AMSTERDAM and MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- When the Lanzi family first opened the Chatter Box Boutique on Route 30 in Amsterdam 49 years ago, the women's clothing shop was one of the few businesses on what is now a busy commercial corridor for Montgomery County.
Amy Lanzi said the premise of the boutique was the idea of serving customers who like to stop and chat and talk about fashion and purchase brand name designer clothing for less than typical big box retail businesses.
"Today, some people go on Amazon and boom they hit a button and buy something, but they don't get that human interaction that I think a lot of people are missing," she said.
They've been missing it more recently. The Chatter Box Boutique has been mostly shut down over the past three months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's been a hardship, we've never been closed for three months," she said. "We've been through recessions. We've been through hard winters up here, when the power goes out, and of course when the big box retailers moved up here [that created more competition], as well as more customer traffic, but we've never faced anything like this. They let the big boxes stay open, but they shut the small people down, and the small people are really the heart of the community."
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort and Montgomery County Economic Development Director Ken Rose unveiled a new program Friday called “Buy It In Montgomery” a county-sponsored digital and traditional media campaign aimed at raising awareness of the products and services available from local businesses in Montgomery County.
"Obviously, this has been a tough year for everyone, for some worse than others, but I think none worse than our small businesses in Montgomery County and across upstate New York, especially the smaller mom and pop establishments," Ossenfort said.
Recent sales tax figures for Montgomery County show many small retailers like the Chatterbox are likely dealing with unprecedented economic strain.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office recently released data that showed that year-over-year sales tax collection for the month of May was down 36 percent for Montgomery County, which collected $1.6 million. Sales tax collected from online purchases were not included in the calculation.
Statewide, counties and cities collected $1.02 billion in sales tax in April. Sales tax collection dropped in May to $918 million. Those figures were 24.4% and 32.3% lower from amounts collected in April 2019 and May 2019, respectively.
Montgomery County Treasurer Shawn Bowerman recently told the legislature the county's sales tax payments from New York state over the past three months have declined by $1.3 million.
Ossenfort said it's imperative to remind people in the community to shop local and to let them know what's available within the county.
"We need to work hard to keep our dollars local," Ossenfort said.
The "Buy it in Montgomery" campaign has a $15,000 budget allocated by the Montgomery County Capital Resource Corporation (CRC), the nonprofit arm of the county's economic development office. Rose serves as the CEO of the CRC and he said the relatively new entity has about $300,000 to work with, derived from revenues from helping to refinance debt owed by the HFM BOCES and a recent tax exempt bond the CRC helped the Family Counseling Center in Gloversville obtain.
Rose said the CRC has hired Amsterdam-based Engines of Creation Web Design & SEO to help design a website, which will feature product photos and profiles and links to any small business in Montgomery County that wants to take advantage of it.
"With that website, that's where the county-directory [of local businesses] will be located," Rose said.
Businesses will be able to put in their own information with regard to their product lines, and once they put it in, it will come to us so we can vet it and make sure it's right. You have to have some kind of content control, or else anybody could send in anything, but businesses will send in information, we'll approve it and then it will go live on the website."
Amsterdam Supervisor Tom DiMezza spoke at the unveiling. He said everyone in Montgomery County should know that all of the sales tax generated at any business within the county is shared through a formula with all of the local governments, which helps to keep property taxes stable.
Rose said one aspect of the "Buy It In Montgomery" campaign will be different from other buy local campaigns promoted by the Fulton Montgomery County Regional Chamber of Commerce in that any business within Montgomery County can potentially benefit from the online business directory, which he said will be maintained into the future beyond the economic recovery after the coronavirus.
"Obviously, everybody knows the Targets and the Dollar Generals, so we're really trying to target the smaller businesses," Rose said, although he added that any company that sells products in Montgomery County can be included in the directory if they contact his office. He said the campaign will also include a billboard in the Capital Region and possibly a traditional media ad buy campaign.
Amy Lanzi said during the shut down she and co-owner Antonia Lanzi-D'Agostino, who's pursuing a master's degree in business from Harvard University, used social media posts of pictures of products to maintain awareness of the business in the minds of her customers. She said she's hopeful the county's online efforts will yield similar or better results.
However, nothing replaces in-store traffic or word-of-mouth for a business like the Chatter Box. Amy Lanzi said when Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed retailers to open up for curbside pickup she tried to do it, but it didn't amount to much.
"We sold a few scarves, maybe," Antonia said.
Ossenfort said his administration and Rose's business development center has worked to procure 10,000 masks from Saratoga Horseworks and has distributed them free of charge to companies in the county who ask for them. He said the masks are a key component of enabling retail, restaurants and other types of businesses to reopen and function safely while mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.