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Local businesses straddle online and storefront retail worlds

Local businesses straddle online and storefront retail worlds

E-commerce one more tool for main street retailers to keep afloat
Local businesses straddle online and storefront retail worlds
Bonnie Johnsen of the Costumer with a decorative reindeer in their Colonie store Wednesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

CAPITAL REGION — Many storefront retailers have been hurt by online competition, some of them deeply, but others have drawn a boost from e-commerce.

Capital Region retailers feature holiday sales and promotions just like most other retailers on the internet and on Main Street, but the internet also is a year-round complement to their storefront operations.

As the calendar ticked down toward Christmas this month, three Capital Region retailers with very different products and different approaches to e-commerce explained their strategies for The Daily Gazette:

MASTER OF DISGUISE

At 101 years old, the Costumer is quadruple the age of online retail giant Amazon. Its two storefront operations in Colonie and Schenectady thrive on rentals and sales to Capital Region residents and its retail website is a nationwide resource for consumers as well as theatrical supplies. 

Catalog and telephone sales round out the picture, co-owner Bonnie Johnsen said.

The storefronts retain a value beyond dollars, especially for adult customers nostalgic about coming in as children, but online sales have grown steadily since 2000 and have now surpassed in-store sales. 

“Our internet business caters to a more national clientele and, not surprisingly, our stores are geared to our 101-year history in the local community,” Johnsen said.

The Costumer does promotions for every season, including Christmas, but for sales volume, Christmas is dwarfed by Halloween and spring theater season. In fact, a key task for the Costumer each December is getting ready for all the musicals that will be staged in the next few months.

That said, they also ring up plenty of Christmas-themed sales.

“Cyber Monday represents an opportunity to reach out to our repeat and new seasonal costume rental customers,” Johnsen said. “As you would expect, we do see an increase in specific Christmas items (we have been Santa’s tailor since 1917) as well as smaller ‘stocking-stuffer’ type items such as magic tricks, dance items and theatrical makeup.”

Top items for December are Santa suit rentals; rentals for Victorian strolls and productions such as “Christmas Carol,” “Elf” and “Grinch”; and December makeup. 

TWO FOR TEA

Kevin and Meahgan Borowsky, owner/operators of two restaurants and a wholesale/online business under the Whistling Kettle name, began online sales before their first restaurant/retail storefront opened in Ballston Spa in 2004, but only because the website was completed before the restaurant was.

Fourteen years later, the couple have a second restaurant in Troy and are planning a third in Schenectady. Their online business has grown as well, but it remains a fraction of the total both in revenue and employee hours.

“It’s a great way to get people exposed to the brand,” Kevin Borowsky said. “I see it as growing, almost necessary down the road.”

He said that he had just spoken to an online customer who’d discovered the Troy Whistling Kettle during a visit to RPI and is too far away now to shop there in person.

“People come into the store and want to stay in touch,” he said. “They’re from all over the country.”

Whistling Kettle’s website is all things tea: tea ware, tea advice, tea trivia, tea blogs, tea T-shirts, tea talk, and (most importantly) loose-leaf tea in dozens of varieties.

There are Christmas promotions, there is a point-based rewards program for repeat customers, and there are a few discounts, but there aren’t swarms of deals a la Cyber Monday.

“We generally are sporadic with discounts,” Borowsky said. “You don’t want to train your customers to expect a constant discount.”

The restaurant/retail locations also have steady pricing without a rotating batch of discounts.

“We sell an experience,” he said.

The Borowskys use their website and their restaurants in a circular manner, each driving traffic to the other and building the whole. They expect their next brick-and-mortar location, on the Jay Street pedestrian mall in Schenectady, to further expand their reach when it opens in the spring of 2019.

THE STORY SELLER

The independent book store is one of the storefront retailers most vulnerable to competition from online retailers. Even corporate giants such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have been shrunk or died in the internet era.

Northshire Bookstore has swum against the current, not only keeping its Manchester, Vermont, store open since 1976 but adding a second location in Saratoga Springs in 2013.

Owner Chris Morrow said this is accomplished by focusing on the shopper experience, with in-store events and ambiance that can’t be replicated online. Nonetheless, Northshire does pursue the e-commerce dollar.

“We have a very robust website and we offer free shipping everywhere in the USA,” he said. “We’re doing some digital advertising, for sure. We’re just not making that as much a priority as the in-store experience.

“I don’t have a big push online.”

Which is not to say the website isn’t important — it is, but as a booster or supplement to the storefronts, not a replacement. “People are checking there for our author events and to see our inventory,” Morrow said. “It’s an important part of retail right now and I’m all on board with that.”

The Northshire website is designed less to attract customers who have never heard of Northshire and more to retain customers who have stopped in while traveling through Manchester or Saratoga but live too far away to stop back in again.

“There’s customers of ours who have second homes [here] and order online,” Morrow said. “I'm not marketing us across the nation.”

The holiday shopping season is busy for Northshire’s website. The bookstore doesn’t go all out for Cyber Monday, but it does expend much of its marketing budget this time of the year.

Staff picks for the holiday are highlighted on the website, as are various book-of-the-year selections and employees’ gift ideas.

“It’s an important part of what we do,” Morrow said.

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