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The Small Business E-Commerce Edge

Whether it be the “Netflix of Fashion,” the “Amazon of China,” or the “Google of Russia,” startups often sit in the shadow of their megacompany counterparts until they define their own distinct audience.

In the meantime, they’re happy to leverage that branding as a convenient way to “shorthand” to their potential customers what they do.

Take, for example, the specialty, “farm-direct flowery delivery service” Flower Muse recently featured in Fortune and Forbes. Co-founders and husband/wife pair, Ben Creighton and Ellie Hsu say they want to be the “Zappos of Flowers,” but with a small business touch. Zappos built its business reputation on strong relationship marketing and 24/7 customer service, and that’s what this small retailer set out to mimic.

As it turns out, just like e-commerce has disrupted traditional brick-and-mortar retail, the floral industry has been uprooted by the massive online flower distributors such as 1-800-Flowers or ProFlowers.com. And those “Ma and Pa” specialty flower shops that once existed in every small town downtown, or on every major corner of every city neighborhood, have wilted and died over the years.

But there are two aspects that are often lacking with most online flower delivery services: true personalized customer service and customization.

That’s where Flower Muse would like to give new life to the industry. As explained in its mission, the farm-direct company offers a novel service that fits in into the trendy farm-to-table type of philosophy that’s appealing to millennials. This time, unlike at the “big-box” online flower services, or at the grocery store florist, it’s bringing farm-fresh flowers directly from their own farm partners to the customer. This delivery method eliminates the warehouse delay or retail lag that prevents customers from getting the freshest options, the company claims. In the traditional flower business, farmers work with importers who sell to wholesalers who then sell to the retailers; Flower Muse cuts out that middleman.

“There hasn’t been investment [in the flower space] for long time,” Creighton told Fortune. “It’s really controlled. There are four big companies that dominate the consumer mindset, and they’ve been happy there’s no one else.”

Even with the bouquet of online flower service options, the small business owners saw a hole needing to be filled. So they took the timely business of flower delivery and turned it online, but with a personalized touch that consumers once got in store. Someday another florist may say they want to be the “Flower Muse” of their own company. The founders understand they aren’t going to be the next billion-dollar business, but most small-business owners never aim to be. In 2014, Fortune reported Flower Muse brought in “several million.” Not so small anymore.

In a time when small retailers are shuttering and Main Street has become a cluster of chains and strip malls, places like Flower Muse have shown if a retailer can mimic what attracts consumers to local, specialty shops and recreate that experience online, then the e-commerce space doesn’t have to be reserved for the Amazon’s or eBay’s of the world — or even the Zappo’s (which is owned by Amazon).

Flower Muse stands out as an example of one startup business that can take on the e-commerce giants, and they did it on their own. But for most startups to succeed, they need serious backers for funding, but the local online flower business sidestepped that route since the owners didn’t want to give control to investors who didn’t understand the business.

“What makes a really good product?” Hsu posed the hypothetical question to Fortune. “When it comes to flowers, people really don’t know.”

Flower Muse leaves it to the experts: Themselves and their dedicated, handpicked global group of famers. Ben and Ellie know flowers, they know their business and they know how to connect to customers. Have a question? They’ll respond personally online or by picking up a customer’s phone call. Try doing that on any major e-commerce site (cue waiting music). Free delivery? They’ve got it, and you don’t have to have a threshold amount to hit to qualify. DIY Tips? They offer those, too. And you know exactly where your product is coming from, because Flower Muse uses farmers they know personally who have certifications like Rain Forest Alliance certification and Fair Trade certification, etc.

Examples like Flower Muse certainly suggest there’s room for small businesses to succeed online, maybe even giving birth to a whole new category of “Ma and Pa” retailer – online. Eliyahu Federman, senior vice president of the online retailer 1Sale.com, gave his perspective in a Retail Online Integration article about why some mom and pop shops have a good chance of making it online.

“The barrier of entry is low. Starting an online business is easy,” he wrote. “Nonconventional marketing like social media reduces the cost of conventional marketing such as print, billboards, and radio. Many small online sites are hosted on existing marketplace platforms like eBay, completely eliminating the cost of even creating a website or advertising.”

Without a lot of overhead or pricey real estate, businesses save a ton of money right out of the gate, Federman explained. Small businesses also have the chance to reach a much larger audience than its neighborhood demographics allow. While large retailers like Amazon, eBay or Overstock have massive online inventory options, there’s still a wide customer base that appreciates a personalized, slimmed down model of shopping. And that’s what online small businesses have tapped into: the tailored customer experience that can curtail its inventory to more unique and exclusive brands.

What else has helped? Better e-commerce options that are being formed to help small businesses grow without investing in the systems themselves. More than ever, every small business can provide the major e-commerce experience on their small business budget as there’s more partners in the space to help build the businesses’ online side. As more affordable software technology innovations pave the way for online retailers to connect with a larger consumer base, the barriers that once kept small businesses offline have been reduced.

“Small businesses can partner with companies that will help them get access to very high quality commerce infrastructure,” said Harish Abbott, CEO and co-founder of Symphony Commerce, an e-commerce solution provider. “Orders taken on site get fulfilled in real time, they have very high-quality return processes, and the various components within the entire system talk to each other.”

For years, e-commerce critics have feared what it would do to local, specialized mom and pop shops. Sure, with Flower Muse, consumers can’t walk down the street and into a storefront, but they can get a similar experience online. It seems the market for small business entrepreneurs who want to set up shop online isn’t dead. In fact, for cases like Flower Muse, the opportunity to thrive in the space seems to be blooming.

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