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THE RIGHT TIME FOR SMALL-TIME
Perhaps more than ever before, today's new generation of shopkeepers has tapped into a national zeitgeist: the desire to find alternatives beyond today's big-box-saturated retail world. "Shop local" has been a rallying cry for a long time now, yet only in recent years has it gained enough clout to be a true economic force.
"It's definitely a growing trend nationally," says Mike Kubinski, co-owner of CLE Clothing, which sells hip, ironic Cleveland-themed T-shirts. (One example: a retro homage to the old Richfield Coliseum, a.ka. "The Palace on the Prairie.") Kubinski recently quit his day job as a graphic designer to open his CLE store on East Fourth Street. "What we're offering is cool, positive, and something different," he says of the store, which came about when East Fourth developer Ari Maron approached him about creating a hip shop to help bring balance to the restaurant-dominated street.
Whatever they're selling, retailers say their success in today's economy hinges on being part of a vibrant area — a unique place where like-minded shops play off of each other.
"Working together with other merchants to plan events is a huge part of our marketing," says Megan Coffman, manager of Native Cleveland, an apparel shop created by CLE Clothing this year in the Waterloo Arts District in North Collinwood. Coffman and other retailers have been involved in promoting "Walk All Over Waterloo," a series of regular, seasonal events that promote the district as a shopping destination. Similar events have been held in the Gordon Square Arts District in Detroit Shoreway as well as Tremont, Ohio City, and other neighborhoods. One common result: a growing synergy among retailers.
Alex Nosse of Joy Machines, which caters to entry-level cyclists as well as serious commuters and individuals seeking a car-free lifestyle, says he chose Ohio City because he wanted to be part of a growing, tightly-knit community. The adjacent storefront was empty when he first moved in, yet it has since attracted another new tenant. "I wouldn't be surprised if every empty space on West 25th is filled within a year," he says.
One natural challenge to small businesses is that they often must market their wares with little or no budget, necessitating creative, shoestring measures that are effective — and free.
Revive, which launched a second, larger store in Legacy Village two years ago, is constantly on the hunt for new, low-cost ways to promote itself. "We have to be grassroots because we have no marketing budget," says Dunn, who organized four off-site sales and a fashion show in December.
"Social media is so important for small retailers," says Coffman, adding that Facebook and Twitter offer invaluable tools for free or low-cost marketing. CLE Clothing, for one, had been an online retailer for four years before creating its first bricks-and-mortar shop in 2011.
Most small stores cannot compete against big boxes on price alone. Yet even as chains offer recession-busting discounts aimed at luring shoppers from the sidelines, independents are attracting customers by offering unique experiences and products.
Dunn works with artisans in Guatemala and other countries to help them develop their products and market them in the U.S. Her stunning, colorful collection of scarves, bags, and clothing are unlike anything available in major retailers — or even other boutiques. Yet nurturing fair-trade businesses can be very time-consuming. "We buy their product, help them design it, and help them export it," she says. "These steps add a whole additional layer to what we do, and we have to absorb that cost."
To promote her unique, colorful apparel, Dunn touts Revive as a mission-based alternative. "I view our stores as David versus Goliath — small stores like ours versus the repressive sweatshop industry."
Because many of Joy Machines' customers also shop online, Nosse constantly checks his prices against what's available on the internet. He knows that he can't always compete with vendors operating out of remote warehouses, but his competitive advantage is in the fact that he and his partner, Renato Pereira-Castillo, literally live and breathe bikes. The two have known each other since they were teens growing up in Ohio City; before opening a store, they spent time fixing bikes in their friends' garages.
"We're able to recommend products, and we have a vested interest in what we're selling," says Nosse. Online customers would also miss the unique flavor of Nosse's store. Joy Machines' walls are adorned with bike-themed murals by Cleveland artist Haley Morris. A rendering of the Guardians of Transportation from the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge covers one wall, but the car that the historic statue carries is supplanted by a bicycle.