It is a challenging economic climate for retailers big and small. Several recent examples, however, illustrate how small independents are using their flexibility, creativity and personal services to compete successfully against the giant chains.
Several independents are located along a single stretch of The Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut, also occupied by some of the nation's retail goliaths. Three independent merchants, Galaxy Discount Carpet Mega Store, New England Safety Shoe Co. and The Eyeglass Place, are thriving in spite of, and possibly because of, their giant chain neighbors.
Mary's Futons, a store in San Rafael, CA, hosted, "Lie-Down," comedy shows to draw traffic and puff up its image. Seventh Goddess, a lingerie shop in Albuquerque, NM, held a, "Sex in the City," pajama party and plans a men's night for Valentine's Day. Mass Ave Toys in Shelbyville, IN, opts for unique toys that are not carried by the big chains, and establishes relationships with shoppers.
"I want to be next to the big guys," said Angelo Fehratovic, owner of Galaxy Discount Carpet. When Fehratovic moved to the Berlin Turnpike location from Queens, NY seven years ago, he searched for a storefront as close as possible to The Home Depot and Lowe's. The closer you are to the big box stores, the easier it is for customers to comparison shop, he reasoned.
"More people are shopping around," Fehratovic said. He noted that many people thought an independent would be more expensive, but after they shopped the competition, they came to realize that's not true. Galaxy is doing so well that it recently opened a second store in Manchester, about a mile from The Home Depot and Lowe's. Among the retailer's customers are homeowners, law firms, architects and universities, and it is able to provide and install up to more than 30,000 square feet of carpeting in a single day.
Galaxy 's knowledgeable employees offer advice not found at the big chains. For example, "If you're a cat owner, I'm going to tell you that you may not want to buy the Berber carpet," Fehratovic said, because, "cats like to pull on the loops."
New England Safety Shoe Co. has been in operation along the Berlin Turnpike for more than 40 years, selling shoes and boots designed to protect wearers from workplace and other hazards. It carries specialty products that larger stores don't always stock. While many big box stores sell work shoes and work boots, Safety Shoe's owner, Edward Seremet Jr., said, if a customer wears a size 16 or needs a triple E width, it's unlikely that a Walmart or a Target will have them in stock.
Seremet also noted, "We have the biggest selection of ladies' work shoes." For customers seeking a low cost option, the store always carries a selection of markdowns. "You can get a $100 pair of shoes for $50," he said. Because many of Safety Shoe's customers are local businesses that participate in programs that help outfit workers with protective footwear, it operates a shoe mobile four days a week. The shoe mobile stocks as many as 1,100 pairs of shoes and makes regular stops at local supermarkets and manufacturing companies. Unlike many big box stores, Safety Shoe does not offer online sales. "Sizes can vary among brands," Seremet said, "and a safety shoe with a steel toe has to be fitted very carefully."
When Jake Galper opened The Eyeglass Place along Berlin Turnpike in 1971, getting business was a little easier, he conceded. There wasn't any competition. Now, many big box stores have an optical department, Galper said. It's not always easy getting the word out about his business or competing against television ads and glossy advertising fliers, he acknowledged. "Where we can compete is with a much more personal service program and overall price," Galper said. "If you average it out, our prices for a given product are less than theirs."
Over the years, the store has built a loyal customer base. "More than half our business comes from word of mouth," Galper said. "We give people good advice, not just in terms of appearance, but in terms of the prescription and what you might need in the future."
More than 100 people attended the first, "An Evening of Lie-Down Comedy," at Mary's Futons, according to Mary Hughes, owner. She turned her store's window display into a stage, faced by 30 futons. The event not only created sales, but also garnered publicity, which Hughes considers equally valuable.
"Events are cheap publicity," said Deborah Reese, owner of Seventh Goddess. At the upcoming men's night, employees will model the shop's products and serve, "man food," she promised. She also reports that she sold dozens of pajamas at her Sex in the City event, and hundreds of pairs of underwear and bras at a previous men's night.
Natalie Canull of Mass Ave Toys says she knows many of her customers by name, which is one way an independent can differentiate itself from a chain. Customers bring their children in to play.
In Tuesday morning conference calls sponsored by Brighton, a California based lifestyle and accessories company, thousands of store owners from across the nation share money making tips and strategies. "Our goal is to help small independent retailers succeed during these tough economic times," said Laura Young, president of sales and marketing for Brighton, which sells its line of handbags, footwear, jewelry and other accessories exclusively through specialty boutiques. "Every week, store owners are joining us for conference calls and sharing creative ideas that really are working. I'm amazed in every call how people come up with interesting things, and so many are free," Young said. "One of the great things about being an independent retailer is the freedom to be creative and give customers an experience that's warm and personal, like going to a friend's house."
Information in this article was edited from stories in The Hartford Courant, The New York Times and the Indianapolis Business Journal.
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