendors gave for not doing more business online are the exact same reasons given in other areas in our state, MIO, a Washington State‐based nonprofit corporation, is actively exploring how to develop and fund such a program for small businesses in Seattle and in rural communities. We have all the needed know‐how and assets in our state to support such a program.

By building technology skills and providing supervised hands‐on experience through our youth we can increase important workforce skills for our economy throughout our state yet at the same time provide much needed support for this historic market (and other small and new businesses) so they can be part of the digital economy, not just in the future but today.

A courtesy copy of the complete Pike Place Market story is available upon request to angela.wu@moveitonlinewa.com.

Thanks to Abby Islan and Kristy Phillips for their help with this project and the telling of this story.

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Angela Wu, Founder of MIO, a nonprofit corporation, shares facts and figures to inform, educate and connect the benefits of broadband-based applications and services to what people do.

 

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