Lake Norman: A shopper’s dream, a storeowner’s dilemma
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – When customers pull into the gravel parking lot of Garden Grove in Huntersville, a staff member typically greets them within 15 seconds.
That’s the goal set forth by Clint Erwin, the nursery manager for the independent garden center that has been selling trees, bushes, flowers and a variety of other gardening products from the same location on Old Statesville Road for nearly 40 years.
With Walmart expected to open a store next year in the Bryton development less than a mile away from Erwin’s store, independent retailers like Garden Grove are hoping to not lose customers to the national retailer known for its wide variety of products, deep discount pricing, and big advertising budgets.
It’s happening across the region, as the Lake Norman area explodes with growth, small businesses are fighting to keep their customer pools from being gobbled up by big box retailers, sometimes moving into the shadows of local stores.
Customer service rules
It’s personal attention to customer service that often sets small businesses apart from the larger mass merchandisers, or so called “big box” stores, that have become commonplace on the American retail scene.
Not far from Garden Grove, at Foster’s Frame and Art Gallery, John Foster also strives to make a good first impression.
“People ask me what type of business I’ve been in most of my life, and I tell them I’m in the people business,” Foster explained.
Whether you call it a personal relationship or customer service, it is an area of the shopping experience in which both he and Erwin feel they have an advantage.
“We go through cycles here in America,” Foster said. “We want that personal relationship and big boxes cannot provide that.“
That’s one reason Donna Bernier finds herself shopping at Pet Mania, a retailer she calls a “mom and pop” store.
“With a small store like Pet Mania,” Bernier explained, “they see I am there and they are more than happy to help me. It’s a nice, high level of customer service.”
Independently owned and operated, Pet Mania is a pet store located in the Northcross Shopping Center, right around the corner from the pet store giant Petco.
Pet Mania is significantly smaller than Petco, with significantly less floor space. But owner Jim Rose explained that he carries much of the same merchandise as Petco, just in not as spread out and not as much inventory on shelves.
“Our little store packs a lot,” he said.“
That intimacy keeps overhead costs low and allows shoppers to easily find what they are looking for, all the while, listening to the sounds of an African Grey Parrot and other birds for sale, no matter where in the store they’re standing.
Erwin agrees that creating a comfortable experience carries weight with consumers, even those simply shopping for fertilizer or dirt.
“With an independent retailer,” he explains, “it’s a small enough area that you’re in contact with the customer more than once, they’re almost within eye contact whenever they need you.”
More than that, small businesses can provide perspective and ambience, Erwin said.
“We have old pieces of equipment and tools, so that you’re experiencing our type of culture while you’re here,” he said. “We’re trying to change the paradigm of business, so that it’s not just about shopping, but an experience.”
Foster and his framing team also understand the impact of the shopping experience, and they believe a change in that occurred years ago, if not decades ago.
“The days when you could go down to the convenience store or the local candy shop,” he said, “we are going to long for those days again. Because we’ve have become so impersonal as a society. That’s not good for our kids, not good for us.
“In the world of Internet shopping, we don’t really have an opportunity to have relationships, and I think at some point we’re going to realize those relationships are important.”
At what cost?
But it’s not just customer service and the shopping experience that motivate the American consumer. As always, pricing matters.
Nearly every week during the busy seasons in the spring and fall, Erwin walks the aisles of Walmart, Lowes and Home Depot, keeping an eye on what gardening products they’re offering – and for how much.
While prices on some items like garden hoses or shovels are often lower at the big box stores, Erwin claims 60 to 70 percent of the products at his store are going to match or beat the prices at the big box.
He also points out that consumers shouldn’t simply compare prices dollar for dollar, but rather, consider the overall value of an item – like its longevity, quality and inherent value to the consumer.
Similarly, Foster feels his framing shop can compete on pricing, if customers are savvy enough to look beyond the big box advertising claims which he believes cloud the market.
“People always look at the number,” he acknowledges. “But what are you really getting for 50 – 60 percent off?”
