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Independents’ Day

by Lucia Patalano
Mega chains and well-heeled “power” shopping centers are everywhere, but South Jersey is also teeming with scores of thriving independent businesses that are flourishing even in the face of hard times.

Heightened retail competition. Rising Internet commerce. An economy striving for recovery. There are several directions to point to as to why a small business might fail amid the plethora of cookie-cutter box stores in South Jersey, but through it all, brazen independent mom-and-pop shops have managed to retain their customers by sticking to the basic roots of good business—offering distinctive products and services, exceptional customer service, and old-fashioned entrepreneurial tenacity.

They may be small, but their economic influence is anything but; these little guys are actually big players in the business realm. According to the Small Business Administration, there are nearly 30 million independent businesses in the United States. In New Jersey alone, small businesses total 762,422, representing 98.4 percent of all employers and earning nearly $38 billion in income.

So while the massive chain stores may have national brand awareness, experts and small business owners agree that what distinguishes the independents is their keen ability to differentiate themselves from the formulaic chain stores.

“Oftentimes, it’s because they’re offering something that’s not exactly the same as the big box stores, whether they’re trying to differentiate on service, whether it’s the quality of the product, or it’s their level of customization,” says Steve Phelan, William G. Rohrer Professorial Chair in Entrepreneurship at Rowan University. “It’s using some aspect that is somehow different from what you would get from a standard big box retailer or a chain store.”

Consider Cropwell Pharmacy in Marlton. As an independent pharmacy, the business faces stiff competition from numerous nearby chain stores, yet it continues to maintain a loyal following of satisfied customers, many of whom have supported the family-operated business since its inception in 1985. In addition to providing free delivery and a personalized approach in which customers are greeted by first name and have quick access to a pharmacist in-person or via telephone, Cropwell Pharmacy stands out by offering convenient and prompt service, something a busy national outfit can’t always provide.

“If you wait for your prescription for more than 10 minutes, then we’re not doing a good job,” asserts owner Barry Kelly. “If you walk into a chain, you might be waiting an hour for your prescription.” Additionally, Kelly notes that while it’s rare the pharmacy can’t satisfy the customer same day, as an independent operator, it can work with different wholesalers to receive orders the next day, whereas a chain may take two to three days to get an order in from a central location.

Cropwell Pharmacy further distinguishes itself by offering a niche service of specialty compounding for veterinarians, dermatologists and pain management professionals, which most competitors don’t offer.

“You have to have something that might be different than the chain,” Kelly explains. “I think it’s extremely important to have the personal ‘You’re the only one we’re thinking about’ kind of attitude toward the patient rather than be just a number waiting to pick up a prescription.”

And while many independents are surprisingly competitive even price-wise with larger operations, a key way they capture new customers and keep them coming back is by offering “experiences” rather than simply a general product or service. Essentially, customers are attracted to the hometown, Main Street type of persona of a local mom-and-pop operation, a sense they can’t readily obtain from the mega malls and corporate operations.

As the new retail recruiter for the Partnership for Haddonfield, which manages the borough’s Business Improvement District, Remi Fortunato is charged with bringing new and vibrant small businesses to Haddonfield’s commercial district, which boasts a better than 90 percent occupancy rate and is brimming with thriving independent businesses.

Fortunato says consumers find the liveliness and unique character of the stores and restaurants in town to be more appealing than the standard chains found in the mall.

“More than ever, people enjoy reconnecting with each other and their community through a personalized shopping experience,” says Fortunato, who notes that Haddonfield offers a total experience for shoppers. “It’s so pleasant to walk down our beautiful tree-lined streets, where visitors experience the tranquil beauty of our downtown while shopping in more than 200 shops, galleries and restaurants,” she says. “There are plenty of shopping alternatives, but Haddonfield offers a truly walkable ‘Main Street’ downtown experience … where people can enjoy our beautiful shops and have a great meal. That’s why people come here.”

Take Moorestown Hardware, where a customer-friendly, small-town America feel permeates even in an industry dominated by colossal powerhouses like Home Depot and Lowe’s. Since opening in 1972, the customer-focused store has recreated the neighborhood feel from the 1950s, where the hardware store was the hub of activity.

“Our philosophy is to provide our customers with that total experience so that our customers understand that they can get more than just hammers and nails here,” says owner Pete Bender, who opened a second store, Cedar Brook Hardware, last year.

Sure, Moorestown Hardware does good business with Weber grills by offering free delivery and assembly, and the store competes with the Web by offering an in-store discount on custom-ordered mailboxes. But customers also really appreciate the old-fashioned shopping experience, including Coca Cola in nostalgic glass bottles and the free popcorn on the weekends, along with old reruns of The Honeymooners and The Munsters. Bender recalls how such “little fun things” can strike a cord with customers, citing how several years ago a longtime customer called the store on a Wednesday and asked if they could make popcorn on a weekday since it was his 5-year-old daughter’s birthday and all she wanted to do was have popcorn at Moorestown Hardware.

“I really feel as though we’re kind of creating memories here,” Bender says. “That child is going to remember this store her entire life. That’s something that you can’t buy.”

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of independent businesses is exceptional customer service. It’s an integral part of the business model at The English Gardener Gift Shop, a specialty shop on Kings Highway in Haddonfield that sells British food and gift items. Owner Gary Coleman contends the five-year-old niche destination store has amassed a loyal customer base from throughout the tri-state area, consisting primarily of British natives and Anglophiles who yearn for his unique products.

Coleman provides free delivery of traditional pies and gift baskets to older couples in Philadelphia and hotels with British visitors. He also special orders hard-to-find items in a timely fashion. “We’re specialized, but we kind of really cultivate and offer very, very good customer service and that brings back many people,” Coleman stresses.

Moreover, many Americans desire for a return to their roots and therefore greatly value independents, as is evident by the many national and local initiatives to promote independent businesses. One such example was the 2nd Annual Small Business Saturday, sponsored by American Express, which took place during last year’s Thanksgiving weekend. The result? One-hundred-and-three million shoppers spending money at their local small businesses, including President Barack Obama.

“As a consumer, I like going into independently owned businesses because I know they’re going to remember me the next time I go in, or they’re going to know what I like or spend the time to help me,” says Laurie Ehlbeck, the New Jersey state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, the state’s largest lobbying organization for independent businesses, which has 10,000 members.

At the Flying Fish Brewing Company in Cherry Hill, the largest craft brewery in New Jersey, which distributes to several locations within a 100-mile radius, founder and President Gene Muller believes the company’s strong local presence is attractive to customers. Flying Fish promotes itself extensively at local food pairing events and participates with local sponsorships.

“Home-field advantage is really powerful,” says Muller, whose company has seen a 10 to 15 percent annual growth since it started in 1995 and will move into a larger facility in Somerdale later this year, tripling in size to 45,000 square feet. “I think people like to have beer from their local place just like they go to their local farmers markets supporting local businesses.”

At the independent coffeehouse Coffee Works, founded in 1998 and now with two Voorhees locations, the store has a robust regional customer base of coffee aficionados that appreciate Coffee Works’ strong local component, which includes an open mic night with local musicians and a weekly Toastmasters group meeting.

“It was always intended to be a part of a community where people could come and make public announcements and hold meetings and be a community focal point and a community resource, and we still are,” explains owner Wade Cohen. “I hear it from the customers, who tell me ‘I come here because I don’t want to go to Starbucks.’ It’s a crowd that appreciates great coffee, that appreciates an independent operator.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 6 (June, 2012).
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