Community Store at 5

SARANAC LAKE – Five years after it launched to much fanfare, business continues to be steady at the Saranac Lake Community Store, although it’s not yet turning a profit.

Revenue from sales has increased each year, the store has a strong customer base and has maintained a solid retail presence in a downtown that’s seen its share of empty storefronts.

However, New York’s first-ever community-owned department store also faces some challenges. Although sales have improved, the business has taken a loss every year. It’s also struggled to draw in more people from the community, including those who’d rather shop online or travel to big-box stores in Plattsburgh or Malone, or to shop in the many stores in nearby Lake Placid.

“We still have our work cut out for us in terms of getting more local people to step over the threshold,” said store co-founder and President Melinda Little.

Vision

Located at 97 Main St., across the street from a renovation project at The Hotel Saranac, the Community Store sells clothing for kids and adults, books, crafts, glassware, kitchenware, sheets, pillows and locally made products like food and jewelry.

The store traces its roots to 2002, when the village’s 40,000-square-foot Ames department store shut its doors. When that happened, many local residents were forced to drive elsewhere to get basic goods that they couldn’t find locally. Local drug and hardware stores expanded their offerings to fill some of the gap, but not all of it.

In 2006, after Walmart withdrew plans to build a 121,000-square-foot Supercenter in the village, a group of local residents proposed a homegrown solution, a department store that would be owned by residents of the community. They began selling $100 shares in a proposed Saranac Lake Community Store in July 2007.

It took longer than expected, but the group ended up raising $541,700 from 750 people. On Oct. 29, 2011, the store opened in a remodeled, 5,000-square-foot former restaurant.

“I think what has been really wonderful is there was this vision and the community bought into it,” Little said. “The staff, in large part Craig Waters who’s been our manager/buyer from the get-go, was able to take that vision and actualize it.

“The idea is this is a place you can walk into and, it’s not a huge department store, but you can find some of what you’d find in a large department store,” said Community Store board member Leslie Karasin.

Customers

The store’s shareholders are a big part of its customer base. Asked what percentage of its customers are not shareholders, Little said that’s something they’re still trying to put a number on.

“We want to have more people from the community,” she said. “We often get, three or four times a week, someone who will come in and start looking around and say, ‘I didn’t know this was here. I didn’t know you had this.’ Our staff will ask, ‘Well, where are you from?’ They’ll say, ‘I live up the street. I’ve just never been here.'”

If the store hasn’t reached those people after five years, how can it attract them now? Little and Karasin said they continue to market the store through word of mouth and paid advertising.

“We’re redirecting the focus of the advertising we do to be more focused going forward on local media,” Little said. “We’ve always done local media, but we’ve also split that between local and publications that are more tourist-oriented. Starting in November, we’re making a big shift.”

At a shareholders meeting this summer, there was a lot of discussion about how to get more customers through the doors, Karasin said.

“We have literally pages of ideas,” she said.

Profitability

Revenue from sales has increased every year, Little said. A report provided to shareholders at their annual meeting in July said gross revenues increased 4 percent or $15,000, from $359,000 to $374,000, from May 1, 2015, to April 30, 2016.

However, the store reported a net loss from operations of $32,561 over that same period, down from a loss of $34,576 the year before.

“Our margins are getting a little better every year. We’re not profitable yet, though,” Little said. “We hoped last year we would get there, and we had a good shot at it, but the Christmas season was really a dog. It is getting smaller and smaller, that jump to profitability.”

This year also saw the arrival of the Marshalls department store in Lake Placid. Little said sales at the Community Store dipped the first few weeks after Marshalls opened but have since evened out.

Asked what impact running in the red every year has had, store board member Jessica Zobel said it has been hard to put money into marketing. Volunteers, instead of the store’s paid staff, have also had to do more marketing and outreach work, Karasin said.

“I think in a couple of years, if not before, we’ll be profitable,” Little said. “I think we’ve got the right formula going in terms of the staffing, so I’d say profitability is in our future, really because of the (sales) trend. It’s getting there.”

Downtown

Over the last five years, the downtown retail economy has seen its share of ups and downs. Businesses like Sears, Major Plowshares Army Navy and, most recently, Two Horse Trade Co. have shut down. Some of downtown’s former retail storefronts have been filled with new retail stores, like Wholesale Furniture and Appliance, which took over the former Sears, while others have become non-retail storefronts. For example, Cape Air now has a ticket office on Broadway in a space that used to house Pink, a women’s clothing store that moved further down Broadway. Downtown is also home to some long-running retail operations like Rice Furniture, Casier Furniture, Blue Line Sports, Ampersound Music, St. Regis Canoe Outfitters and Goody Goody’s.

Karasin and Little said they still think downtown is a vibrant place for retail businesses like the Community Store. New, non-retail businesses like Origin Coffee Co. are bringing more people downtown, they said.

“The more boots on the ground we have, the better position we’re going to be in,” Karasin said.

Many downtown businesses hope the reopening of a renovated Hotel Saranac will provide the downtown economy with a big shot in the arm. The Community Store is, too, “but we’ve never had rosy-colored glasses that the hotel is going to solve all our problems,” Little said.

“We just have to keep on being consistently good and work away at the word of mouth and other ways to get local people in here.”

The future

The Community Store was modeled after a community-owned department store in Powell, Wyoming called the Merc that opened in 2002. After a long run, however, the Merc closed in March of this year.

A chamber of commerce official in Powell told a local TV station that the store fell victim to new buying habits: people shopping online and driving 90 minutes away to shop in a much bigger city, Billings, Montana.

Those kinds of trends will continue to be a challenge for the Saranac Lake Community Store, but Little, Karasin and Zobel said they’ll continue to push people to shop locally.

“I think once people step through the doors and explore, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they find,” Karasin said. “And we want to hear from people about what they’re not finding.”

“We want to be the first place you go to look for something when you discover you need it, before you get in the car and go someplace else,” Little said.

The store is planning a series of events, sales and giveaways to mark its anniversary, including an in-store celebration set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29.