Home Fairfield Mom & pop retailers endure and adapt amid industry upheaval

Mom & pop retailers endure and adapt amid industry upheaval

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For 14 years, Mo’s Wine & Spirits has been a fixture of Fairfield’s Post Road shopping district. For Maureen Abrahamson, who co-owns the store with her husband, Mark, the business operation is not a vendor-customer exchange, but a gathering of friends and neighbors.

“We’re friendly,” said Abrahamson. “We live in Fairfield and we know most of our customers. We either coach their teams, have been their Brownie leaders, served on downtown commissions or supported their local charities.”

A few minutes down the street, Robert Sussman’s family-owned Fairfield Center Jewelers has even deeper roots in the town. “We opened in 1933 and we’ve worked with three or four generations of families,” he said of the business at 1498 Post Road started by his grandfather, Louis Sussman. “It’s not your typical retail situation. I’d say we know 85 percent of our customers’ names
and addresses.”

mom and pop shops
Mark and Maureen Abrahamson at their Mo’s Wine & Spirits shop in Fairfield. Photo by Phil Hall.

While Fairfield’s Post Road has its share of national retailers — Banana Republic, CVS, DSW, Marshall’s, Rite-Aid and Victoria’s Secret among them — stores like Mo’s Wine and Spirits and Fairfield Center Jewelers are not only part of the mix, but are also the backbone of the local business community. But that is hardly unique for this town.

“In many central business districts in Westchester and Fairfield counties, we see a nice mix between national retailers and a good amount of mom and pop stores,” said Jonathan H. Gordon, CEO at Admiral Real Estate Services Corp. in Bronxville.

The mom and pop stores were there first. “They were the original retailers to the world before mass merchandising retailing took effect,” said Marty Deitch, partner at the Hartsdale-based brokerage Aries Deitch & Endelson. “They are the backbone of every town, village and city in Westchester and Fairfield County. If we didn’t have them, we’d be in a lot of trouble.”

The National Retail Federation reported that more than 98 percent of all U.S. retailers are small businesses, defined as companies employing fewer than 50 people. How many of these fall into the “mom and pop store” niche, which traditionally includes family-owned and -operated businesses, is not certain. Yet Deitch noted that in this region, massive changes over the past few decades nearly obliterated these smaller retailers.

“Problems started in the mid-1980s and ran up to our so-called Great Recession,” Deitch said “Upscale towns became a part of the malls. A proliferation of big box retailers started to go into the downtown areas in Rye, Mount Kisco, Eastchester, Westport, New Canaan and on Greenwich Avenue. As a result, a lot of small retailers’ leases were not renewed because landlords saw gold in them thar hills.”

A nationally prominent retailer has greater spatial needs than a small local business, and Deitch noted that landlords accommodated the new tenants’ needs. “They made way for these retailers by creating bigger stores that were around 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. The mom and pop stores may have had 900 to 1,200 square feet. And the landlords got a little spoiled and started charging higher rents.”

After the 2008 economic crisis, many financially struggling national retail chains started to close stores around the country. And with growing use of the internet, Amazon and other e-commerce sites dramatically changed the retail environment.

Yet the mom and pop stores did not become extinct. In some ways, they benefited from changing consumer trends and a shift away from national retailers to more localized shopping.

“It’s just like the farm-to-table movement,” said Abrahamson. “People want to support their neighbors and their friends and the people who give back to
the community.”

“There is a grass-roots movement to shop local and buy from small business,” said Jessica Curtis, a senior managing director at Newmark Knight Frank’s commercial real estate office in Stamford. “I go out of my way to shop local. I have some very good relations with boutique owners who know me and my kids and they know what type of clothing I’m looking for.”

Pauline Assenza, an associate professor of management and small-business entrepreneurship at Western Connecticut State University’s Ancell School of Business, said the continued presence of these smaller stores contradicted a long-held assumption that governed the retail industry. “It was a myth that when Walmart comes to town, the Main Street businesses will die,” she said. “That’s not necessarily true. The smaller retailers have been around long enough to understand the needs of people who walk by their stores.”

As for the threat from the internet, the mom and pop stores might be ahead of
the curve.

Peter Gioia, vice president and economist at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said today’s mom-and-pop retailer does not have to be a brick and mortar establishment. “It is not unusual to see them open up online,” he said. “That’s how small businesses become nationwide and global.”

Gordon at Admiral Real Estate Services said many of those retailers maintain both e-commerce sites and traditional brick and mortar outlets. “I am seeing them more and more as an omnichannel presence,” he said. “The mom and pop stores are learning to take advantage of this as well.”

Gordon added that the successful mom and pop stores have not lost the key element that made them a community bedrock: “They really understand how to give clients what they want.”

At Fairfield Center Jewelers, Sussman said that many big box retailers don’t understand the emotional value that his customers place in the merchandise they seek. “Their items are made for a price, but our items are made for a lifetime of quality wear,” he said. “We also own our building, so our margins are very competitive. We don’t devote our savings to markup.”

Not every mom and pop has the luxury of owning its building, especially among the new wave of entrepreneurs. Leanna Lawter, associate professor at Sacred Heart University’s Jack Welch College of Business, said tomorrow’s mom and pop stores might tap into the pop-up retail trend by building their customer base and name recognition through temporary settings within existing spaces or in tents or trucks.

“This is a great way to generate business without a heavy and large investment in physical retail location,” she said. “In a pop-up, there is a lower risk of capital output.”

Sussman said a small, family-owned retail operation should “have a truly good business plan that spells out responsibility.”

At Mo’s Wine & Spirits, the Abrahamsons divide their labor, with Mark managing the store while Maureen is responsible for
financial matters.

“He’s the passion guy, I’m the numbers lady,” she said. “You need to have both of these pursuits to make it work.”

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