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Brick-and-mortar businesses succeed in Iowa as e-commerce expands


This news story was published on February 6, 2012.
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George C. Ford, CR Gazette –

Despite the popular belief that e-commerce is transforming brick-and-mortar businesses into modern versions of the buggy whip, many Corridor retailers continue to derive most of their sales from customers visiting their stores.

Quilters are known to drive hours out of their way to visit stores offering different quilting fabric, patterns and supplies. That kind of devotion has fueled sales for The Cottage Rose, an 11-year-old quilt store at 1048 Seventh Ave. in Marion.

“Eastern Iowa probably has the highest density of quilt shops of any area of the country,” said Deb Eggars, who owns The Cottage Rose with her husband, Ray. “In some states, quilt shops are five or six hours apart. We have a large number of quilt shops within an hour’s drive of Marion.

“Quilters will search out certain colors and fabrics. They prefer to feel the texture of the fabric, something they can’t do with a one-dimensional photo on a web site.”

Eggars, who opened The Cottage Rose in 2001, said her clientele ranges from preteens just learning how to quilt to older quilters with years of experience. Although the store has a web site, Eggars said most of her customers are local or regional residents.

“We have a huge quilt guild in this area,” she said. “I also have people come up from Iowa City, down from Waterloo and over from the Quad Cities and western Illinois. In the spring and summer, we get a lot of visitors to Marion who are driving through while they’re on vacation.

“We’ve had people from California and New York who have found our web site and decide to stop while they’re in the state.”

In addition to quilting fabric, patterns and supplies, The Cottage Rose also a longarm quilting machine used to finish quilts.

“When people get through piecing their quilts, they bring them in and we are able to quilt the layers together,” Eggars said. “With the variety of stitches offered on today’s machines and the brighter fabrics that have been introduced for younger quilters, it really opens up the creative process for a lot of people.”

Eggars, who began designing quilt patterns about five years ago, received international recognition in November. Quilt Mania, a quilting magazine published in France, featured Faded Stars, designed and pieced by Eggars and machine quilted by Joan Dutton Quilting.

“I’ve sent a kit to a lady in Washington state so she can make it the way I did,” Eggars said. “I also recently sent a kit to a quilter in South Bend, Ind.

“It’s a lot of fun to see someone else take my design and make it with another fabric in a different color.”

While Eggars’ customers are usually the end users of her products and services, Alex and Laura Taykor have a different clientele for their Coralville business.

Woofables Gourmet Dog Bakery, 1801 Second St., creates and sells handmade gourmet dog biscuits. When the Taylors bought Woofables from its founders just over a year ago, 99 percent of its customers were local or Corridor residents who visited the store – often accompanied by their four-legged companions.

“Today, about 50 percent of our customers come into the store,” said Laura Taylor, the “Top Dog” at Woofables. “The other 50 percent are wholesale customers in about 20 states and online customers who order our products over the Internet (www.woofablesbakery.com).

“We private label products for our wholesale customers. While some stores in the Des Moines area willingly tell customers that their dog biscuits are baked at Woofables in Coralville, others show on their packaging in small print where they are made.”

Laura Taylor said the need to expand Woofables’ online and wholesale presence was evident before the couple bought the business.

“The previous owners told us that they could see a lot of opportunities beyond the store,” she said. “This was more like a hobby to them, so they really struggled trying to figure out how to put the pieces together to make opportunities happen.”

Alex Taylor, assistant director of the Executive MBA program at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, said Woofables allows he and Laura, who does contract marketing for local companies, to practice what they have been teaching other business owners for many years.

“It’s very scary, but rewarding,” Alex Taylor said. “While we will need to establish a separate bakery to keep up with demand, we will always keep the store because it’s our ‘petri dish’ to test new products and marketing ideas.”

When the demand for private label packaging grew too great, the Taylors turned to Goodwill of the Heartland’s Contract Services division. In the production area at Goodwill’s Iowa City center, workers package the individual Woofables dog biscuits and affix special labels for the customers.

“Working with Goodwill has allowed us to remain focused on baking the biscuits, not packaging the product,” Laura Taylor said. “With the larger orders, we need workers who are interested in completing ongoing consistent, repetitive work.”

Two years after Goodwill opened its Reboot store at 1410 S. First Ave. in the spring of 2009, the brick-and-mortar business selling refurbished desktop and laptop computers and peripherals needed more space. Goodwill Reboot moved late last year to the former Brenneman Seed and Pet Center building at 1500 S. First Ave.

Goodwill of the Heartland operates an online auction web site (shopgoodwill.com), but computers and peripherals are primarily sold to customers visiting the Reboot store. It accepts donations of computers and peripherals at all of its retail stores.

Jason Toms, vice president of retail at Goodwill of the Heartland, said the new location offered expanded store space to showcase computers, accessories and related gear for sale.

“The store features everything from laptops to printers, ink cartridges, power cords and all kinds of games and accessories,” Toms said. “You never know what you might find.”

Goodwill Reboot has become a key revenue source for Goodwill of the Heartland as well as a community recycler and client employer. The organization recycled almost 1.2 million pounds of computers in 2009, a 41 percent increase over the previous year.

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