Small Berkshire businesses strive to compete this holiday season

Sunday December 2, 2012


When Mike Supranowicz worked in retail about a decade ago, one holiday shopping season ended before another one began.

"We would get through Halloween before Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving before Christmas," said Supranowicz, the president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce. "Now Christmas merchandise and candy are out before Halloween."

A Christmas shopping season that begins during the middle of high school football season tends to favor the big retailers, who have large advertising budgets and big inventories that allow them to feature deep discounts on selected merchandise for long periods of time.

But small businesses still have a place in the Berkshires.

"What the small folks offer is service at a higher level," Supranowicz said. "I think that's how they compete with the big boxes."

It isn't always easy -- "you definitely have to hustle," said Judie Culver, who has owned the Purple Plume women's clothing and jewelry store in Lenox for 31 years. But business consultants, economists and small-shop owners say more personalized customer service, unique offerings and social media are helping small businesses stay competitive.

"Basically, they need to offer an experience and a value beyond price," said Keith Girouard, director of the Berkshire Regional Office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield. "The big boxes are all about price and convenience."

Besides offering unique items and personal service, Girouard suggests that small businesses use trunk shows -- traveling collections of goods -- to bring their wares straight to consumers. He also advises small operations to sell products on their websites, attend joint marketing events, and establish small "pop-up" stores similar to the kiosks one might see in the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough.

Nationwide, the marketplace has shown it definitely has a place for small businesses during the holiday season.

Fueled by a promotion known as Small Business Saturday, consumers spent $5.5 billion at independent retailers this year on the day after Black Friday, according to a survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which did not track spending on Small Business Saturday last year.

"There's this growing interest in buying local and supporting the local economy," Girouard said. "The big box experience can be very crowded and impersonal."

Dan Salzarulo, store manager of the Best Buy in the Berkshire Mall, said not all big box stores have an impersonal shopping experience. Those who buy electronics generally require strong customer support.

"I think it depends on the size of the big box store and the philosophy," he said. "Best Buy and other electronics stores go after that personal experience, because if you buy a cellphone you can't just come in and leave. It's the same with a television."

Though small-business owners likely would disagree, Salzarulo said small stores often don't have enough personnel to respond to customer demand. Before joining Best Buy, he said he worked in a small TV store in Holyoke that frequently became overwhelmed with customers.

Williams College economics professor Steven C. Sheppard said he believes small businesses that offer products with a unique culture or flavor have a good chance at competing with the big retailers.

"I think of the store here in Williamstown, ‘Where'd You Get That!?' " Sheppard said, referring to the toy store on Spring Street. "There's not a lot you're going to do to make Monopoly more than Monopoly, but they always try and do something interesting."

Where'd You Get That!? often stocks intricate board games, some of them featuring a specific local region, "that you don't see anywhere," Sheppard said.

"That's an angle that a small store can do effectively," Sheppard said. "There's no way for a Best Buy or a Walmart to compete with that."

Several small-business owners rely on social media, particularly Facebook, to attract consumers and to learn what their customers want.

In Pittsfield, Mad Macs on North Street, which sells and services Apple computer products, doesn't sell merchandise online but uses Facebook religiously.

"We live on social media," said co-owner Scott Kirchner. "I don't know what business can survive without it nowadays."

Posts on Facebook help Mad Macs "see a nice cross-section of who your clients really are," Kirchner said.

"I think it's the one area where you can really set yourself from the big boxes because you can provide something unique to your customers," he said. "The big boxes do it, too, but it's more in a general sense."

Kirchner, however, said businesses that have Facebook pages need to use them, or else the technology becomes useless.

"I think it levels the playing field in a big way, but you have to be proactive, too," he said. "You can't just put a page up and say that's it. You've got to market it. ... It's a great seed that needs to be watered frequently."

Crispina ffrench, who takes inexpensive used clothing and turns it into objects of greater value at her small business in Pittsfield, holds workshops to show people who like her products how to make them, and she puts on an annual holiday festival to showcase similar products that are made locally.

Ffrench also was an online pioneer, setting up her first web page 20 years ago, when the Internet was in its infancy. She has since expanded to Facebook and Twitter and has a blog.

"People are interested in a connection beyond a product," ffrench said.

Steven Valenti, who has owned a men's clothing store on North Street for 30 years, has a Facebook page and is beginning to sell online. But he said he also has a longtime customer base that appreciates his hands-on service. He said he doesn't feel pressured to put holiday merchandise out earlier to compete with the major retailers.

"We have a pretty fairly loyal customer base that likes to come in and be pampered," he said. "Our job is to make sure the selection is great and the sales staff is helpful and as courteous as they've ever been. We might not be open a jillion hours, but if you come in, you'll often be recognized, mostly by name."
Patti Simonetta, who owns Pateez Boutique, a women's clothing store in the Crawford Square building in Pittsfield, said providing personal service is the reason she opened her business.

"With the Internet, you can't put your hand on something to see the size," she said. "It's the old-time shopping experience. The younger generation doesn't have that memory, but the older ones do."

Although the retail landscape keeps changing, Sheppard said there always will be a place for small businesses if they adjust to the trends.

"It's a tough market, and it's going to continue to be tough," he said. "But the retail marketplace is an ever changing one. Is there room for people to maintain a viable business? Yeah. But you're going to have to work out a local angle. You can't just set up a bookstore and say I'm going to be successful. It's not going to work.

"But if you're stocking local authors, and have an environment that people want to come to, I think there's hope."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:,
or (413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow


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