Brick-and-mortar business owners face an increasing number of pressures in their quest to create successful downtown storefronts.
By Matt Skoufalos
On a sunny Friday in downtown Collingswood, My Little Kupkake was bustling with activity, right in the middle of the day, serving a steady stream of cash-paying customers.
Cherry Hill resident and owner Ridgway Grace credited the boost with an online push she’d made in a number of Facebook groups within the past 24 hours.
Unfortunately, the guests were there to pick the bones of the five-year-old specialty bakery, which had announced its closing with an inventory liquidation sale.
Grace, a mother of two who has been battling health issues in the past year, said although she could have kept the shop going with wholesale orders alone, she needs a break.
“Collingswood’s a great town,” Grace said. “I looked into relocating into other places with much less overhead, and I decided that if I wasn’t going to be here, I wasn’t going to be anywhere.
“It’s not like I’m shutting down because business sucked,” she said. “Things were actually going pretty great. We had a really good handle on things for the first time in a while. I think I had just had enough.”
Nonetheless, Grace said a number of other factors made the decision much easier for her to shut down the storefront: the observable dip in walk-up traffic, creeping rents, and a rise in competition from at-home bakers who don’t have to manage the overhead she did. Compounding those are the normal operational considerations, like margins on ingredients and labor costs, and that’s not counting her health and family concerns. Adding it all up, Grace said she’d just lost the wherewithal to keep the shop going.
Her story is only one among hundreds of personal narratives written daily by business owners in the Collingswood downtown shopping district, but its details reflect a combination of pressures felt by nearly all of them. As residents, retailers, and borough leaders ponder the ingredients of a sustainable downtown, it becomes quite clear that the recipe for success is an oral tradition, subject to much tweaking, and producing markedly different outcomes at every turn.
Restaurant Row cuts both ways
Collingswood resident Reed Orem doubled down on the business district this year when his family sold its home in the borough and moved into an apartment atop his vintage furniture store, Dig This.
Orem, who is also a real estate agent, said that although rents in the borough downtown are comparable to those in other communities, “we have this great draw” in Restaurant Row, the Haddon Avenue corridor of eateries.
What he and other retailers are wondering, however, is whether that food focus is a double-edged sword that keeps borough visitors from thinking of Collingswood as a place to shop as well as to eat.
Last Friday, Orem hosted an after-hours “Junetoberfest” meet-up in his shop, designed to connect business owners with one another and their customers over cocktails and snacks. One of the considerations voiced early in the party was whether a noticeable, 2-to-6 p.m., weekend gap in foot traffic is attributable to visitors only patronizing the borough for its eateries.
“I definitely see longer gaps in foot traffic,” Orem said. “The previous Christmas was horrendous for us [too], but weather worked against us at every level.”
Morgan Robinson of Frugal Thrift and Vintage said she feels the dip in walk-up business is tied to shoppers’ frustrations with the borough parking kiosks.
“People hate the kiosks,” she said. “They feel intimidated, aggravated by them. It’s 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, and the word of mouth is how bad Collingswood parking is. People don’t want to walk.”
Robinson also cautioned against reaching any broad generalizations about patrons of the downtown shopping district, who run “the full spectrum, economically,” and often exhibit contradictory behavior.
“People will go and spend $100 on dinner, and then they’ll go, ‘Is there a sale on this $8 shirt?” she said. “There’s no real pattern.”
‘I’d lie if I said this wasn’t getting harder’
Bobby McVicker, who launched Blue Moon Premium Olive Oil and Vinegar a few storefronts up from Dig This three years ago, said that the past 12 months in town have been “scary.”
“I can’t put my finger on it,” McVicker said. “We’re definitely off this year.”
Comparably, McVicker’s second location, in downtown Bordentown, is doing a much more robust business, he said, from its product placement in local eateries—which McVicker offers for free—to the pace of business.
“We’re still growing,” he said. “I’d lie if I said this wasn’t getting harder. We’re still learning on the fly.”
