Selling West Michigan Online

March 24, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The prototype for selling and buying in West Michigan may just have gone online, as SellWestMichigan.com made its virtual debut late last month.

SellWestMichigan.com (SWM) is the brainchild of David Noble, president of Noble Technical Services in Grand Rapids. It’s a classified advertising Web site open to anyone in the region who has something to sell or is looking for something to buy.

Antiques, collectibles, autos, art pieces and homes are just some of the items that can be listed. The site also offers space for garage and estate sales, along with advice on how to list sale items and events. A month-long ad on SWM costs $6.95 and a personal Web page runs $50. Both can be updated daily at no extra charge.

Noble told the Business Journal that the inspiration for SWM came to him when he learned a friend was selling his home in Alger Heights. Stored in the house were a couple of decades worth of items that had all the makings of a good garage sale. The problem was how to market the sale without spending a fortune, and Noble, an engineer by trade, came up with the idea for SWM.

“It really started out to be a garage-sale Web site. But the more I thought about it, I thought that would really limit the possibilities here in that we’d only be looking at, maybe, a four-month window for garage sales,” said Noble, referring to the weather-restricted, garage-sale season that West Michigan is noted for.

“So I thought, why don’t we make it a classified ad Web site that would be a benefit not only to people placing ads, but for those searching for items,” he added.

Noble’s timing might just turn out to be impeccable, because Jupiter Research recently projected that spending for online classifieds should reach $1.4 billion this year, a gain of 16 percent over last year. In contrast, Jupiter predicted that spending for standard online ads would rise by just 10 percent in 2003.

Noble hopes that SWM will eventually become at least as popular as the classified ad sections that appear in daily newspapers. He feels his site has a few advantages over the print version with cheaper ad prices, longer ad exposure time and a bigger reach for his customers.

By the latter point Noble means that a customer in Muskegon can list an ad on SWM and have the potential to reach everyone in West Michigan with that one buy. Using print, that same customer would have to buy ads in multiple papers to reach that same audience.

“I hear that one out of three or one out of four households have at least one computer with Internet access now. I don’t think print media is going to go away, but this obviously is the wave of the future for getting information out in front of people,” he said.

It took Noble four months to launch SWM into cyberspace from his drawing board. The biggest challenge he faced was finding the right domain name among the zillion already taken that would capture the essence of his business and the region it would serve. SellWestMichigan.com was available and Noble registered the name for two years at $7.95 per year.

“The goal was to come up with a domain name that would not just encapsulate the business, but also our area here. West Michigan is a very tight community,” he said. “We spent many days thinking hard to come up with a good domain name.”

Noble then contracted with a Web site-hosting firm for space, rather than buy all the expensive servers and other equipment needed to run an online business.

Customers wanting to sell items should click on “Place an Ad” on any SWM page and follow the instructions. SWM accepts all major credit cards for payment and uses a secured credit-card processing company.

An ad buyer then receives a confirmation of purchase by e-mail, along with a reference number of the transaction. The reference number gives the buyer access to an administration page that lets the buyer change an ad as often as he or she wants during the 30-day sell period at no charge.

“The reason I did that was for people with garage sales. If someone advertises a garage sale, they don’t want people to think that they have a sale after the end date,” said Noble.

“They can modify the content of what items they have and take out the stuff that was sold. They can also change the category from ‘garage sale’ to ‘items for sale,’ and now it becomes a bargain corner.”

Sellers can get free advice on how to list items at the SWM homepage under “Resources,” and they can buy a Web page for $50 a month. The page offers more space for details, which is handy for someone who is trying to sell a big-ticket item like a house.

Realtors, auto dealers, antique sellers, or any business owner can use SWM, as Noble hasn’t limited access to individuals only.

“When they choose to do the more ‘deluxe’ package, I guess I would call it, their ad is placed within everyone else’s ad for free for the 30 days,” he said. “They submit a photo to me and their photo gets on there.”

A buyer can just log on and scroll through all the merchandise available or search for a specific item being sold in a specific area. Buyers are not charged to surf SWM and SWM is not a local version of e-Bay — as listed items are not put up for bid.

“I would never think of competing with e-Bay,” said Noble.

Noble started Noble Technical Services last year in a third-floor suite at 800 Monroe Ave. NW. NTS is a design firm that develops corporate Web sites and produces Power Point presentations, corporate videos and printed advertising brochures.

“I’ve been an engineer since 1990 and I’m quite involved in the mechanical design trade,” he said. “So those types of engineering services are available through Noble Tech.”

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