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Amazon’s free shipping offer puts pressure on SLO businesses

Posted at 7:15 PM, Dec 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-01 23:41:41-05

Shoppers often spend the days after Black Friday searching for discounts on presents and through retail giants like Amazon, savings often come in the form of free shipping. But that new customer expectation is putting the pinch on small local businesses.

Blackwater, a designer boutique in Downtown San Luis Obispo, prides itself on offering high-end apparel and small-town charm with each sale.

“We just establish a personal relationship with them, know what fits them, what brands they like,” Blackwater Manager Nicole Huffman said.

Blackwater splashed into online sales a few years back, drawing in customers around the globe. But unlike the stylings shipped free-of-charge by Amazon, Blackwater tacks on a postage fee.

“Somebody still has to pay for the shipping, it’s either us or the customer,” Huffman said.

While Blackwater does offer free shipping on purchases over $50, along with personalized notes in each shipment, it can’t compete with the free shipping that Amazon’s come to be known for.

Power sellers like Amazon can offer free shipping on just about anything because its inventory and customer base are so big. But many local shop owners say that customer expectation is tough to meet.

“We’ll take a hit often on shipping,” Scott Smith, the owner of Central Coast Surfboards, said.

Smith’s shop offers competitive pricing and shipping on surfing equipment and apparel but those discounts come out of Smith’s pocket.

That’s why Smith keeps his focus on sales in-house, offering special grab bags for customers who make in-store purchases.

“We’re here for San Luis Obispo, we’re here for our customers in town and the focus is customer service.”

But for Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Pismo Beach cyber sales can be their bread and butter.

“Online sales, especially during the holidays, pick up pretty fast,” Emily Liles, a cashier at Old West, said.

Because orders are typically inexpensive, between $10 and $40, the shop can’t afford to eat the shipping costs.

“We have the medium box holds up to 12 rolls for $13.65,” Liles said. “People think that’s for the whole order, but then you have to add on the cost of the product.”

Liles said customers sometimes bristle at the total, but typically go ahead with the purchase.

For these local businesses, the battle against big retail bosses is a tough fight, but they say the connection with customers keeps them in the game.