As Retail Marathon Starts, Harlem Small Businesses Emphasize Personal Touch

As Retail Marathon Starts, Harlem Small Businesses Emphasize Personal Touch
Monday, November 26, 2012

By Isobel Markham and Charles Eichacker

“We needed to do something the big boxes weren’t doing,” said Princess Jenkins, owner of The Brownstone women’s boutique on 125th Street at Madison Avenue, referring to large chain retailers.

So Jenkins called her “priority clients” and stayed open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Black Friday, serving champagne and offering customers the chance to draw discount cards of 15 to 20 percent out of a box.

“We ended up having a decent Black Friday,” Jenkins said. “People were in shopping mode, all ‘Rah rah rah!’”

Over a Thanksgiving weekend that saw more online shopping than ever, small business owners in Harlem viewed the digital migration with mixed feelings.

Some, acknowledging their inability to compete with the huge Black Friday discounts of large online retailers, focused instead on providing a unique experience and a personal touch to local customers. Others threw themselves right into the digital fray.

Many uptown retailers, including The Brownstone, for the first time took part in the Small Business Saturday campaign American Express created in 2010 to encourage consumers to support local stores. The campaign offers American Express cardholders $25 rebates when they shop in stores registered for the event.  Uptown shopkeepers reported varying degrees of success.

Land Yoga offered clients 10 percent off all services on Small Business Saturday.  “There was a good amount of people who came,” said Lara Land, owner of the yoga studio on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 114th Street . “I would definitely keep doing it.”

Yet Land said that while American Express was “doing their best to make it easy,” she found it difficult to take full advantage. The company offered participating businesses the chance to print two free posters at a nearby Federal Express store, but Land was too busy teaching classes and running her studio to pick them up. “If I had two more weeks to prepare, then I would have had the poster in my window,” she said.

Land wasn’t the only one who found promotion difficult. Ibrahima Doukoure, co-owner of the Bebenoir boutique, received his Small Business Saturday promotional materials from American Express only two or three days beforehand.

Yet Doukoure said that, contrary to expectations, the larger retailers on 125th Street and at the East River Plaza mall in East Harlem actually benefitted his business by luring  more shoppers to the area. However, he decided not to compete with big chains by offering Black Friday discounts.

“Last year we did Black Friday,” he said. “That never worked for us.”

Bebenoir also bowed out of the online competition. “We used to sell online, but it’s definitely not big sales for us,” Doukoure said, adding that with marketing costs and the staff needed to run an online store, “we’ll spend more than we actually get.”

Yet other small businesses uptown consider an online presence crucial. “Whenever you’re not online for commerce, you’re missing out,” said Felix James, manager and buyer at Swing boutique on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 118th Street, which sells clothing and gifts. He is building Swing’s online store and hopes to launch it in time for holiday shopping.

Nationally, shoppers are increasingly seeking holiday deals from the comfort of their home computers. According to the National Retail Federation, 47.5 percent of adult shoppers surveyed shopped online on Black Friday. Of the $423.55 the average shopper spent over the weekend, $172.42 was spent online.

Read the full story at The Uptowner