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Small LI retailers seek to offer what the internet can’t

Eager to compete with online retail giants, some merchandisers on Long Island are offering shopping experiences with a personal touch.

Rich Parla, co-founder of Legendary Realms Games in Lindenhurst, which hosts 30 gaming events a week, talks about the store's goal of forming long-term relationships with customers. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

Small retailers on Long Island are facing the challenge of online shopping by offering products and services that can’t be easily matched by a website.

The businesses range from a gift shop in Port Washington that offers the atmosphere of an old general store and the convenience of concierge shopping, to a game store in Lindenhurst that gives customers the chance to play games with other enthusiasts at 30 events per week.

These small retailers said they can’t compete with online giants on price, but they have the ability to establish long-term relationships with customers.

Online competition “is there, we cannot combat it,” said Courtney Funk, co-owner of Legendary Realms Games in Lindenhurst. But she said dedicated gamers “have a lot of loyalty to us.”

Customer loyalty is helping many small businesses thrive, said Marshal Cohen, retail analyst with The NPD Group, a Port Washington-based market research company.

Personal service, “better assortment” of products “and the customer relationship all help challenge the online model,” Cohen said.

Last year, 108.5 million Americans shopped online on Black Friday, while 99 million went into stores, according to statistics compiled by the National Retail Federation, a trade association based in Washington. The prior year, the proportion of online and in-store shopping was about even.

“The online shopping trend is here to stay,” said Ana Serafin Smith, senior director of media relations at the federation.

An NPD Group survey shows U.S. consumers expect to do nearly 40 percent of their 2017 holiday shopping online, up from one-third just two years ago.

And while consumers still spend more in brick-and-mortar stores, online retail sales are expected to jump 13 percent, year over year, while the overall market will grow 4 percent, said Chris Christopher, an executive director at industry analysts IHS Markit.

“It’s a tough landscape, and smaller businesses should be nervous,” he said. “The clicks are outpacing the bricks.”

Still, mom-and-pop businesses can do plenty to compete, small business and retail experts on Long Island said.

“All hope is not lost, absolutely not,” said Thomas Shinick, an adjunct professor of marketing and management at Adelphi University and Nassau Community College in Garden City.

Small businesses should be collecting emails, marketing on social media and offering expert opinions on their industry online, Shinick said.

“Also, offer special services,” he said. “I go to a local bicycle store that’s a little messy, but I don’t care. He will talk to me, he will fix whatever I need fixed because he has all the parts, and he doesn’t charge me, because he knows who I am.”

Businesses such as clothing and wine stores can highlight products that separate them from larger competitors, said Anne Hamby, a marketing professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead.

For instance, “Is the clothing store importing clothes from somewhere special? Or is the business owner’s friend designing some of the clothes?” Hamby said. “There must be a unique angle. Tell that story.”

Local stores also have the advantage of offering “more in-depth consultation,” she said. “If I walk into a small store and tell them that I have a friend and I have no idea what to get them, they should be able to ask questions, talk to me and help me.”

Serafin Smith said larger chains are also pushing more personalized services, although “they haven’t been as quick to adapt.”

The profiles that follow show five Long Island businesses seeking ways to offer what online shopping can’t provide.

Wit & Whim

“Everything in my shop has a story,” said Laurie Scheinman, owner and founder of Wit & Whim, a 5-year-old gift store in Port Washington.

Scheinman, 54, who juggles her practice as a child and family therapist in Williston Park with her second career as a retailer, said she seeks to give shoppers the feeling that they are on holiday and have wandered into a shop reminiscent of an old-time general store.

“You go on these great vacations to Maine or Canada that have these handmade or vintage items,” she said. “We [choose] goods in the store to replicate a vacation spot.” Her store offers a wide array of gifts, including jewelry, scarves, pottery, glasses and handbags, some new, some vintage.

For those who can’t come to Port Washington to tour the shop, the store offers a concierge service. Shoppers can call or email, describing details about the recipient. The concierge then emails pictures of items for consideration.

The store, which does about 29 percent of its sales during the winter holidays, also has a social mission, describing itself as the “little shop with the big heart.” Scheinman said she doesn’t take a salary and all profits go to charities that rotate monthly. — Ken Schachter

Legendary Realms Games

At Legendary Realms Games in Lindenhurst, it isn’t uncommon to spot dice-wielding adventurers battling it out with dragons or Imperial Stormtroopers in the gaming area at the back of the store.

