Independent stores find ways to compete with big boxes
Since it was created in the 1960s, the Route 30A arterial passing through Gloversville and Johnstown has been a double-edged sword for the local retail economy. Most say it has cut in a positive direction, generating jobs and sales tax revenue for the area, and this week’s opening of the new Walmart Supercenter was a major milestone in local development.
Local business people interviewed this month mostly welcomed the new, larger Walmart, though many acknowledged the disadvantages of corporate “big-box” development: that national chain stores’ profits don’t stay in the local economy, that their sprawling beige buildings and big parking lots detract from the communities’ distinctive character, and that they compete with small, locally owned stores in venerable downtown shopping districts.
Local leaders say the Glove Cities need to strike the right balance between the arterial and the downtowns, allowing the growth of the former while promoting, preserving and celebrating the latter.
Mark Kilmer, president of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, is at the center of this balancing act, leading an organization that represents dozens of large corporate entities – including the Walmart stores in both counties and the Walmart Distribution Center in Johnstown – as well as hundreds of locally owned businesses.
“The reality is this is happening, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” Kilmer said. “That’s a result of the free enterprise system. These stores can do as they wish to do, as can the mom-and-pops. And I can certainly sympathize … but I know we’re going to see changes in the world. That’s what we’re seeing – larger and larger big-box stores.”
Kilmer said the new supercenter won’t necessarily present more competition for downtown stores, because it’s not the first local Walmart or the only large discount retailer in the region, so the local merchants have had time to adapt to life in the shadow of the big boxes.
Two direct effects of the supercenter, he said, will be competition with area supermarkets – the old Walmart on Fifth?Avenue Extension didn’t have a grocery section – and competition with the existing Walmart Supercenter in Amsterdam.
“Some people who have been going to the Amsterdam Super Walmart might start coming to Gloversville instead,” Kilmer said. “It could drive more business to the Gloversville region, thus giving local downtown businesses an opportunity to capture that added traffic. But it would be up to the individual businesses to find a way to do that, and that’s going to be the tough nut to crack.”
Small, independent retailers have to be creative and highly motivated to thrive, Kilmer said.
“They have to distinguish themselves from the big-box stores by providing a super service and a super product … something much more individual.”
Two of downtown Gloversville’s most successful retailers are among its oldest and newest – Castiglione Jewelers and Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market.
Kilmer said Louis J. Castiglione Jr., the late owner of the jewelry store at 25 N. Main St., was ambitious enough to draw customers from throughout the Capital Region and compete with the big chain jewelery stores such as those at the malls in Albany and Schenectady counties.
“He found a way to do that by distinguishing himself … by offering a better quality product, more personalized serviced,” Kilmer said. “He proved it can be done, that they would drive 30 or 40 miles to come here.”
Andy Castiglione, present owner of the store founded 84 years ago by his grandfather, Louis Sr., said several factors distinguish Castiglione’s from the jewelry section of a department store, and even from chain stores such as Kay’s or Zales. The quality of the merchandise, the expertise of the staff and the service, including jewelry fitting and repair, are among them, he said.
Castiglione said the salespeople at large corporate jewelry stores don’t have much personal investment in the business.
“They could be selling jewelry one day and hot dogs the next, and it wouldn’t make a difference to them,” he said.
FOCUS ON VALUES
Christopher Curro, manager of Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market, said local merchants should view the opening of the new Walmart store as an opportunity to highlight their unique offerings.
“Downtown businesses have a clear moment to show the contrast in style and substance,” Curro wrote in an email to The Leader-Herald last week.
He has said the not-for-profit co-op chose its downtown Gloversville location partly because it thought that is where it can do the most good.
“Our view of downtown is to create a quaint and special old-world feel while selling high-quality groceries and local products designed for the modern times, to be a social space to sip coffee and view art while offering great customer service,” Curro said.
He said the co-op tries to appeal to all of its customers’ values – not just their appreciation of a good price. Healthy eating, a strong local economy and a sense of community also are important to many local people, he said.
“Where people spend their dollars determines what happens to their hometown,” Curro said. “While downtown businesses must constantly stretch their creativity to meet consumer’s needs, customers are now given a clearer choice than ever to see how their shopping habits have huge ramifications on what kinds of jobs are created and the quality of those jobs, where products are manufactured, grown and sourced, where young people find opportunities and build their families, whether business revenues are reinvested in a community, and the kind of businesses consumers want to vote for with their dollars.”
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
As the owner of a small, independent book and gift store, Priscilla Mitchell says she has to compete not only with Walmart and other brick-and-mortar stores but also against online retailers such as Amazon.com.
“It’s hard to compete with these big stores; the independents have it tough,” she said.
Mitchell said she and her staff at Mysteries on Main Street in Johnstown go the extra mile for customers. They will place special orders, gift wrap for free, search for out-of-print books, and even make deliveries to local customers who can’t get to the shop.
“We know our customers really well, and when something comes in that we think they’ll like, we’ll let them know,” Mitchell said. “I think people realize the importance of the special service they get.”
Walmart, Target and stores like them boast wide selections and deep inventories of things essential for day-to-day living, drawing customers with the convenience of one-stop shopping. Because of this, the small retailers that manage to thrive in small towns tend to specialize in the non-essentials – things people might want but don’t necessarily need.
“The competition is for the disposable income,” said Barbara Johnson, owner of the Parson’s Wife, an antiques-and-gifts boutique in downtown Johnstown. “I always say there isn’t anything here that you need, but take a look around – you might like something.”
Johnson, who’s been in business for more than 30 years, the last 14 in Johnstown, said any small-town shop owner like herself has to cultivate a loyal following. The key to success is to make the shopping experience personal, she said.
“Half of what you’re selling is yourself, not your inventory,” Johnson said. “Greet them like they’re coming into your home … that’s what a small town is all about, and I think that’s what people are hungry for.”
Though Walmart is known for its “greeters,” most people don’t shop at big-box stores for the conversation: They go for the selection and the prices.
Kilmer, the chamber of commerce president, said local merchants can hold their own against the big stores on the arterial by focusing on their specialities and their personal interactions with customers.
“I don’t think Walmart, as much as they sell jewelry, is going to have a person that’s as qualified as the people behind the counter at Casitglione’s,” he said. “They don’t sell antiques … they don’t have a Chris Curro.”
Kilmer said years ago, when Walmart first opened its Fifth Avenue Extension store, the chamber hired Ken Stone, an economist from Iowa State University, to teach a seminar about how to compete with Walmart.
He said Stone stressed the importance of the human element – cultivating great relationships with one’s customers.
“I think most of the businesses that went to that seminar are still here, and they’re doing well, considering the economy,” Kilmer said.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com.