“If half of the people who threw a fit over Starbucks came in once, maybe we’d be ok.”
This lament from a local shop owner is typical in Maplewood and South Orange.
A number of business owners — and not just coffee shops — have looked at the furor over the recent opening of a Starbucks in Maplewood Village and wished that that social media outrage could be directed into increased sales for their local businesses. The business person quoted above did not want to be named so as not to drive away customers with a bitter attitude, but the sentiment is one shared by many small business owners in the towns who feel that local residents want them there as a backdrop but don’t support the businesses by making regular purchases.
It’s a lament that grew louder with the announcement earlier this month that Shenanigans Toys in Maplewood Village had closed, seized by the state for the payment of back taxes. A week or so later, The Rack on Springfield Avenue announced its closing after three-and-a-half years of business.
And, although both Maplewood and South Orange are experiencing low vacancy rates for retail spaces, many longtime shops run by local residents continue to struggle to hang on, with some telling Village Green they are hoping to make it through the holidays and then will assess their futures.
Village Green spoke with some local leaders and business owners about the issue. The solutions for business retention offered were diverse — from more support from the towns for training and grants, to a call for local businesses to step up their game with more marketing.
Bob Zuckerman has been announcing a lot of good news from the South Orange Village Center Alliance lately, including the fact that seven new businesses — many of them locally owned — are opening in South Orange this fall.
But Zuckerman said business retention followed closely on business recruitment and that SOVCA would be stepping up its efforts on retention:
“SOVCA recognizes how hard it is for small retail businesses to succeed in today’s challenging retail environment. That’s why business retention is just as important to us as business recruitment. We help our small businesses in several ways, including marketing and promotion assistance through numerous channels such as our brand new website that we’ll soon be unveiling, Facebook posts, digital and print advertising, and special events that draw thousands of people downtown every year.”
Zuckerman also said that special improvement districts like SOVCA — and the Maplewood Village Alliance (MVA) and Springfield Avenue Partnership (SAP) in Maplewood — also “help our businesses navigate the bureaucracy of [local government], advocate on their behalf, and act as a resource by connecting them with vendors, funders, brokers and other professionals who can help their business succeed.” SOVCA has also partnered with the town on providing storefront improvement grants, as have the MVA and SAP.
But in a recognition that more needs to be done to support mom-and-pops, Zuckerman noted, “We are working with the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership to run an upcoming series called the Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO) which is a groundbreaking workshop that teaches prospective and existing business owners the fundamentals of running a small business and what it takes to be profitable. You’ll be hearing more about WIBO informational sessions coming soon to Work & Play in South Orange.”
Business retention was also a topic of discussion at the Maplewood Township Committee Candidates Forum on September 28.
Candidate Dean Dafis mentioned a recent conversation with the owner of Edo’s Cakes, which recently closed at Prospect and Springfield in Maplewood. Dafis said that marketing and social media campaigns needed be ratcheted up but that the town also needed to connect more businesses to grants and assistance, and provide lease protections.
Dafis elaborated in a email followup with Village Green: “In addition to amplified comprehensive ‘buy-local’ campaigns — which goes beyond sharing posts on facebook — and all of us putting our money where our mouth is, we need to support our local businesses by connecting them to and assisting them with small business funds/grants through the NJ Economic Development Authority, and by resolving to craft commercial tenant protections on lease renewals that encourage small business stability and growth. There is no neighborhood or sense of community without the mom and pops. I should know, I grew up in one.”
Rick Gilman, president of the Maplewood Chamber, echoed Zuckerman’s comments about providing training for first-time business owners and counseled that businesses need to understand the value of marketing.
“80% of new businesses fail within the first year, a daunting statistic to overcome,” said Gilman, who said he saw “three key reasons why it happens to many of them.”
The first is that “too many new small businesses right here in our community will ride the ‘honeymoon buzz’ of a grand opening, ribbon cutting and coverage in local papers thinking they don’t have to do any marketing because business is great. So, they don’t plan for the near future when the next new business opens and takes the excitement away.”
Second, “Depending on the size of the business, they need to build into their budget about 10% for marketing of all types, print, digital & live events. Making that kind of commitment will pay for itself down the road.”
Finally, Gilman, who is also the owner of the business/technology consulting firm APPsolute Marketing, said, “Don’t make the mistake by thinking if you have a Facebook page or Instagram, that your marketing is complete. It’s not. Mobile friendly websites are essential for success and, in some cases, having a mobile app to strengthen customer retention is a good idea.”
“Regardless of what kind of small business you have, you should have a marketing plan before you open your doors, think about it every day and periodically adjust it as the need arises.”
Meanwhile, businesses like Lickt Gelato are hanging on by a thread. Lickt owner LuAnne Kleppe markets aggressively by purchasing tent space at almost every local fair and festival but continues to struggle to attract customers to her storefront at 411 Ridgewood Road in Maplewood — despite offering seasonal flavors like Pumpkin Chai and Gluten-Free Monster Mash.
To keep Lickt in business, stop by today: Fall hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 3-8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 2-6 p.m.