The little sites are fighting back with some tactics of their own, like preventing price comparisons or offering freebies that an anonymous large site can’t. And in a new twist, they are also exploiting the sympathies of shoppers like Dr. Pollack by encouraging customers to think of them as the digital version of a mom-and-pop shop facing off against Walmart: If you can’t shop close to home, at least shop small.
“Folks are exercising their desire to support local storeswhere local is not just in their town, but anywhere in the country,” said Michael Walden, a professor who studies regional economics at North Carolina State University. “A large number of Americans have a general suspicion of bigness in the economic world — they equate bigness with power, monopoly.”
Lacy Simons, owner of Hello Hello Books in Maine, a small store with an e-commerce site, says she is seeing customers “cement their determination to shop local” — which on the Internet, means shopping at the smaller vendors — even when the big sites offer lower prices.
“We know there’s only so much that we can do to compete against them, so you end up relying on what hopefully becomes an emotional or personal connection with the retailer online,” Ms. Simons said.
The battle between supersites and small online retailers became pitched this holiday season, as the big sites raked in the money. In November and December, the 25 biggest online retailers, including Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com, received 70 percent of e-commerce dollars spent, an increase of three percentage points over last year, comScore said.
Amazon, the world’s biggest Internet retailer, has been the leader in aggressive promotions that small sites can’t afford to match — and has received the most criticism.
This holiday season, Amazon offered price cuts on almost all holiday gifts; it can do this in part because of its size and profits from other businesses, like cloud computing, analysts said. The company offered free overnight shipping on thousands of items, and advertised its price-checking app by giving shoppers 5 percent off items on Amazon that they scanned in a store.
Amazon says it is giving consumers what they want. But the price-check promotion drew special ire; Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, called it “an attack on Main Street businesses.”
It is contributing to “a reputation as a bully,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research. Reflecting that, in a reaction similar to what occurs when Walmarts open in small towns, some consumers say they will not support supersites any longer. But the economics of that decision are not always sound, said Professor Walden of North Carolina State. If a small site is selling products from a national manufacturer, for example, to people scattered around the nation, it has little effect on local vitality, he said.
Dr. Pollack, the Chicago professor, says that even if he is not supporting Chicago retail with his online purchases, he is not supporting what he calls big business’s bullying ways.
Emily Powell, the chief executive of Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., which has an e-commerce store, said she attracts some shoppers with similar attitudes. “People come because they want to support an independent and feel good about it,” she said, but especially in a recession, “you can only guilt people into coming to you for so long.”
That’s where the other strategies kick in.
Some stores respond by carrying exclusive items at their sites. Powell’s Books, for example, offers a subscription service through which it chooses a new book and includes an extra item like a related book or candy — personalized touches that it says big sites can’t match.
Other sites try to play hardball by refusing to carry what the big stores do, among other tactics.