McVicker said that with times getting tougher and competition on the rise, it’s incumbent upon retailers to take advantage of every promotional opportunity afforded them to incentivize customers, from the Blue and Gold Collingswood loyalty card, to Collingswood Cash sales, to Facebook marketing and customer interactions.
“Connect with the community,” he said. “If you listen to the crowd sometimes, you can take good things out of it.”
After nearly nine years at the same Haddon Avenue address, Collingswood Music owner Ted Velykis confessed he was “a little nervous” moving to his new storefront on Lincoln Avenue.
But the change not only helped him expand to accommodate his current customers, it allowed him to fit out the new space with more retail offerings.
“I think the move clarified things,” Velykis said. “We were bursting out of that old space. Music lessons are our bread and butter, [but]we have a full-fledged record store in there now. Regular lessons are from 3 to 8 p.m.; weekends and afternoons are record sales.”
Velykis said most of the business owners and customers with whom he interacts are “pretty positive about things.” He also cautioned that without a solid business model, any enterprise will be short-lived.
“You have to see a need, and a lot of them have already been taken care of in this town, so you’ve got to be careful,” Velykis said.
‘It’s a constant energy machine’
“All this kind of feedback is important,” said Cassandra Duffey, Collingswood Director of Community Development. “We have taken into consideration what all businesses say.”
Collingswood is surely anchored by its restaurants, Duffey said, but several considerations make it “harder and harder to own a retail business,” from online competition to environmental factors. She also noted that the Business Improvement District works consistently to keep the downtown lively.
“Collingswood has made it so far in 20 years,” Duffey said. “These businesses are in competition with each other, and we’re in competition with the other [downtown business]districts. We want to be in the forefront of somebody’s mind as a destination. You can never rest on your laurels. It’s a constant energy machine.”
Duffey said that parking in Collingswood has long been a challenge, but that with the replacement of the kiosk vendor, she believes most of those concerns have been resolved. Aside from being a key revenue generator that allows the borough to reinvest in itself, paid parking is often an issue that’s compounded by business owners themselves.
During the holiday shopping season, when Collingswood suspends parking enforcement, people park in the downtown for the length of the day, including business employees. (Duffey also pointed out that mall and shopping center patrons will frequently walk much farther from their cars to reach a store than the block or half-block they may walk in the downtown.)
Nonetheless, she said, the borough is considering some longer-term solutions to creating more downtown parking that are on an “extremely remote” timetable.
“We’re considering some bigger and better things, and some parking signage,” Duffey said. “The LumberYard had this beautiful garage that was integrated in such a beautiful way that nobody knows it’s there.”
Although she believes hours of operation is “a chicken-and-egg question,” Duffey also said that business owners need to become more inventive in the ways that they partner and self-promote. Duffey agreed that adding more professional and office spaces at the edges of the downtown could improve daytime foot traffic, but she also encouraged groups of businesses to find ways to join together for special events, and to ask their neighbors to “please stay open one extra hour [with me]and see how it does.
“I think 20 years ago, people opened these as an avocation,” Duffey said. “Now it’s their vocation. They can’t be open only 9 to 5, when people are at work. I would love to see people push to a more European model where people spend time in their downtown, but you need a significant commitment to their businesses.”
Finally, at the root of sustainability issues are the fundamental questions of a successful business model. In addition to food service, which is irreplaceable by on-demand, online shopping, “experiential retail” is a growing niche that has been a successful model for shops like All Fired Up, Canvas Mixers, and Say It With Clay. Duffey expects service-oriented storefronts like Collingswood Music, Yogawood, and Upcycle to also have longevity based on their offerings.
For those other storefronts in which retail is the sole focus, Duffey also pointed out that broadening revenue streams to diversify offerings allows for additional opportunities.
“I buy stuff online,” Duffey said. “I still like the experience of shopping; of going to our downtown and other downtowns to find unique things. [But] a lot of the most successful businesses have a dual component. Arts Plus, they have a beautiful storefront, but they also have framing. Gourmet Popcorn Creations has a storefront and they do weddings.
“Business owners who are the most successful are on their toes,” she said. “Coming to BID meetings helps. There are tons of people who do this stuff on their own.”