Grant earmarked by Rep. Lucas allows OSU Extension to boost digital retail opportunities

January 29, 2024 | Featured|Headlines

Submitted by Gail Ellis | OSU Communications 

STILLWATER – Oklahoma State University economic development specialists have received a grant from the Small Business Administration to help rural retailers adapt to a digital shift in consumer behavior.

June Park, associate professor of design and merchandising in the College of Education and Human Sciences, and Andrew Van Leuven, assistant professor in the OSU Department of  Agricultural Economics in the Ferguson College of Agriculture, teamed up in 2021 to write a grant proposal that reflected the pandemic’s impact on rural commerce. 

Funding for the grant was earmarked by Rep. Frank Lucas in a U.S. House appropriations bill and awarded to OSU in 2023.

Even before the initial lockdown of 2020, many consumers had transitioned to online shopping. While the digital experience is here to stay, Park said most rural retailers are still based on a traditional, brick-and-mortar retail model.

“Without technical assistance and training to help them redevelop business strategies, rural retailers will not recover from the economic impact of the pandemic,” she said.

This grant will establish a two-year program, branded the Oklahoma Rural E-Commerce Academy, to support rural business owners with technical assistance, training and digital retail workshops. Van Leuven said the first step involves analyzing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats present in today’s digital environment to then recognize and emphasize retailers’ custom identities and values.

“Through digital-focused retail assistance, we’ll help rural retailers create a new e-commerce web presence, search engine optimization and social media marketing,” he said.

Another project component will deploy research tools to gauge rural retailers’ perceptions of contemporary retailing and marketing strategies and evaluate their effectiveness in small-town business districts.

Park said the Oklahoma Rural E-Commerce Academy will help retailers increase vitality and reconnect with both local residents and visitors.

“Small-town rural retailers not only create jobs and encourage entrepreneurship but also provide a space that defines the cultural identity of a town,” she said.

As the community and rural development specialist for OSU Extension, Van Leuven manages programming that implements educational and technical assistance to aid rural economies and address the practical, everyday problems of Oklahoma’s small business owners.

After identifying the needs of rural retailers, Van Leuven and Park will deploy OSU undergraduate students skilled in e-commerce web development and marketing to assist in digital modernization.

“This program is a small business development tool that should yield immediate benefits for rural retailers, enabling them to compete in regional and global markets,” Van Leuven said.

 “The accompanying research will provide feedback to continually improve and refine the training and workshops as well as practical, evidence-based knowledge for policymakers and community leaders in Oklahoma and other states.”

The multi-disciplinary team will hire a post-doctoral researcher to assist in training development and outreach activities. The Oklahoma Rural E-Commerce Academy’s primary area of focus includes five counties: Garfield, Grant, Kay, Noble and Payne.

See an in-depth look at how Park and Van Leuven plan to leverage digital marketing for small businesses in the new OSU Extension fact sheet Digital Retailing and Marketing: Tools for Rural Small Businesses Navigating the Digital Age.

To learn about participating in the Oklahoma Rural E-Commerce Academy, contact Van Leuven at andrew.vanleuven@okstate.edu or Park at june.park@okstate.edu.

OSU Extension uses research-based information to help all Oklahomans solve local issues and concerns, promote leadership and manage resources wisely throughout the state’s 77 counties. Most information is available at little to no cost.