For 23 years Bill Rich operated his small business within the walls of a corporate giant.
Rich, owner of The Body Shop at Sears, was a licensed business operating within the Sears Auto Center in Hicksville.
His business benefited from both the Sears name and location for more than two decades, but in late January he was forced to relocate when the Sears Auto Center closed.
“My jaw dropped,” Rich says, recalling when he was informed the location would be closing. He had anticipated it might eventually close given the Sears closings nationwide. “I thought it would still be a year or two down the road.”
With only a few weeks to vacate, he was able to find space within the collision shop he had partnered with for about a decade, Cannon Collision on North Wantagh Avenue in Bethpage, about three miles away.
But it still meant starting over in a different location that lacks the visibility and prominence Sears carried with it.
“Getting the licensed business with Sears was a home run,” says Rich, 62. “It was name recognition.”
But regardless of losing that affiliation with Sears, a forced relocation in itself can be challenging, experts say.
“A relocation is disruptive in many ways,” says Bruce M. Hoch, managing director of DCG Corplan ConsultingLLC in West Orange, New Jersey, which offers corporate site selection services. “It forces you to re-evaluate your entire business model.”
It’s also an excellent time to rethink your marketing and perhaps remarket your business, he says.
Inevitably, Rich will likely see some “downward change in business temporarily from the loss of the associated business from Sears,” Hoch says.
But the fact that he’s staying within his market area is helpful, he says, noting that for most retail businesses staying within a 15-minute drive is optimal in a relocation.
Rich says it’s too early to tell how much of an impact the move will have on his business. At Sears he estimates he saw about 30 customers weekly, with about half of those resulting in business. He didn’t complete repairs, but rather estimated damage and dealt with insurance adjusters before sending the cars to Cannon Collision for repairs. But even before the auto center closed, foot traffic started dwindling once people heard it was closing, he says.
In addition, he said, business has been off for auto body work in general, which he attributes, in part, to less inclement weather and new technology that makes cars safer.
Preliminary data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles show there were 54,725 motor vehicle crashes on Long Island in 2017, down from 65,621 in 2016, according to Alec Slatky, spokesman at AAA Northeast.
But that number fluctuates year to year. For example, the Island saw 60,914 crashes in 2010 and 65,257 in 2015, he says.
“We have to analyze it more before we can say anything conclusive,” says Slatky, noting it’s not clear if the positive trend of fewer crashes will continue.
Whether it does or not, Rich is working on getting more customers to his new location. He’s placed three signs at the old Hicksville location directing customers to the Bethpage location, and sent text messages to 3,000 previous customers and mailers to 2,800 customers.
Both he and Paul Niederauer, owner of Cannon Collision, where Rich has set up shop, are optimistic about their ability to bring back loyal customers and get new ones.
“We should be able to remarket ourselves together and come out stronger,” says Niederauer, who will be doing advertising and alerting customers to the move as well.
Rich does have the benefit of a 23-year history and track record with Sears. In 1995, when he struck the deal with Sears, Newsday reported that it was an experimental arrangement that could lead to the opening of auto body concessions in other Sears auto centers.
Sears spokesman Howard Riefs says The Body Shop was the only licensed auto body shop presently operating within its auto centers, but he couldn’t verify if there have been any others over the past 23 years.
“We greatly appreciate our long-standing relationship with our friends at The Body Shop at Sears and wish them well in the future,” Riefs wrote in an email. “As we do with other licensed businesses, we notified them of the plans to close the store as soon as we could. “
Rich says he had about three weeks to relocate.
Joseph Vranich, president of Spectrum Location Solutions, a California-based site selection and relocation consultancy, says Rich was “unusually lucky” to have found a location so quickly given such short notice.
It could have taken six months or more for some businesses, he says.
Most businesses have to find a new location, negotiate with the landlord and make sure they have enough capital to do a space reconfiguration if necessary.
Vranich suggests businesses make sure they sign a lease with a clause that says they cannot be removed in less than 60 days or preferably 90 days.
He says collecting phone numbers and email addresses was wise to let customers know of the move.
Rich says many of his customers are repeat business, and it helps that he is on a busy street.
“It’s a temporary setback, but I think we’ll come out of it stronger than ever,” he says. “At 62, I wasn’t looking to do this, but on the other hand it’s very exciting.”
At A Glance
Company: The Body Shop
Owner: Bill Rich
Service: Auto body shop