For some local mainstays, it’s knowing when to expand and when to focus on a specific niche that has led to their continued success.
Every year, mom and pop shops are teetering on the edge of going out of business due to the pressure of big box stores opening that tout cheaper products with a massive advertising budget behind them. But where’s the customer service? Where are the loyal customers? For these South Jersey businesses, knowing how to retain those keys is exactly what has enabled them to manage the tough times of competition and the recession.
Times have changed, not service
In the late 1800s, five and dime shops turned up all across the United States, a concept started by the Woolworth Bros. right over the bridge where everything in the store cost a nickel or a dime.
Inflation of course took effect throughout the last century, and now, we have the more modern dollar stores and under $5 stores.
Take Binkley’s 5 & 10 in Medford Lakes, for example. They may no longer be selling items for a single coin, but their variety store concept is still going strong. “We run the gamut,” says owner Bill Cameron of his products.
Started by the Binkley family in the 1940s, the store just celebrated its 51st year in business, with Cameron at the helm for the past 17 years.
The store sells everything from stationery to toys, clothing to gift items. At one time, there were as many as six Binkley’s in South Jersey, but alas, the Medford Lakes store is the one that has stood strong.
Cameron credits his success over the years to the loyal following of area residents.
“Sure, people can go to Walmart, A.C. Moore or Staples,” Cameron says. “Yes, I’m a little more expensive, but I know what people need and I have what they need.”
Cameron lives less than a mile from Binkley’s and knows the area well, particularly when the semester ends for students at Shawnee, Seneca, St. Mary's and others.
“They will come in for notebooks and binders and all sorts of stuff,” Cameron says, adding being prepared for his youngest shoppers is the kind of service his customers are used to.
Over the years, Cameron says he does notice when traffic drops off, such as once teenagers turn 17.
“We do keep a lot of people,” Cameron says, “and usually, we get them while the kids are young. But we lose a lot of parents, mostly moms, once kids learn how to drive. How do I get Mom back here when junior is now 17 or 18?”
The answer was to cater to the needs of those mothers by offering gift items, flowers, housewares and more.
But even a business that has managed to survive more than five decades has its missteps, like when they began offering wedding and baby items. The response from his customers? “Terrible,” he says. But it’s by careful experimentation that one finds their niche.
Some lines have expanded and done quite well. The toy section increased about a third, crafts are double and stationery has gotten a lot bigger, too, Cameron says.
“Yes, it will have to be tweaked as the times will change,” he says. “[But] I see this being here for quite some time.”
Staying the course
Then there are some South Jersey mainstays that haven’t changed their business model at all—such as Carl’s Shoes in Moorestown, a local destination for 54 years for those in the tri-state area who need specialty footwear, orthotics and more.
Carl Barone, 80, started the business in 1958 and still works almost every day. His grandson, 23-year-old Jeffrey Higman, joins him on the floor.
“You don’t just come in here and get a pair of shoes,” says Higman. “It’s service and quality.”
Carl’s is one of very few businesses left that do what they do—fitting, measuring and custom-making shoes. They don’t rely on foot traffic—even though their homey storefront is located on busy Main Street in Moorestown.
Barone started as a stock boy when he was 12 and worked his way up. When he became a certified pedorthist at age 25, he opened his own store.
“I can make a shoe for a man anywhere from size 6 to size 28,” says Barone, “and any width he needs. There are very few people who are able and willing to do that.”
It’s been that unique model that has caused them to thrive so long. Over the years, they added the custom shoe aspect. “I progressed into that,” Barone says. “There’s things we achieved thereafter and we expanded rightly so.”
Carl’s success lies in the fact that their specialization is one of a kind, says Robert Schindler, professor of marketing and an expert in consumer behavior at Rutgers-Camden. “They specialize in things the bigger companies maybe don’t cover adequately.”
An appreciation for the past
When it comes to South Jersey-based record store chain Tunes, they never had to change their approach to appeal to a certain demographic. But the popular store, with four locations in South Jersey and one in Hoboken, had to offer more than somewhere like Best Buy and something else not found so easily online.
Used CDs, DVDs, vinyl, video games and more have allowed the store to survive for so long.
“We fully embraced the used record marketplace,” says Chip Heuisler, co-owner of Tunes along with Anthony Tedeschi.
Tedeschi started Tunes in Ocean City in 1989. That store—known as Tunes on the Dunes—closed, but the record shop has locations in Turnersville, Marlton, Voorhees and, as of 2010, Northfield.
“We became more aggressive in seeking out used products and encouraging people to sell us products,” Heuisler says, adding that they fully understand they can't compete with box stores like Best Buy; so they don't even try.
In the last five years, vinyl has exploded and consumers are scanning the used records bins daily. “There’s a bit of nostalgia,” Heuisler says. “There’s definitely more of a tangible experience listening to music on records. It’s not just a file that sits on the computer.”
Even the market of used CDs is booming. For less money than buying an album on iTunes, Heuisler says, you can get a CD you can still upload to your computer, plus all the artwork and case.
“You can even sell it back to us when you’re finished with it,” Heuisler adds.
And with the ability to buy, sell and trade, new music is always coming into the stores. “It’s always changing,” Heuisler says. “It’s that search for that album that you didn’t think you were going to find that day. That brings people into the store.”
Schindler agrees with Heuisler on nostalgia.
“In each of these stores,” he says, “there’s that element. It’s something we associate with trust and personal attention, but it’s also just the good feelings of the kind of store that existed back from an earlier time.”
Plus, the small-town atmosphere of all these stores gives off an intimate vibe, the kind where you can walk in and feel at home.
As Schindler says, at a store like Tunes, service goes beyond the ordinary, which is what keeps people coming back. “If you go into a store like that, you can get into a chat about favorite bands. There are always people hanging out there in a social environment. That’s something you can’t get in a big store in a shopping center.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 3, Issue 8 (August, 2013).
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