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A $10 million wish list?

This is in reply to the May 22 article titled “$10 million wish list.” As a business owner, here are my thoughts.

We’re going after grant money to revitalize our village and particularly the business district. But has anyone bothered to ask themselves how we got this way in the first place?

Over the years we’ve lost a fair amount of mom-and-pop stores. Anybody know why? Do you suppose the business climate as a whole has changed drastically over the years? And if it has, what can we do about it?

In my industry, Christian bookstores that have been in business for over 30 years are closing. Cedar Springs Christian Bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, a bookstore larger than the old Newberry’s store we used to have in town, is now closed. Why? Because of competition from the internet. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough loyal customers anymore, and competition from the internet was killing them. So these good folks just threw in the towel after more than 30 years.

Christian bookstores everywhere are blaming internet competition for hurting their business. Some are finding their own ways of fighting back, but others are just tired of fighting and they’re closing their doors. It seems that Amazon, eBay and various other websites have found that there’s money to be made in selling Christian product.

Now let’s look at our little village. What have we lost over the last few years? Has anybody bothered to ask why these stores closed? Granted, some of the owners either wanted to retire or do something else. But what about those who faced stiff competition from the internet and elsewhere, and decided they’d had enough?

Let’s take a look at the empty storefronts in town. First, most of them are too small. Many are under 1,000 square feet. How much inventory can you sell in that small a space? Not much. And as a small business owner, you have to pay top wholesale prices to get that inventory. You can’t purchase in large lots to get better prices. So your business ends up with a small selection and at what some folks would consider high prices. And since most people shop by price these days, you’re at a huge disadvantage compared to shopping for those same things online.

Secondly, most of those storefronts need work. Who pays for the needed renovations? Paint, paneling, flooring and whatever else that space needs isn’t cheap. And that’s just the stores’ renovations. You haven’t purchased store shelving, fixtures, displays or inventory! Fixtures and displays aren’t cheap. I have a two-sided lockable jewelry display. That display alone cost $900, and that’s just the display. I also have to pay for shipping to get it here. And remember this is just the display and not the product that goes inside. A four-sided display will run me over $1,000, and that doesn’t include the shipping. So anyone who thinks that they can throw a store together for a few bucks knows nothing of the real costs.

Thirdly, most who want to go into business have no idea how much money it’ll take. It’s been recommended that you have enough money to live off of for one to two years in the bank. Why? Because you won’t be able to write yourself a paycheck for at least that long, if not longer. The money people spend in your store will go for expenses, inventory and advertising. As one business owner said to a customer, “First you pay your rent. Then you pay your utilities. Then you pay your suppliers, and if there’s anything left over, you get it.”

There were other goals in this article like diversity shopping opportunities and providing low-cost retail space to encourage new businesses. But how do we diversify our shopping opportunities when we have small storefronts that cannot hold a lot of product? What kind of variety can a business offer in less than 1,000 square feet? And who provides low-cost retail space to encourage new businesses? Building owners have expenses to pay, too. And how long do those low costs last?

Think business hasn’t changed? When was the last time you went to the Plattsburgh mall? Today’s mall in Plattsburgh is a shell of what it used to be. In the food court we had a Philly steak place, Taco Bell, Subway, a pizza place, a Chinese eatery, a Mediterranean eatery, a chicken place and a Burger King. Today the steak place, Chinese and Mediterranean eatery, pizza place, chicken place and Burger King are gone. You had to look hard to find a place to sit and eat, but not anymore. On a Saturday afternoon the food court is empty. And you can almost drive a car down the main walkway and not hit anyone. It’s sad, but a reminder of how things have changed.

Ever wonder what happened to that sushi restaurant that was supposed to open in the J.C. Penny building? According to a good friend who used to work for U.S. Food Service, approximately 90 percent of those who go into the restaurant business go under in a year! Not good odds. And do you know that for those going into retail, you won’t know your business is going to make it until you’ve been in business for three years?

Long gone are the days when customers would break your doors down if you just opened your store. If today’s retailers can’t get creative and find ways to bring in customers, they’re dead. When I was growing up, a 10 percent off storewide sale got everyone’s attention. Today 10 percent off gets nobody’s attention. Folks can find all the bargains they want in the comfort of their own home, and many do. I’ve also heard stories of folks who split up when they go shopping, and talk back and forth comparing prices on their phones.

So if we think that by putting in street trees, decorative light poles and sidewalks, we’ll somehow fill our empty storefronts, think again. If we’re not careful, we’ll be grasping at straws in order to fix a problem that we can’t fix. The internet has taken business away from every retailer in town, and if they tell you that’s not true, they’re probably lying.

And if you think that by hopefully getting a $10 million grant, we can fix things, I don’t think we’re being realistic. Perhaps instead of a grant, today’s retailers or would-be retailers need lessons on how to deal with competition, particularly on the internet. That’s more realistic.

Wendy Foley owns and runs Wendy’s Christian Bookstore in Saranac Lake.

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