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Virtual mall aims to help shoppers and physical stores

An innovative idea coming to the area will make it possible to browse through a shopping mall without leaving home.

S*U*N Virtual Mall, the latest endeavor of local businessman Art Lieberman, is still in its initial stages, but plans are for the virtual shopping experience to be open for the public this spring.

The plan is to utilize the latest technology to offer brick and mortar businesses which have seen business decline during the pandemic an opportunity to reach customers through the virtual realm.

Lieberman’s first venture into the virtual marketing came when he ran a virtual trade show in 2010 for campground owners throughout the country which he dealt with through his credit card business.

Admitting that the software at that time was not that good–“it was full of errors and mistakes”–Lieberman said he decided to get out of the “virtual show business.”

Fast forward to 2020. The pandemic hit and Lieberman said that he was contacted to run a virtual trade show again.

“I said I’ll have to see how the software looks nowadays. So I contacted a company who ran a perfect show, everything was just fine,” he said.

“I was driving through Lewisburg and I was noticing that there were stores closing up left and right,” he said.

“The streets of Milton are starting to look like the ones when the oil or the gold ran out in a town. One of every three stores is gone and they’re closing up,” he said.

Admitting that although he does some shopping online, Lieberman said that he loves to shop in stores.

“The only answer I can possibly think of is to have a virtual store. But people do have virtual stores, called the internet. They have websites,” he said, noting that many smaller stores have websites that don’t offer the ability to actually purchase items online.

In a statement released recently, Lieberman stated that statistically shops in local towns were already having difficulties before the pandemic in competing with bigger stores that used the internet to display everything they offer for sale, including photos, descriptions and pricing of items. Shopping at those sites is just a matter of clicking on the item and putting it in a “shopping cart.”

He said he felt that he wanted to help these smaller stores.

“I said if we could only help these people improve their websites but to improve their websites, they’d have to spend a fortune, because they’d have to list every item they had,” he explained.

It was then that Lieberman came up with the idea of helping these smaller businesses to set up a website with photos of their merchandise and the prices, and also offer a live video chat with a salesperson.

Lieberman found a company that offered video chat for trade shows so he told them what he had in mind, a virtual mall with video chat.

“Instead of booths, we’d have stores. Instead of attendees, we’d have shoppers,” he said he told the company.

So, Lieberman began assembling a team to handle the various aspects of putting together the S*U*N Virtual Mall. The name is an acronym for Snyder, Union and Northumberland counties, although stores and shoppers will be recruited from other areas in central Pennsylvania.

The way the mall works is a consumer enters the mall through “The Rotunda” where they register their name, telephone number, and e-mail. At that point they can access a drop-down search menu which lists stores by name, category or the city where the business is located so that customer shop local stores. From there they go to the storefront they have chosen, where they will be recognized by name by the store owner.

“Everything is up on the screen. The whole inventory is on the screen,” he stated.

“It opens up a whole new market, “ he said, adding, “I want to make sure the little guy survives.”

Shop owners at the virtual mall will be charged a monthly fee and are asked to commit to a four-month rental agreement. For more information about fees and to follow the progress of S*U*N Virtual Mall, visit their website at www.sunvirtualmall.net or by phone at: 570-308-7700 ext. 210.

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