The store hosts about 30 events each week — most without an entry fee — ranging from Dungeons & Dragons sessions sanctioned by the game’s Adventurers League, to competitive tournament-style card games such as Magic: The Gathering.

Courtney Funk, 33, one of the store’s seven co-owners, said the events give her an advantage against online outfits.

“You can’t have a night where you don’t have events,” Funk said.

Legendary Realms was founded in 2013 by Funk, her brothers Rich Parla, 44, and Anthony Tricarichi, 27, and a handful of friends. It sells board, card and tabletop role-playing games ranging from $5 for older editions of role-playing game rule books to more than $85 for a board game like Twilight Imperium.

The store’s foot traffic jumps in January, when customers come in to redeem gift cards bought by family and friends who aren’t as game savvy.

The gamers, on the other hand, are usually repeat customers.

“You don’t learn anything by buying your books on Amazon,” Parla said. “We provide a community for like-minded individuals to come together to learn and try new things.”

And that community can bind customers to the store, Funk said: “We are interested in forging those long-term relationships.” — Victor Ocasio

Cow Over the Moon

At Cow Over the Moon, a toy store in Huntington, owner Brian Drucker and his staff will not only advise customers on the best gifts for a particular child and gift wrap the present, but for birthday partygoers in a rush, they’ll even take orders over the phone and deliver the present to the customer’s car waiting curbside.

Customers “can call us up, and we’ll have it wrapped, it’ll be tagged with a “to/from” sticker and it’ll be ready to go,” said Drucker, 40, who lives in the Town of Huntington with his wife and their three children.

The 23-year-old store sells a range of toys from Legos, Star Wars merchandise and remote-controlled cars to kits for aspiring computer coders and architects. It sells “a ton of great science items that you don’t see every day,” Drucker said. About 30 percent of the year’s sales take place in November and December.

The store also specializes in sports memorabilia such as jerseys and baseball bats, balls and cards signed by the likes of Derek Jeter and Mickey Mantle.

The sports memorabilia sells both online and in the store, Drucker said, but “the toys are all bricks and mortar . . . The reason customers come here is the experience.” — Maura McDermott

Rashadema Boutique & Bridal

Cherry Kerr has been preparing for Small Business Saturday, Nov. 25, since August.

The nationwide shopping event, launched eight years ago by credit-card giant American Express, kicks off the holidays at Kerr’s Baldwin clothing store, Rashadema Boutique & Bridal on Grand Avenue.

“Black Friday has nothing to do with me — that’s when people buy appliances,” she said recently, standing amid party gowns, fancy hats, wedding dresses and women’s suits.

“But Small Business Saturday is for me. It helps me show my appreciation to my customers” and welcome new ones, she said.

Kerr, 63, will discount selected merchandise at her 750-square-foot store by 50 percent to 75 percent, and serve hors d’oeuvres. “I’m trying to make a big deal this year,” she said.

Holiday shopping accounts for 30 percent of Rashadema’s yearly sales. Kerr started the store in her Baldwin home in 2005; its name combines letters from her four eldest grandchildren’s names.

Kerr plans to publicize weekly specials by mailing flyers to 200 customers and delivering gift bags to the wives of local church pastors, among other measures.

“For me, the holiday season starts on November 25,” she said. “It builds from there.” — James T. Madore

North Fork Chocolate Co.

During the holidays, North Fork Chocolate Co., an Aquebogue shop offering European-style chocolates, invites customers to weekend buffets featuring a fondue buffet bar, where customers coat biscotti, marshmallows, strawberries and other treats in chocolate.

Last season the gatherings attracted an average of 50 people, said Ann Corley, co-owner and general manager. This year the buffets begin on Dec. 2, starting at $15.95 for adults and $11.95 for children.

The 2-year-old shop, which grew out of the Stony Brook small-business incubator at Calverton, sells 42 varieties of chocolate confections handcrafted by Steven Amaral, the store’s executive chef and co-owner. It uses ingredients from the East End such as raspberries, strawberries, ginger, honey, apple cider and wine to fill its chocolates, Corley said. Such ingredients also help it stand out on the internet.

North Fork Chocolate also sells local artisans’ products and crafts, including jams, handmade soap, jewelry and wall hangings, for in-store purchase only. About 22 percent of its sales are during the holiday season.

“It is hard for us to compete against the pricing on the Web,” Corley said. “But if you want a unique choice that is something that is good for you and [is] real, pure chocolate, then this would be your choice.”— Carrie Mason-Draffen

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