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Business

Small Retail Going Virtual

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Harriet Jones
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The rise of the Internet has changed the face of marketing for small companies.  And for some, it’s changed the way they do business entirely. In the second of our occasional series, WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports on one small Connecticut business that’s gone completely virtual.

As any UConn fan knows, the business of sports is big business.  Scott Yeager is showing me round the warehouse of his sports apparel company, Husky Wear.

And the list goes on. And on.

In all more than a thousand UConn themed items are packed into this small industrial park unit in Tolland.

“I started out – I was an English major at UConn. I taught for six years at the Branch. I had a Masters in literature – I was going to be a teacher.”

But while he was at UConn Yeagar had made a little pocket money selling bootleg T-shirts round the dorms, and that experience gave him the entrepreneurial itch. He got licensed by he university to sell official apparel.

“And I started doing this, started wholesaling, Sports Authority, Dicks, Bob’s. And then I got into retailing by having a cart, a kiosk in Buckland Mall. Then they offered me a store for a really good price. So we did the store and did really well. And then they said if you build out, if you hire an architect, we’ll give you a seven year lease.”

Eventually he had three stores, in the Buckland Mall and in Meriden and Waterbury – employing in all 18 people. But as the credit crunch hit, he found he was in over his head. In the end Yeager says, despite healthy sales, he was facing bankruptcy if he didn’t get out of the mall stores. Then he found the answer.

“This is the website, this is the storefront actually, this is what people see. I can change this whenever I want – next one will be basketball, then I’ll do holiday…”

The Husky Wear website had been steadily growing alongside his brick and mortar business for several years – now it was his way out. He lost all of his retirement savings buying his way out of his leases, but he says it was worth it.

“I was lucky to get out of these stores and just have the website. Because in three to four years I’ll be debt free. And the irony of it is the website grows and grows and grows each year, and is a wonderful business.”

His overhead now is about a tenth of what it was in his conventional retail stores. He comes in each morning to his Tolland warehouse and checks his new orders online.

“So I would take these orders over to the table over there and fill them, and I’ll show you how easy it is. So this person ordered a three piece infant gift set, it’s going to Murfreesboro Tennessee, ironically – Tennessee are our arch rivals in basketball. So I would just literally take this and put it in a bag. These are fifteen cent bags, but they’re worth it because they have the website. You give this as a gift, and that person who’s obviously a UConn fan might now start ordering…”

Specialized software helps him print shipping labels, and the orders are picked up by his mail carrier and go out later that day. Now his business is all about building awareness on the web. To promote the site he uses Google Adwords, bidding to pay per click for common keyword searches that boost him up the search engine rankings.

“Pick a keyword. UConn apparel… did I spell it right…Husky Wear, right there – that’s me.”

But Yeager now has about 19,000 repeat customers who come directly to his site. He reaches out to them by email marketing.

“I do a monthly coupon to all of my customers. I don’t plaster it on my homepage, I only reward my customers. Like usually it’s free shipping or ten percent off and that creates customer loyalty – they’re getting something for free every month.”

And as his website business grows, Scott Yeager says he has no regrets about leaving the brick and mortar world behind.

“This web has become the way to go – I finally found the holy grail of how to do this.”

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.

 

Husky Wear worked with the Community Economic Development Fund to gain financial backing for the business.