Despite news of national retail closures and Amazon’s expanding online shopping dominance, family-run businesses in Hampton Roads have found that staying true to themselves is the key to survival.
“I don’t think brick-and-mortar stores are going away,” regional Retail Alliance President and CEO Ray Mattes said. “Retailers are going to have to change and adjust to the next generation of retail. They’re going to need to have an online presence; they’re going to need to give exceptional customer service. They need to cater to a niche and create a destination or experience in order to compete.”
Sixteen of the Retail Alliance’s members have gone out of business this year, as Hampton Roads has been slow to recover from the recession, Mattes said. Still, retail, including restaurants, is the second-largest employer sector in the state behind government, Mattes said.
While online shopping continues to grow, it still encompasses less than 10 percent of retail sales, meaning folks are still going to stores, according to the National Retail Federation. And, the NRF says, 91 percent of U.S. retailers are small businesses with fewer than 20 employees.
These smaller retailers can personalize the customer experience in ways that Amazon cannot, said Susan Moore, director of the Retail Alliance’s Center for Retail Excellence. The ability to connect people face to face — via classes or social gatherings using the product, such as knitting at yarn shops — can also appeal to the large millennial population, she added.
“It has morphed,” co-owner and general manager Andrea Lehmkuhler of Point 2 Running Co. in Newport News said. “All the time, I forget that it’s a retail store.”
Point 2 is more than a place that sells shoes, she said. Residents treat it as home base for the local running community, particularly as Point 2 organizes group runs and educational programs, such as a runner’s injury clinic in partnership with Pivot Physical Therapy. It’s typical to see 60 to 70 people participate in the weekly Monday pub run in partnership with the store’s Tech Center neighbor Whole Foods, she said.
Co-owner Glenn Moschler, Lehmkuhler’s father, wanted to open the store because a previous athletic shoe store closed, leaving a hole on the Peninsula market. Plus, running and events such as half-marathons had become the accountant’s hobby.
Moschler understands the importance of getting the right shoe, as a goal at Point 2 is to help people get started and to run without injury. The store offers gait analysis, and staff can help pick the best shoe for various needs for runners.
Lehmkuhler sees the Point 2 decals on cars, Point 2 T-shirts on the Noland Trail and folks at races let store staff know they got their shoes from Point 2. The store started six years ago in the shopping center near Kiln Creek and moved to Tech Center less than two years ago, seeking more visibility and space.
“For me, it’s like a thankfulness that people have accepted our spot in the community,” Lehmkuhler said. “You have to earn it.”
Staff makes a difference
Now there is a waiting list to work at Point 2.
“I think a real important element of our store is the people who work here,” Moschler said. “We have people that work here because they have fun working here.”
Michelle Brumfield, owner of BedCrafters by Michelle, agreed she’s successful because she has the right people on her team — including daughter Jessica Thacker and son Trevor Thacker — who represent her when she’s not in the building. Devoted employees such as Les Young helped her win the Alliance’s Retailer of the Year award this year, she said.
The vast majority of customers come to BedCrafters — with a store at 5227 Monticello Ave. near Williamsburg and two stores around Richmond — because they have been dissatisfied with mass-produced mattresses, she said. The store can design Winndom mattresses to individual specifications and staff can explain to customers what they actually need, she said.
“It’s a very personal purchase,” Brumfield said.
Millennials may like the convenience of online shopping, but they also like quality and value, and that’s where small businesses can compete, she said. The value proposition isn’t in competing on mattress price so much as in getting a good night’s sleep.
The right location
Still, location in retail is key, and that’s why Bedcrafters made sure to have an attorney when negotiating to get its space next to the Starbucks drive-thru at the highly visible Courthouse Commons shopping center near Williamsburg.
Rent can be expensive, but what businesses lack in location, they’ll end up paying for in advertising, Brumfield said. Shopping centers also pay attention to how you market your business, because that markets their center, she added.
“Location means convenience,” Brumfield said. “The world is about convenience.”
And customers aren’t the only ones who can track down merchandise on the internet.
Patrick’s Hardware — a fourth-generation family business at 395 W. Queen St. in Hampton — recognizes it needs to keep its prices comparable to compete with the big-box stores, but then it beats the large chains on customer service, said co-owner Cary Patrick III.
For instance, the store maintains flexibility with special ordering, including online, to find and get what the customers want, Cary Patrick III said. It’s important to stay in tune with customers when most folks come to a hardware store because they need something that day, co-owner Ryan Patrick said.
There’s a lot of low-priced stuff on the internet, but what if you need help in knowing exactly what part to get or how exactly to fix something? That’s where small businesses can add more value with service, Cary Patrick III said.
“To me, it’s your employees. Your employees basically have to be an extension of yourself — think like you, act like you,” Cary Patrick III said. “That’s done through training but also treating your employees correctly.”
For a company that has been in business for 122 years, co-owner and dad Cary Patrick Jr. knows that adapting to change, finding new niches or ways to create new business along the way, is vital. The business most recently got into selling boating and marine accessories and Patrick’s Glass became its own location in 1995.
Cary Patrick Jr.’s advice is not to over-promise but to keep a promise if you make it.
“Treat your customers as family,” Cary Patrick Jr. said.
To help aspiring and existing retailers with business management and planning, the Retail Alliance launched the Center for Retail Excellence and is starting classes on the Peninsula on Aug. 14, Moore said.
Instruction is a hybrid of online learning and cohort meetups with experts speaking every other week, Moore said. Participants can choose to take one class or finish the program to earn a certificate in retail operations, leaving with a workable business plan that is critiqued by financial experts, she said.
For more information, visit centerforretailexcellence.com.
Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com.