Call it a retail revival.
After getting crushed by big-box stores during the 1980s and 1990s, mom-and-pop shops are enjoying something of a rebirth among U.S. consumers.
Thanks to a little thing called the internet and the ubiquity of computing devices, consumers don't have to settle for more commoditized versions of their groceries, clothing or housewares. Between the corner coffee shop selling its dark roast across the U.S. and cheesemongers detailing the delights of Rogue River Blue to out-of-state shoppers, consumers can access the neighborhood store even if they move.
"Being online gives shops the opportunity to reach the world rather than just the tourist trade and local shoppers," says Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst at the Port Washington, N.Y., market researcher NPD Group. "Mom-and-pops have reached out and are using online in a real way that works."
While the internet has long promised to serve as a vehicle for democratizing industries like retail, that appraisal is only now starting to add up.
Online sales accounted for 5.2 percent of total retail sales in the third quarter of 2012, according to the latest reading from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which tracks the category. That was up 17.3 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. By contrast, total retail sales over the period rose by only 4.6 percent.
"You have a whole generation of people brought up on the internet," says Richard Sylla, an economics and entrepreneurship professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. "I remember I had students saying you should check out Amazon."
So while the days of being able to walk to the local butcher shop for your meat, the produce guy for veggies and the bakery for a loaf of rye may be over forever, that relationship -- along with the kind of customized service prized by smaller shops -- is still available today. And as consumers' appetites for small-store goods grows, so too are the companies' footprints.
Not only did Etsy recently give more than 100 online shop owners an opportunity to showcase their wares in real life at the store's holiday pop-up shop in New York City, six-year-old online men's clothier Bonobos announced in April that it would sell its line to retail-powerhouse Nordstrom.
Similarly, the once online-only glasses-maker Warby Parker this year expects to open up its first wholly-owned retail location in Manhattan. The three-year-old outfit has experimented with other physical-retail concepts including: pop-up shops, showrooms in select cities and even a mobile-sales vehicle, fashioned out of a yellow school bus.
So why the shift to offline? "We expect that online sales to take share overtime," says Warby Parker co-founder David Gilboa. "But if the vast majority of people who buy glasses do so through brick-and-mortar stores, it makes sense for us to cater to them."