PEPPERELL -- As the national economy struggles to make a recovery following a nosedive that spanned several years, Pepperell residents and businesses have not been immune to the hardships. While the U.S. government attempts to put the pieces back together, Diane Cronin, owner of the Covered Bridge Country Store, has developed a tool to help a little closer to home. In 2009, Cronin created ShopPepperell.com, a hands-on tool for local business owners to promote themselves in an attempt to help the local economy recover.
"At that time, businesses were still struggling, and still are," said Cronin. "There were a lot of initiatives really around the country to try and promote shopping local and making people aware of the benefits of supporting small businesses."
Cronin, who has a career background in technology, went to local businesses asking them for input on how they could be better supported, and the idea of the website was hatched. With assistance from Windows engineer Paul Keating, Cronin got the site up and running in a matter of months.
The site is designed for use on multiple levels. Businesses with a Pepperell storefront can apply free of charge to have a brief description of their business, their contact information and a link to their own website posted on the page. For a subscription of $49.99 a year, users can essentially build their own website through ShopPepperell.com, writing and changing their own content as frequently as they choose, including logos, upcoming sales and events, business articles and testimonials. Businesses that sponsor the website get a free subscription, and are also listed on the sponsor page for additional visibility.
"That way, you don't have to pay someone to do the development of a website for you, so it really reduces the cost," said Cronin.
One of the primary focuses of the website design was search-engine optimization -- making sure that ShopPepperell.com appears at or near the top of Web users' searches. In order to accomplish this and create what Cronin refers to as a "dynamic" website, the content needs to be updated frequently.
"I wanted to create something that was more sophisticated and not just a simple, stagnant website that didn't have changing information," said Cronin. "To get us noticed out in the region, I really needed to have dynamic changing content, especially on the home page."
Thus, ShopPepperell.com's home page is designed to change automatically based on the content written by the business owners; the more a business owner writes about his or her business, the more often they appear on the ShopPepperell.com home page.
As a recent enhancement, Cronin also added a community calendar feature, which could be utilized for free by any business or organization in town.
"The reason there was to create Pepperell as a destination spot," said Cronin.
Additionally, the site is a nonprofit. Cronin takes all of the revenue generated from subscriptions and reinvests it back into the site, either by improving the technological features or marketing the group of businesses.
When the site first launched, Cronin said it experienced moderate success. Three years later, the site has 96 businesses listed and 24 subscribers. During busier months, the site gets 40,000 hits.
One subscriber, Al St. Croix of the Pepperell Music Store, has been a member since the site launched in 2009.
"Just being a local business and being in the community, I thought it was a great idea and just wanted to jump right on board," he said.
St. Croix said his business has benefited from his membership.
"We're known for our lessons, programs and also sales, so we have noticed we've gotten a lot of customers, and when we asked them, 'How'd you hear about us,' a lot of it is through ShopPepperell," he said.
Other business owners have taken advantage of the free community calendar. The Pepperell Braiding Company posted a notice about their annual yard sale on the site, according to Vice President Tom Murray.
Still, said Cronin, her hope is that the site becomes more widely utilized by local businesses.
"It helps the whole business community," she said. "It's something that is rare for a community to have."