In Newport: Merchants get creative to compete with Internet
copyright the Chronicle December 4, 2013
by Joseph Gresser
NEWPORT — A random sampling of local merchants suggests they are experimenting with new ways to compete in what has become a global marketplace.
The beginning of the 2013 Christmas shopping season looked pretty good, they said, but they are all looking over their shoulders at their real competition — the Internet.
Like most of the other storeowners, Cindy Moylan of All About Home in Derby, said she faces stiff competition from online retailers such as Amazon. Her solution is to match their discounted prices on an everyday basis.
“People are conscious about how they spend their money,” she said.
Ms. Moylan said her customers often come into the store looking for the kitchenware and appliances she stocks, and they’re armed with lists of the lowest prices available on the Internet. Because she bases her prices on the lowest allowed by manufacturers, those informed shoppers know they’ve found a good deal, she said.
Although one might like to think people will be willing to part with a little extra money in order to support a local business, Ms. Moylan said most people just go with the lowest price.
However, by charging the lowest possible price, Ms. Moylan has set herself up for an unusual problem.
“When someone calls and asks what our Black Friday sale is, I have to say we don’t have one. Nothing is lower today and higher tomorrow.”
Her policy of keeping prices down works for getting business, Ms. Moylan said, but it has its down side. Keeping prices low means that she can’t afford to hire additional sales staff, for instance.
In addition to dealing with the pressure coming from Internet companies, Ms. Moylan is looking toward the competition she thinks is bound to come from Walmart, which is expected to set up shop on Route 5 just down the road from her in the next couple of years.
Ms. Moylan’s way of dealing with the big box retailer is to go upscale. She stocks Cuisinart appliances and Le Creuset pots, items unlikely to be carried by a store catering to the mass market.
Diane Jameson of Wider Than The Sky, a store that features children’s toys and books, has a similar idea, but has added a local twist. She stocks Klutz craft kits for children and Tolo toys for toddlers, both brands she thinks are unlikely to be offered by Walmart.
Her son Bill said the store also carries locally made wooden toys. While Walmart might carry something like them, he said, they can’t deal with small-scale craftsmen, who can’t turn out products in the quantities demanded by a national chain.
For Ms. Jameson Black Friday isn’t the biggest day of the year.
“I think a lot of people go to Burlington on Friday, to check out the big box stores,” she said. “We see more business on Saturday.”
Mr. Jameson said the store is doing well enough to expand its hours. It was closed Mondays, but now it’s only closed on Sunday.
Both storeowners think the development planned for Newport can do nothing but good for their businesses.
Mr. Jameson said much of his store’s business comes from word of mouth, with old customers telling visitors to Newport to be sure to check out the store.
Wider Than The Sky sometimes benefits from the Internet. Ms. Jameson said she just got a holiday order for a Tolo train set from a man in Ohio.
Down at Newport’s Waterfront Plaza, The Great Outdoors had the best Black Friday in the business’ history, said store manager Johanna Bartley. She said there was a lot of interest in GoPro cameras and accessories.
Tommy Russell, a salesman, said he has one of the cameras, which attach to ski helmets, or chest harnesses, to record outdoor activities in video.
He uses his for documenting time trials in motocross racing.
Ms. Bartley said she thinks people like to trade at a locally owned store. This year there has been a lot of interest in camouflage gear and snowshoes, she said.
Some people do come in and try on items and then go off to order from Internet firms, Ms. Bartley said, but most buy in Newport.
“We’re pretty good about matching prices,” she said. “People are willing to give a little to keep it local.”
Some items offered by her store can’t be found online. For instance, The Great Outdoors offers seasonal ski rentals for children.
The Woodknot Bookshop also offers amenities that can’t be matched by Amazon — a cup of espresso and a warm muffin, for example.
Megan Waagen, who owns the store with her husband, said, “We had a very busy Friday, maybe because all the people were still around for Thanksgiving.”
“We usually have a good Black Friday, even though we weren’t giving away TVs,” she added.
Ms. Waagen said the key to business at her store is how many people are on Main Street. Like Ms. Jameson, she’s looking forward to development.
“I’m optimistic it will bring more people to the area,” she said.
Meanwhile, she must face competition from Amazon, which she can’t fight by matching prices with a company known for selling books below cost.
Still, Ms. Waagen said she’s seen business get a little more brisk over the past year, something she attributes to an improving economy.
It may also have something to do with best sellers like Fifty Shades of Gray and the fact that the Game of Thrones series has just come out in paperback.
One of Main Street’s newest businesses, The Tasting Center, is doing well in the holiday season said Steve Breault, who co-owns the Brown Dog Bistro and the butcher shop.
Although out-of-town shoppers don’t buy much in the way of fresh meat, he said, the butcher shop has done a lively trade in other Vermont items like jams.
He said he had to reorder a new stock of preserves to fill up shelves emptied by eager shoppers. Other businesses in the Tasting Center are also doing good holiday business, Mr. Breault said.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]