In a market dominated by e-commerce, only the strong survive, including a number of Carlisle’s brick-and-mortar retailers, whose tenacity seems to grow even as their numbers dwindle.
The Saturday after Black Friday is typically celebrated by as Small Business Saturday, when local chambers of commerce and business agencies push shoppers to spend part of the holiday windfall in their own backyards.
But such businesses need more than just altruism to stay afloat, and the winning factor comes through customer service and niche marketing, owners say.
“I think there is still a place for us,” said Steve Knisley of Knisley’s Pet and Farm Center. “If everybody continues to shop at Amazon and the big places, when the little guys go out, the big people can name their prices. I think people are starting to wise up to that.”
Many of the area’s strongest locally owned businesses have survived by selling goods that customers want to physically see and inspect before they buy, cutting out the advantage of their online competitors.
“People are starting to get over it,” said Marjorie Romano, of Marjorie’s Gems, regarding the e-commerce boom. “They’re coming back to the in-store experience, especially with items like accessories. They want to see it, touch it, they want to know if it fits and if it’s the right thing.”
In Romano’s case, her advantage over online retailers is in the unique nature of her products. Many are vintage or one-of-a-kind pieces that customers aren’t familiar with.
In other cases, local businesses are selling products that are just too complex to buy over the internet.
“Anything that’s deliverable to a mailbox is going to be taken over by the online entities,” said Harold Vaughn, owner of Carlisle Electronics and Appliance Center. “But when it comes to heavy, expensive investments that require a lot of expertise in terms of installation, to buy something like that online, you have to be insane.”
There’s no doubt the environment for small, locally owned businesses has tightened in recent years, particularly since the 2008 recession.
In 2007, according to U.S. Census data, Pennsylvania had 157,898 firms with less than a half-million dollars of annual receipts. These firms employed a combined 414,762 workers.
In 2012, that number had dropped to 121,491 firms with 341,258 workers, and it wasn’t that those firms had increased their sales. The number of firms breaking the $500,000 mark also decreased slightly between 2007 and 2012, even as total receipts recovered, indicating consolidation by a smaller number of larger firms.
New small business startups have also faced much higher attrition and slower growth post-recession.
Of the 23,958 new firms established in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 57 percent were still around five years later, with an average of 11.3 employees. But of the 22,820 firms established in 2013, less than half were still around this year, with an average employee count of 7.9, according to the BLS.
“I opened in 2010 during the recession and everyone said ‘you’re out of your mind,’” Romano recalled.
But her success, Romano said, comes from the niche market of vintage jewelry combined with Carlisle’s customer base.
The Downtown Carlisle Association is in the midst of a ZIP code study to quantify this, but Romano estimated that roughly half her business comes from consistent locals, and the other half from visiting students or tourists.
“It’s amazing how many people come in and say ‘I’m only in town for a day,’” Romano said. Sales continue to strengthen year-round, although Black Friday and Small Business Saturday still make up 10 to 15 percent of her shop’s annual sales, all packed into 48 hours, Romano said.
Other retailers don’t have the tourism advantage. But these also tend to be retailers who, somewhat contrary to the spirit of Small Business Saturday, are far less dependent on the holiday season for their sales.
“We’re sort of like a grocery store, in that our main business is feeding your animals,” Knisley said. “If [the holiday season] didn’t exist, I think I could still survive, but we’ll take that added revenue. It’s still important to us.”
Knisley’s has been family-owned for its nearly 59 years in business. But the market has changed. There was a time when the bulk of its customers were commercial farmers, Knisley said,
“Going back to the 1980s, the family farms started to disappear, and I knew that we had to do more on the retail side,” Knisley said. Today, the store caters to hobby farmers and enthusiasts, offering specialty supplies that big box and online pet stores don’t offer, particularly when it comes to animal feeds.
“One thing we can do is answer questions and explain it to you. We know the products and we know animal nutrition,” Knisley said.
Vaughn has also had to adapt his business. At the time Carlisle Electronics and Appliance Center opened in 1976, Vaughn sold a larger number of televisions and other consumer electronics. But the store now concentrates on durable goods like refrigerators and washing machines, and is able to coordinate directly with manufacturers.
The industry has become more vertically integrated, to the extent that Vaughn’s in-store electronic price displays now synchronize automatically with manufacturer discounts.
“That technology has allowed us to do more business with the same amount of people,” Vaughn said. “I think the industry, even though there are less of us now, is a much healthier industry.”