By KILEY STEVENS
As holiday consumers increasingly turn to online shopping, local businesses are doubling down on what they do best: customer service, unique offerings and a sense of community in an attempt to stay relevant in the marketplace.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, NRF, the average consumer says that nearly half of their shopping for this holiday season will be conducted on the Internet. And with the continuing strength of Black Friday and the emergence of Cyber Monday, the online buying spree, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, small businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace.
Taka Andrews, owner of Miller’s toy store in Mamaroneck, gives his customers what the online market can’t: that touch of personalized service. The family-operated toy store, which has been in Mamaroneck since 1948, doesn’t sell its products online and Andrews said there’s much more than just profits at stake.
“It’s important because local businesses support the local communities, and are integral in creating communities,” the business owner said. “To have a true sense of community, you need places to shop and retailers that support those communities to create a pleasant circle.”
Evidence suggests, however, that local communities are instead turning more and more to the Internet for conducting their shopping, instead of shopping locally.
According to another NRF survey, nearly 102 million people said they shopped in stores over the Thanksgiving weekend, while more than 103 million say they shopped online.
Such numbers threaten any small business, especially those that can’t seem to compete with online retail prices.
Patrick Corcoran, owner of Arcade Books in Rye, says websites like Amazon have made selling books a much harder task than it used to be. Corcoran’s bookstore, which has been in Rye for 33 years, offers 20 percent off all hardcover New York Times bestseller books. “Even that is not competing with Amazon,” Corcoran said.
In an age where online giants, like Amazon, have managed to push chain bookstores like Borders out of business, it’s a small miracle that independent bookstores like Arcade can stay afloat.
To be successful, Corcoran says he must stay relevant. “You need to have what the people want, or be able to get it,” Corcoran said. “So if somebody comes in for something that I should have, I can usually have it for them the next day.” Even Amazon’s Prime program, which offers two-day free shipping on most items with membership, can’t compete with that.
Andrews, too, recognizes that a large factor in decreased local patronage may be that consumers have become increasingly comfortable with shopping online, more at ease with technology and less afraid of fraud or identity theft.
“There’s a younger generation of customers who perhaps were raised with the Internet,” he said. “That sense of loyalty to local businesses has waned.”
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, tried to lend a hand with a press conference on Nov. 25 to implore county residents to shop locally at Value Drugs, a family-owned and operated store in Eastchester, among other locations. Astorino encouraged shoppers to get out and take a photo of their favorite store in Westchester, and then post it to social media, using #ShopLocal, to inspire other residents to shop locally.
Though Will Humphries, managing partner of Value Drugs, admits that staying competitive each year becomes increasingly difficult, he believes customers are trying more and more to shop local and that all six of the Value Drugs stores in Westchester, Long Island and New York City will have a positive holiday season.
“Especially in a community like Eastchester, where people feel a community and home spirit, they do their best,” Humphries said.
As far as the future of small businesses is concerned, Andrews believes it’s up to the consumer.
“We’ll eventually all be shopping only online if consumers don’t see the value of their communities,” Andrews said. Included in those communities, he adds, are families, schools, merchants and more. “Saving a few dollars online on everything you buy will certainly spell the end of that,” he said.