Making connections: Rural Nebraska businesses look to the internet


October 26th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – 70 percent of Americans age 18 and older shop online – and that number is only expected to increase, according to a 2012 report from Forrester Research. But to reach those shoppers, retailers and service providers need to have an online presence, and for rural Nebraska businesses, that’s not always easy.

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Their products are sold and shipped across North America. They’re nationally known as collectors of vintage furniture, with warehouses overflowing with tables, chairs, cabinets, chests, bookcases and more, waiting to be sold to the highest online bidders.

But this successful business, known as EarthJunk, is based in an unlikely place: tiny Sargent, Neb., population 522. Located on the edge of the Sandhills, Sargent’s the kind of place you describe based on bigger towns nearby – as in, 30 miles northeast of Broken Bow, or 90 miles southwest of O’Neill.

EarthJunk, located in Sargent, Neb., is home to a variety of vintage furniture, including Tell City and Ethan Allen. Ninety percent of their sales originate online. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

But Sargent’s location in a sparsely populated region is one of the reasons it’s so appealing to Cindee Haddix, who runs EarthJunk with her husband, Jon.

“What we say is we’re trying to rid the earth of junk furniture and sell quality, American-made furniture that people can be proud of,” Cindee Haddix said.

Sargent’s central location makes it easier to ship to different parts of the country, she said, and their overhead costs are much lower. The business started in Denver, but property there was too expensive; here in Sargent, EarthJunk has been able to purchase eight buildings.

A key component of EarthJunk’s prosperity, however, is its Internet presence.

“I think you can earn a good living in Nebraska, but in a small town, you shouldn’t depend on just the locals,” Cindee Haddix said. “And it’s really sad, ‘cause you see so many people come into these little towns in Nebraska, and they’ll open a store, they have the passion and the drive, and they could probably make it if they could just think of one or two products that they could sell (online).”

Charlotte Narjes, program manager with the Center for Applied Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said national research has found utilizing technology for selling products or services online can increase sales by 15 to 20 percent on average.

EarthJunk co-owner Cindee Haddix has been collecting Scottie dogs for decades. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Haddix estimated 90 percent of Earth Junk’s sales originate online; Narjes said businesses across rural Nebraska are likewise turning to the Internet. A homemade vinegar operation in Cody, in north-central Nebraska, uses its website and Facebook page to attract clients from around the country, while 100 miles east on Highway 20, a sale barn in Bassett allows buyers to participate in auctions online.

But there are challenges.

“There’s an educational component of it – do you have the skills within your office or in your business to utilize technology?” Narjes said. “And I think there’s concern by many small businesses, too, even about the amount of money that it costs.”

Cost is the main factor for Jon and Kathryn Schulte, who run Atkinson Family Dental Center in Atkinson.
The town of about 1,200 in north-central Nebraska has limited Internet capability; Jon Schulte says the dental clinic’s current connection is seven megabytes per second (Mbps).

“You would think that’d be fast, but it just crawls,” he said. The pricetag for increasing that connection?

“I was given a ballpark of $700 to $800 a month.”

And that’s not even counting the cost of installation.

According to a recent report from conservative think-tank The Hudson Institute, the Schultes are still better off than the 9.8 million rural Americans who don’t have access to even three Mbps of Internet connection.

EarthJunk owners Cindee and Jon Haddix buy and sell more than just tables, chairs and cabinets. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

On the other hand, more than 80 percent of urban Americans have Internet connections at least twice as fast as the Shultes’.

And for them, it’s not about selling products or streaming movies – it’s about the health of Kathryn Schulte’s patients. Jon Schulte, who holds degrees in computer engineering and business administration, said the advantages of a high-speed Internet connection would be “tremendous.”

For example, say an elderly woman from the nearby nursing home breaks her jaw, he said:

“She couldn’t be transported to the oral surgeon,” he said, “so what we could have done is we could have used our camera system, had the surgeon telehealth in, and we could have had her ‘seen,’ quote-unquote, by an oral surgeon without having to take her 130 miles down the road.”

But Jon Schulte said providers don’t want to foot the cost of upgrading the necessary infrastructure to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas.

Back in Sargent, Cindee Haddix of EarthJunk says getting online is only the first step; even more so than with a bricks and mortar store, you have to be diligent if you want people to keep coming back.
“The level of service online has to be equal to or better than what you would give a local,” she said. “So you have to treat every customer just like they’re someone you live right next to. Your reputation is everything.”

While Internet sales are the majority of their business, Haddix said she’s always looking to lure customers in-person: those who travel to Sargent to buy from EarthJunk directly receive 20 percent off their purchase. She said she hopes those who make the trip will stay a while, and spend some of those discount savings on other Sargent businesses.

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