Foster believes the workmanship and materials available at an arts and crafts store like Michael’s, which has a framing department, can’t compare to what a specialty store like his can provide. He believes that notion needs to be considered when comparing prices.
“All you can do is hope that people would take the opportunity to compare prices apples to apples, when they do shop stores like Michaels,” he said.
During economic downturns, Foster realizes shoppers can be more concerned with pricing, than with the quality of materials used in a custom frame or the workmanship involved with creating it.
“Customers expect a discount these days,” he said. “People are hurting and they’re looking for the best deals out there. They’re like ‘come on, what can you do for me here.’ We understand and we try to help them out a little.”
His response has been to offer discount pricing more often than he’d like to, thereby reducing profit margins and forcing him to operate leaner and cut some staffing.
“If Walmart was opening across the parking lot from me I’d be worried,” pet-store owner Rose said, as one of his store’s parrots squawked in the background, seemingly knowing that even the mention of a big box competitor’s name might mean potential trouble for his owner
“You can’t keep up with Walmart,” Rose said. “They’ve got too much money.”
While Rose hasn’t stepped foot in a Walmart in 14 years, he knows how the retail giant’s philosophy has changed from selling goods made in the USA, to stocking cheaper items, frequently produced overseas.
Not only is Walmart contributing to the problem of fewer domestic manufacturing jobs here in the United States, he said, but it’s also putting independent business owners out of business in the communities in which they open stores.
Rose knows this first hand.
“We had a store in Denver and when Walmart moved in, we pulled out,” he said.
Coupled with the economic down turn, Walmart’s opening in Denver “put a damper on sales,” causing Rose to leave town and focus solely on the store in Huntersville.
That same damper hit his Huntersville store when Petco opened its doors a few years later. Sales dropped by about 40 percent.
“It is what it is,” Rose said with the disgruntled yet optimistic spirit of an unwavering entrepreneur.
“You have to look ahead. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘woe is us’ because Petco or somebody is coming in,” he continued. “I will just cater to the people who want knowledge and want to know more about their foods and want to better their pet’s life.”
Fortunately for Rose, household income levels in Huntersville have helped him survive the slower sales of recent years, allowing his store to continue selling the organic and premium product lines which, he says, set his store apart from the bargain or commercial product lines that conventional retailers tend to offer.
“And we buy local when we can, from distributers in Greensboro and High Point,” he said. “We don’t outsource from all over the country. Our birds and rabbits are from breeders here in NC.”
Another “local” component of Pet Mania’s business model is to create relationships through word of mouth advertising, cross promotion through the limousine company he also owns, a robust on-line and viral marketing program, and involvement with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.
“Sitting on the chamber is really helpful,” he said. “They keep everything local and really try to help the small businesses.”
The work doesn’t end
Owning a small business means enduring a crash course in economics, advertising, management and human relations. It’s way more than the average 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job.
“There are many times that I’m at a meeting, networking within the community, at 7:30 in the morning,” Foster explained. “Then I’m here at the shop all day, and other opportunities at 7 o’clock at night. It requires me to spend lots of hours here.”
But Foster, and his wife who also manages the business, realize complete dedication is required when you embrace the entrepreneurial life and operate an independent business that competes against other enterprising individuals, as well as corporate America.
Without an advertising budget that can compete with the big box stores, good old fashion handshaking and networking are important parts of Foster’s marketing mix.
For Erwin at Garden Grove, he uses the power of big box advertising to his advantage, in effect, letting the big box stores dictate the timing of certain products he brings to market.
“They actually help you advertise by getting your customers who are loyal to you in the mood for planting,” Erwin said. “When people see mums on sale at Walmart, they realize it’s time to go to the nursery to pick some up.”
That willingness by customers to pay a little more, to get a little more, is what Foster believes will keep small business in business.
“My customers want to support me,” he said. “There is a desire to support my business and keep the doors open.”
He hopes consumers will realize the importance of independent, neighborhood businesses, and thinks small business can help end the current economic condition that’s lingering in the country.
“Small business is the fiber of America,” he said. “We have always been a consumer driven economy and we as individuals need to work our way out of this downturn. Government can’t get us out of this on its own.”