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Article updated: 4/8/2013 12:14 PM

Why would a successful web retailer open a traditional store?

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By Jim Kendall

After more than a dozen years successfully selling sunglasses on the Internet -- not just sunglasses but such top-of-the-line brands as Porsche Design, Serengeti, Vuarnet, Bolle and Callaway Golf -- Andy Hortatsos opened an eyewear store in downtown Glen Ellyn.

Why?

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Most retailers start with the store, then move to the web where, at least in theory, the customer base is larger and overhead lower. Why, then, did Hortatsos add the cost of a bricks-and-mortar location, Elite Eyewear, to his selling mix last fall?

First, some background:

• Hortatsos started selling designer sunglasses online in 1998, finding success with his own Shadesaver.com where customers choose from dozens of brands; an online store he still manages for French designer Vuarnet; Shadesaver-branded niches at Amazon.com and Overstock.com; and an eBay store.

• The Internet outlets continue to prosper. Together, Hortatsos' websites have 34,000 repeat buyers.

Now to the "Why?" question. Easy answer number one is that "The store gives us another sales avenue," Hortatsos says.

Easy answer two: The combination of store and office in a nicely busy suburban downtown fits Hortatsos' personality. "I like the face-to-face" of doing business with customers, he says.

But the core reason behind Elite Eyewear is that the business of selling sunglasses has changed, and Hortatsos felt he needed a retail location. Manufacturers' comfort and, to some extent, control have become issues.

"Manufacturers are used to selling into the retail channel, selling to traditional retailers," Hortatsos explains. "It's a mindset. Manufacturers need the store first. The store gives us the legitimacy they're looking for," Hortatsos says.

With Elite Eyewear's upscale look and feel, "Reps love the store," Hortatsos says.

So, apparently, do customers. "Designer sunglasses are a luxury item," Hortatsos says. "My customers buy by brand." The store, therefore, is filled with well identified and brightly lit display cases housed in a casual setting.

Even though Elite Eyewear already has a "pretty good" walk-in business, it's too early to talk about the store's profitability. "We'll see," Hortatsos responds when asked.

For one thing, Hortatsos supports his businesses -- online and on Main Street. Shadesaver.com, for example, is a sponsor of former Fox News talker Spencer Hughes, who now broadcasts on BlogTalkRadio (Internet radio), and Hortatsos has long used a sophisticated approach and pay-per-click advertising to bring customers to his websites.

In addition to dollars spent on décor and atmosphere, backing for Elite Eyewear includes newspaper advertising, active participation in chamber of commerce and downtown merchant activities, and the usual round of local donations and organization support.

Hortatsos does have concerns. Federal legislation passed following the near financial collapse in 2007-2008 keeps banks mostly reluctant to lend. Shipping fees, insurance and other operating costs continue to rise.

Helping balance those concerns, however, is the fact that, Hortatsos says, "I love this business."

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com © 2013 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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