Most shop owners I know have a love-hate relationship with technology. The Internet has changed the game for many entrepreneurs who have set out on their own to open boutiques, restaurants, and other small businesses. It has also forced some to close their doors.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter give neighborhood brick and mortar businesses a puncher’s chance to succeed against big-box stores, chain restaurants, and e-commerce sites. High advertising rates in traditional media outlets have forced many cash-strapped small business owners to turn to social media sites to gain exposure and pull in new customers at no cost. In a matter of seconds, I can post photos of the latest line to hit the shop‘s floor, details about an upcoming event, or my thoughts on the latest trends in men‘s fashion online. The Internet has allowed me to extend my reach beyond the city of Covington and attract followers from all over the area. It’s helped me overcome a limited budget and keep tabs on my growth. In all honesty, it put my shop on the map.

So what’s to hate? It’s no secret that many smaller brick and mortar shops continue to face intense competition from online stores. Large retailers such as Macy’s, J. Crew, and Nordstrom have spent millions of dollars to build online showrooms to boost bottom lines while e-commerce giants Zappos and Amazon continue to grow and expand into new product markets. Additionally, many well-known “e-tailers” such as Bonobos have teamed up with larger retailers to open specialty shops within the retailers’ brick and mortar stores. Shoppers love the concept. Boutique owners? Not so much. If that weren’t enough, the evolution of e-commerce has led to the launching – and boom – of flash sales sites. The number of flash sales sites, which offer time-limited discounts on exclusive and often high-end merchandise, is expected to hit 150 by 2017; and the industry as a whole has seen revenues increase by 50% each year over the past five years. Although growth has slowed somewhat in 2012, many flash sales sites have quickly adapted and now cater to certain niches by cultivating collections that are both appealing and unusual. It’s a win for everyone except, of course, for local shops.

Despite having one-click access to just about any item available, most shoppers – including the majority of young people – actually prefer to make their purchases in-person. In fact, physical stores still account for 95% of all retail and 68% of young people ages 18-25 prefer to shop in stores rather than online for apparel according to a recent study. Technology has certainly made shopping easier but it has apparently done little to diminish a customer’s desire to walk into a store. The neighborhood sneaker shop or corner café has survived over the years because they have become a part of the community. Owners that have been around long enough know what their customer needs before they say a word and remember to ask them about the new job they mentioned the last time they stopped in. The key is the connection. There are many small business owners who are slow to embrace technology or unwilling to utilize it. Others spend so much time worrying that an online competitor will put their brick and mortar store out of business that they stop doing the things that have made them a success over the last 10 years. During my first year as a shop owner, I’ve learned that technology is a tool I can use to my advantage, a tool that can help me compete in the marketplace, and a tool that can help me reach new customers. Making a real connection with that customer, however, is all on me.