Online Sites Showcase Local Items
CORNING, Iowa - Larry Badgett and his wife, Isako, live at the end of a long gravel road that cuts through the rolling hills of Adams County.
It's a quiet spot, far enough from neighbors and from town that the rumble of a car over the dirt can mean only one of two things: Someone is visiting, or someone is lost.
For an entrepreneur like Badgett, who makes intricate wood carvings from trees he cuts down and mills on his own property, it's not exactly a high-profile location - but that's not stopping him from making sales.
Sometimes, he travels hours to set up a table at a craft fair or gun show. But these days, he's also doing business without leaving home.
The retired manufacturing worker is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs and artists turning to websites that feature products made in a particular state or region. From artwork to candles, cookbooks, jewelry, jam and salad dressing, online marketplaces based in Iowa and Nebraska are multiplying in number and attracting customers from outside of the Midwest and, in some cases, outside of the United States.
One of the largest is GROW Nebraska, a nonprofit marketing and training group that operates a website and three retail shops in Kearney, Grand Island and Norfolk.
Buy Iowa Online, the site where Badgett sells his woodworking creations, was launched in 2009 by the Southwest Iowa Coalition, an umbrella group for economic development organizations in a 22-county region of the state. Two years later, the site has 39 sellers and is poised to go statewide.
Lynn Adams, the coalition's director and an economic development specialist with the Iowa State University Extension office in Red Oak, said an online marketplace was a natural fit for southwest Iowa, a primarily rural area where there are plenty of people who want to start small businesses - but not necessarily the traffic or the resources they need to get started.
Many of the sellers who use Buy Iowa make and sell their wares as a second job, she said, so convenience is important.
"It's very difficult when people are trying to supplement their incomes and work another job," she said.
Badgett, who designs his creations with the help of a computer program - helping him map out carvings ranging from a cowboy on a horse to da Vinci's "Last Supper" - said he knew selling online was probably a good route but couldn't do it all on his own.
"I didn't want to take the time and effort to keep up and maintain a website, and this made it so I didn't have to," he said.
Diane Allen, who lives in Elk Horn, Iowa, has been making jewelry out of old silverware for nearly 15 years. She's traveled to out-of-town craft shows and marketed her bracelets and necklaces in local stores, but both of those approaches have come with challenges: hotel and gas expenses, surprise snowstorms in the winter, shops that go out of business.
Allen frequently buys and sells antiques on the online auction site eBay, so when she heard about Buy Iowa Online, she said it sounded like a good fit.
She did well over the holiday season, but sales since have dropped off a bit. Still, Allen said she'd like to see the site keep growing and she plans to keep her products - marketed under the name Park Street Boutique - online.
"You've got to keep looking for the next opportunity," she said.
Sellers on Buy Iowa Online set their own prices, and the organization takes a 10 percent commission. That money goes back into running the website and helps pay for entrepreneur training programs.
Buy Iowa Online recently revamped its website, and Adams is hoping that upgrade, along with more advertising and outreach - the group plans to run in-person workshops with entrepreneurs around the state - will help boost traffic on the site and overall sales. By the end of the year, Buy Iowa Online aims to double its number of active sellers.
Other online retailers of local products have similar sales models, with some variations.
When GROW Nebraska started eight years ago, it primarily sold gift baskets. But over the years, it expanded its reach to include about 2,000 products made by about 120 Nebraska entrepreneurs and artists.
People who want to sell their products on GROW Nebraska's website pay an annual membership fee and the organization takes a commission on all sales.
Janell Anderson Ehrke, the group's CEO, said members run the gamut from serious businesspeople to retirees looking to share the products of their hobby.
Sales have increased every year, and now most involve out-of-state buyers.
"We're hoping this will be a banner year," she said.
In Schleswig, Iowa, Heather Crosetti and her fiance, Dave Cotton, are in the first stages of building their online business, It's Made in Iowa.
The website has been around for a couple of years, but the couple just bought it in May. Currently, the site has about 25 vendors from all over the state, who pay $25 to help cover web maintenance costs and then sell their products directly to Crosetti and Cotton.
For now, it's a second job for the pair. But Crosetti said she's hopeful that she can build the site into something bigger. In addition to items from individual producers, she hopes to partner with some of Iowa's larger companies and become a go-to retailer for corporate gifts made in Iowa.
"Our goal is to not be gigantic, not to create $300 gift baskets, but to really go out and find all of those treasures that are made in Iowa," she said. "We want to find people who are passionate about their products, and say, 'Hey, support these people.'"
Connie Mahaney, who has run the From Nebraska Gift Shop since 1988, said it's clear people are interested in locally made products.
Her shop has had several locations in Omaha and Lincoln - where it's now located at 8th and Q Streets - and she said she's always taken note of the way people shop when they're in the store. She sells many locally made products but also offers Nebraska-themed gifts, like souvenir spoons and Husker gear, that aren't produced in the area, or even in the U.S.
"We see people that will take something off the shelf and turn it around to see where it's made," she said.
Mahaney has run a website for the store for several years, but it makes up only a small part of her business.
She's taken note of the many similar websites that have popped up over the years and said it can create competition. The bottom line for anyone entering the business, she said, is that the stuff they sell needs to be good - not just local.
"Just because it's made in Nebraska does not mean people are going to buy it," she said.
Story by: Erin Golden of the Omaha World-Herald