Rumors of the death of the mom-and-pop store might be greatly exaggerated — at least in Bethesda, where small independent retailers continue to show signs of life.
In the past few months, several small businesses in Bethesda have shut down — Zelaya Shoes on St. Elmo Avenue, Kae Robin in the Bradley Shopping Center on Arlington Road and Just Cakes, which closed its brick-and-mortar shop on Rugby Avenue and now is open only online.
But are the closings emblematic of tough times, or just the natural ebb and flow of small businesses?
The standard narrative goes something like this: Big-box stores, online retailers and a bad economy all contribute to the demise of the small business.
Magazines, newspapers and books have described this phenomenon. The Atlantic Monthly ran an article in January titled “Hoboken Passing: Photographing the Last Mom-and-Pop Shops,” and Alex Marshall warned in his 2001 book “How Cities Work” of the possible end of the small retailer. “The general trend has been bigger wholesalers and retailers gobbling up or displacing smaller ones,” Marshall wrote, “until we arrive at our present era of OfficeMaxes, CompUSAs and Home Depots.”
But is it really true?
While there is a Home Depot behind Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Chuck Kelley, manager at Strosnider’s Hardware, said it has little effect on the small family-owned hardware store chain.
“They’re really not our competition,” Kelley said. “We’re a small, intimate store with enough employees that really help the customer.”
Prices might be a bit higher at Strosnider’s, Kelley said, but the excellent customer service has fostered a customer loyalty that helps secure its success.
It’s a message that several small business owners repeated.
“Customer loyalty is what’s going to keep everything from turning into big-box stores,” said Linda Ridenour, one of the owners of Bruce Variety. “It’s a matter of relationship with customers.”
The beloved Bethesda institution’s January closing caused such an outcry, the owners decided to reopen the store somewhere else. The move, into a retail space with less expensive rent, has allowed Bruce Variety to expand its offerings, Ridenour said, and to keep prices competitive.
Bruce Variety will reopen March 30 at its new location at 8011 Woodmont Ave., and a sidewalk sale is planned for Easter Sunday.
Linda Siou, who has been with Bradley CARE Pharmacy in the Bradley Shopping Center for 13 years, agreed that loyalty keeps people coming back to the drugstore. The small business is directly across Arlington Road from a CVS Pharmacy, part of a large chain.
Justin McIreny, the buyer and manager of Capital Beer and Wine, which opened on Norfolk Avenue in March 2011, said operating a small business is always challenging. You need to do the math, he said, and have a good business plan. After that, it comes down to good-quality products and knowledgeable service, which breed customer loyalty.
Those sentiments support what Ron S. Jarmin, an economist with the Center for Economic Studies at the U.S. Census Bureau, and two other authors found in a research paper published in 2009 called “Mom-and-Pop Meet Big-Box: Complements or Substitutes?” The study examined the effects of chain retailers within the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. They found that small businesses that weren’t both nearby and in direct competition with a big-box store did not suffer.
Most new businesses are small businesses, Jarmin said, and while it’s a volatile sector, small businesses are not going the way of the dial-up connection.
“In a place like Bethesda,” Jarmin said, “I don’t think there’s any evidence to say they’ve decreased over time.”
But for those who have shuttered a small business — whether because of the economy, competition or just the vagaries of customer taste — the experience can be painful.
Tony Zelaya recently shut down his namesake shoe store after 10 years in Bethesda.
“I think it’s a sad situation. Everyone shops big-box stores and online,” Zelaya said.
In a “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em” move, the Bethesda native recently moved to Dubai, where he accepted a job as buyer for what he described as the “Zappos of the Middle East,” referring to a large online shoe and clothing company.
“I loved my store for a long time,” Zelaya said. “But when it comes to shoes, they go to DSW and then wonder why small stores can’t make it.”