Mar 04

As big stores move in, local retailers take stock

Small businesses focus on service, performance to survive

Dissatisfied at working for a big-box retailer, Milad Meftah started his own business where he could fill a gap in the marketplace and build stronger relationships with his customers.

While Meftah has found some success and lots of personal satisfaction as a small business owner, he and other local merchants in Gainesville face a new wave of competition from national retailers who are moving into sprawling developments near Archer Road — potentially the biggest reshuffling of local shopping in 40 years, since the opening of The Oaks Mall in 1978.

“I worked for Home Depot as an independent contractor for years,” Meftah said, owner of The Floor Store, a small flooring and flooring installation business inside Thornebrook Village.

“Being able to service a customer in the best way and making them a priority, you feel that you actually accomplished something instead of just being a person on a payroll,” Metfah said.

The retail sector in Gainesville is growing out of the slump from the Great Recession. The monthly number of retail employees peaked in 2007 at 14,875 but fell to 13,176 by 2013. Since then, the retail employee base has rebounded, according to figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which projects it will grow by another 5 percent by 2025.

How many of those new jobs are coming to locally-owned businesses is less clear. There is no readily available data. 

Regardless, just like when Oaks Mall shook things up before, Gainesville’s local business owners are leaning on customer service, distinctive products and building relationships to stay afloat amid a sea of competition.

Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Susan Davenport said her staff works to sell the benefits of small businesses, which account for most of the chamber’s 1,300 members.

“We’re trying to find ways that make them find the success that they’re looking to create,” Davenport said. “I think drawing awareness and helping those businesses tell their stories through different opportunities — that’s one of the fittings that we take very very seriously.”

Davenport pointed to the B2B Expo, where about 80 to 100 businesses come together with booths and “almost market to each other.”

“The public at large can also come in and visit those booths and get a sampling of those companies, who they are and who runs those business — really understanding what it is that they’re offering our community,” she said. “I think small businesses have a huge role to play in our economy.”

Brian Hiebel, a 40-year-old Gainesville resident, said he shops at Ward’s Supermarket to support the local industry. Hiebel values local retailers and shops primarily at Ward’s and Publix, which has a Florida-based headquarters.

“I’ve been an Alachua County resident for almost 20 years and I try to shop as local as I can being that Gainesville is not a big city,” he said, noting he doesn’t shop at corporate stores, like Walmart, unless he has to.

“Even when in big cities, I try to shop local as much as possible. It helps support the locals.”

Saporito, a store that specializes in fresh, flavored oils and vinegars, relies heavily on word of mouth. It isn’t a chamber member and its location in Le Pavillion plaza —  43rd Street Deli and Blue Agave — isn’t visible from heavily traveled Northwest 43rd Street.

“Business awareness is an area that’s a need. We have a very tiny advertising budget,” Katrine Dunn, the store’s co-owner, said. “I like to think of us as hidden gem.”

Dunn started the business three years ago in July. She holds nutrition and cooking classes as another way to help bring in crowds.

“We have met some pretty amazing friends by owning this store and holding our classes,” she said. “We love getting to know their name. That’s something special.”

Dunn said she started the company after she realized Gainesville didn’t have an oil and vinegar store like she and her husband had seen across the country in their travels.

Many grocery stores sell phony olive oils in “pretty bottles” and consumers think they’re getting the good stuff, but they’re not, she said.

And because they’re small and personable, Saporito offers tastings so “the customer knows what they’re getting,” she said.

“The idea is the shopper can come and taste (the products),” Dunn said. “That’s unique and not something that you can do at Walmart or Trader Joe’s.”

Dunn doesn’t try to increase her profits by selling online “because you can’t taste online” — though online marketing has been among the family business’ chief strategies.

Saporito has its own website and Facebook and Instagram accounts, but social media and online presence is tough for many small businesses, according to a study conducted by Manifest, which researches digital trends in small business throughout the country. A total of 344 social media managers responded to Manifest’s survey.

The report showed 26 percent of small businesses surveyed lacked financial and human resources to make social media work for them.

Other challenges included 24 percent of respondents who said their small business lacked formal strategy and and 24 percent who also reported an inability to build a following.

Beverly Clapp, owner of the antique shop The Painted Table in Thornebrook, told The Sun she doesn’t use social media or the internet much to promote her small business, despite other antique shops selling items on eBay or Amazon.

She relies mostly on walk-ins and regulars.

“We don’t do that. Everyone that works here — we’re all over the age of 60,” Clapp said. “We’re old people.”

The Painted Table, which has been in business in 14 years, sells niche antiques. Clapp advertises in trade magazines.

She said new national retailers might be good for Gainesville small business market. “We’re a destination location,” Clapp said. “The developments — if it brings more folks to Gainesville off the I-75 corridor— well, that’s a plus for us.”

Davenport and Erik Bredfeldt, economic development director for the city of Gainesville, agreed.

Bredfeldt said Gainesville is a “small business town” because it has a number of large businesses that do a lot of their purchasing from local small businesses.

He said more people getting hired and coming to Gainesville means more potential customers for small business, though many people already support local businesses, he said.

“There’s a section of our community that often stresses that we’re not a small business type (community),” he said. “But small business predominates. It’s like a community value.”

The chamber works to reiterate this community value, Davenport said.

“As you see the new impetus of new businesses, Archer (Road) retailers perhaps coming into town, we work on programs to help keep top of mind these local businesses as well as smaller retailers, so that they have a voice in a community, a presence in the community regardless of their size.

“I think that’s the beauty of a good sound economy is that we have this great mix. And they’re all growing.”

Saporito is an example of a growing business.

Dunn recently signed a contract with Ward’s Supermarket, one of Gainesville’s few locally-owned grocery stores, to sell their products on an aisle end cap near the chocolate section, which she’s excited about because of the additional exposure.

The fact that they’re local, makes it even sweeter for her, she said.

“Ward’s — they’re renowned locally — and we’re working together, pouring (money) back into our local economy, providing sustenance for local farmers,” Dunn said, while noting that Ward’s has a large following that purchases from its natural bulk food section.

“It’s as close to home as you can get. We support one another in the small business community. Being a small business owner makes you realize how important it is to shop locally and see the value there.”

Back at The Floor Store, Meftah argues what sets his store apart from much bigger hardware stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot that also offer flooring and installation is his ability to keep a competitive, bottom-line price point.

He explained that he can’t sell his flooring as cheaply as a Home Depot or Lowe’s because it’s not practical for him to buy materials in bulk. But he can keep overhead costs low, which levels out his project costs to a similar-or-better price point when compared with his competitors’ costs, he said.

The Floor Store being a small business allows him to complete projects quicker, too, he said, which his customers appreciate.

“My analysis (from customer testimony) makes me believe they’re giants and they move just like dinosaurs,” he said. “We’re thin, mean and green.”

But still, he said potential customers often choose “the other guys,” because they believe they’ll get a better deal.

“Lots of times, people think that shopping local that you’ll pay 10, 20 percent higher than if you go to a box retailer,” Meftah said. “That’s not always the case.”

Contact reporter Daniel Smithson at 352-338-3171 or at daniel.smithson@gvillesun.com.

Permanent link to this article: http://homebiz2bizreview.net/internet-marketing/as-big-stores-move-in-local-retailers-take-stock/

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