Borders has closed. Friendly’s filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Best Buy, Sears and Barnes & Noble are struggling to survive. But local, unique small businesses in downtown Saratoga Springs – Impressions of Saratoga, G. Willikers Toys, Saratoga Guitar Shop, Gaffney’s Restaurant, n. Fox Jewelers and more each boast multiple decades of staying power in our local community.
But the question remains: how does David continue to slay Goliath again and again, even in today’s difficult economic climate? For Dennis Brobston, president of the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation, part of the answer comes down to the little guy’s ability to change course and adapt quicker than their larger counterparts.
“Being flexible is the key,” said Brobston. “Being adaptable is much more important than being 10 percent below [in price to] everybody. Having knowledge is what that’s all about, as well as building a relationship with your customers. From my perspective, the locals do that much better.”
Technology has also played a key role in keeping local companies vibrant and relevant, according to Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
“I think they’ve really benefited from social media and the ability to collect emails and build friends on Facebook,” said Shimkus. “Even offering discounts to frequent customers through emails. I think they’ve become great marketers in terms of targeting their message to customers and making sure they come back more often. I think that started as a way for them to survive at first, and has become a way for them to thrive going forward.”
With buy local initiatives taking hold and events like the American Express Small Business Saturday surging in popularity, more consumers are taking the time to buy products made, grown or sold by other members in their community. The Internet may have brought about the Global Age, but consumers are quickly learning the benefits of supporting their neighbors.
“The fact is that consumers are more educated today. They have more access to information than they ever had before about products,” said Shimkus. “But one of the things that I think is really neat about local stores and restaurants is that you’re going to find something that’s unique in that store. And I think that’s what a lot of people are looking for.”
Beyond finding one-of-a-kind, unique products or menu items in local small businesses and restaurants, when consumers spend their money at a local mom-and-pop, that money in turn is reinvested in the community in a variety of ways – and in much larger quantities than when the same product is purchased at a national chain.
“Certainly when you buy local at a local restaurant or at a local retailer, you know that money is staying local, as opposed to going to a large operation that’s headquartered somewhere else. The profits [from local businesses] are probably being turned back into the local community, either at their business, or when they’re buying a home here, buying a car at a local dealership here, etc.” said Shimkus.
Money spent locally also generates revenue when it comes to sales tax. The more spent within Saratoga County (as opposed to purchasing the same product through an Internet retailer like Amazon), the more money the community is able to reinvest in itself.
Local businesses in Saratoga also give back in a different way to community residents, including helping to operate several special events that residents have come to know and love.
“Our members put on a lot of things that you’ve probably become familiar with, like the Victorian Streetwalk and the Fall Festival,” said Jeff Clark, president of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association (DBA). “They’re events we hold throughout the year so that our local residents understand that we appreciate them as much as we appreciate our visitors to Saratoga in the summer.”
For Marianne Barker, owner of Impressions of Saratoga on Broadway, the equation is simple: “I’ve always believed that you get out of it what you put in,” she said at a recent DBA meeting. Barker was speaking of the effort she and her husband, Dave, put into running their successful shop in downtown Saratoga Springs. But the same idea can be applied to a community’s support of their local businesses. The more customers support small businesses over large corporate chains, the more the community will benefit from a vibrant, unique and happening downtown district.
“Saratoga has a lot of community spirit; we take pride in our community,” said Linda Ambrosino, owner of G. Willikers. “I always like to ask people, when visitors come to the area from out of town, do you take them to the mall to show off the parking lot, or do you take them to downtown Saratoga?”
With many of the big-box chains traditionally located in malls struggling to remain afloat, educated consumers are answering Ambrosino’s questions loud and clear. They’re choosing to support their community by spending local.