Granger Owings has a virtual feature where customers can scan themselves through their phone camera and receive 250 custom-tailored measurements digitally. (Photo by Margaret Walker)

Online shopping was once thought to hurt brick-and-mortar shops, but small business retailers in Columbia are joining in and capitalizing on the online shopping game.

Some store owners say up to 25% of their sales come from online shopping and marketing.

“I’d say for online, … people coming in from online (ads) or buying stuff, I’d say it’s a 25% increase on what we were doing previously,” said David Ashworth, a salesman for Granger Owings clothing store on Main Street. 

According to small business owners, the online initiative ramped up in March 2020 because of the pandemic. It hasn’t slowed down since.

 “A big push started in 2020,” Ashworth said. “I think for a lot of people, up until that point, they weren’t super comfortable doing something either virtually or just going online buying stuff.”

Retailers realized they had to compete with online sites and grow their businesses’ online presence.

An online presence ranges from a website and social media accounts to email blasts and digital advertising.

“There was so much online shopping happening, and we didn’t want to lose out,” said Tracy Wright, owner of Just the Thing, on Devine Street. “We needed to have our own (online) presence and drive our customers to our site.” 

Social media’s role

The real game changer has been social media – specifically Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Different platforms best reach different audiences, said Denise Kim, owner of MyKim Collection on Devine Street. Facebook is a typically older demographic and Instagram and TikTok, a younger demographic.

On Instagram alone, MyKim has 23,000+ followers and posts multiple times a day. 

The boutique’s “high presence” online is key to expanding its reach and growing its customer base, said Caroline Marlowe, a MyKim employee that Kim said “knows it all” about their social media accounts. 

Marlowe thinks MyKim’s frequent posting schedule “contributes to those online orders that we’re seeing from California and from Texas and not just South Carolina.” 

She seems to be right.

“Just this morning, I came in and probably packaged like 10 to 15 things (bought online) from last night,” Kim said. “It’s wherever Facebook puts our ads (that) we’ll get orders from.”

These new virtual sales aren’t always just a one-time purchase. Some out-of-town customers become regular shoppers.

“I’ve been working here for three years now, and this has been a hot topic,” Marlowe said. “Our online sales keep growing exponentially and that’s because we’ve taken the time to make our social media pleasing and easy to navigate.”

Businesses are hiring teams of young people, from teenagers to 20-somethings, to create this kind of social media content.

“We just hired four new girls recently, and they’re all going to have a piece of the action working with our advertisers, our Instagram, our TikTok,” said Jenna Lauttenbach, the primary person behind Granger Owings’ social media accounts.

TikTok videos are a fast-growing trend for sellers and buyers alike. 

“(MyKim) has girls that specialize in TikTok,” Marlowe said. “Their ideas and their knowledge of what’s going on, trending-wise. … It has taught us a lot.”

The boutique has multiple videos that have more than 60,000 views. Granger Owings recently started a TikTok, too.

Adding viral sounds and trending hashtags to videos can help posts attract attention, Marlowe said.

 Videos on Instagram and Facebook are better known as reels, and that’s growing in popularity, too.

“(Just The Thing) has a new girl that’s doing some reels, and we can actually see those items that were shown that day selling that night,” Wright said.

The push for a prosperous online presence is coming from the top of the pyramid, according to Marlowe and Lauttenbach.

Their bosses know how vital it is to capitalize on the online opportunities, and it has become a priority.

Bridging the online and in-person experience

The perks of an online presence for small businesses doesn’t stop at sales.

It’s a marketing tool.

“It’s about putting your name out there,” Ashworth said. “So that when people think of a suit or tailored clothing, they think, ‘Oh, I saw something from Granger Owings.’”

Creating a social media account and posting online is free, too.

But retailers have the option to pay to boost or sponsor their posts so more people see them.

Search engine optimization and geofencing are two other tools that can be used to reach customers.

“We’ll do things where we can target a particular demographic or we can pay on Google to have our name pop up first when customers type keywords,” Ashworth said.

Even if the items posted online don’t get purchased, it’s promoting their product.

“Honestly, you’re making a sale every time you post something – you’re selling it, right?” said Kim. “The girls walk in here and they already know what we have.”

The retailers don’t want to lose their in-person shoppers by growing online. They want them to keep coming in – and bring in more. 

“The link between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar is something companies haven’t had in the past,” Lauttenbach said. 

People come into the store because they saw a post on Instagram, and then the in-person customer service experience seals the deal, Lauttenbach said.

Online customer service is important, too, though.

Being reachable and responsive is what builds relationships with customers that return, Marlowe said.


MyKim makes shipments to non-local customers everyday. (Photo by Margaret Walker)

These clothes at Just The Thing were bought online and are awaiting local pick-up or to be packed and shipped out. (Photo by Margaret Walker)