The Selling Season

Critical time of year for small businesses

December 13, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Second of three articles At the end of another 11-hour day, Bernardo Grinblat welcomes the chance to leave his North Baltimore emporium of glass, ceramic and wood artistry and watch sports. His wife, Arlene, reads a lot, more this time of year.

"And she probably loses a little more sleep than I do," he confided. "When the bills are due at the beginning of December and you bought all this extra merchandise, it gets a little stressful. But every year it's OK, so you know this year it will be OK."

The Grinblats own Tomlinson Craft Collection, a small shop of merchandise ranging from $4 metal kazoos to original artwork costing thousands. Tucked inside The Rotunda mall, their shop is part of a vast legion of small merchants across the country for whom this time of year is critical.

They face competitors their predecessors didn't -- from the likes of Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and eBay -- although their businesses operate in many ways as shopkeepers have for hundreds of years, by scouting out desirable things and by building a client base and a solid reputation. And like merchants from the Victorian age to the digital one, this time of year can wear on the nerves.

No room for mistakes

For the Grinblats, this is the sixth holiday season. That's something of an eternity in retail, where fashion seems to change as often as The Gap commercials, advertising grows ever more slick and sophisticated, and the most rapidly growing method of shopping doesn't even involve stores, just a computer with Internet access.

There's little room for merchandise misjudgments among the nation's small stores, especially those in cities, as markets have been blanketed by chains and giant discounters. Independent merchants typically glean 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the year-end holidays. This year, they must also find a way to capture attention from a buying public whose wallets have been lightened by climbing gasoline prices.

And the statistics are stacked against them: In each of the past several years, more than a half-million small businesses in the United States, one of every 10, have gone under.

Scott Sheperd, a Toledo, Ohio-based author and stress counselor, said merchants' emotional survival hinges on preparation of both a holiday business plan and a holiday coping plan. It could be listening to music during the day or taking a walk after a fussy customer leaves. They need to remind themselves of what is good in their lives and work, he said.

"Don't just manage your stress, rekindle your spirit," he said.

The Grinblats say their spirits are just fine.

However, they acknowledge that they have no particular plan, don't advertise much or pay attention to retail surveys. Their strategy behind choosing merchandise might make a Fifth Avenue marketing executive crazy: They generally buy what they like. Bernardo said they pick about 80 percent together and then they each pick about 10 percent that the other isn't so sure about and see how it sells.

In the shop's first hour of business one recent weekday, they sold nearly an entire shelf of tear-drop candles to one woman who works in an office upstairs and a $1,200 metal clock nearly 6 feet tall with four regal metal legs. The purchase might have been an impulse buy because the customer had to leave it to pick up a bigger car to get it home.

Good demographics

The Grinblats -- he from Argentina, she from New Jersey -- bought the shop about six years ago. It opened in 1972.

Ginny Tomlinson had built a loyal following before retiring in 1998 after 26 years of selling jewelry, pottery, stuffed animals and clothing. At one time, Tomlinson had other shops in Mount Vernon, Harborplace and, later, Towson, where she and others went in search of more business and more customer parking.

The Rotunda is a good spot, the Grinblats said, because of the demographics of the surrounding North Baltimore neighborhoods. There's a mix of well-to-do, students and young professionals, some with children.

Their nod to conventional holiday retailing was the recent addition of a Christmas tree in the store -- their first, personally or professionally.

They do wish that the Rotunda attracted more foot traffic and filled some of the storefronts that have remained persistently empty even as the mall has struggled to make a comeback. At least the refurbished two-screen Rotunda Cinematheque that opened in 2002 has helped. What the Grinblats believe could really boost their shop of artist-inspired items, perhaps ironically, is one of the most ubiquitous chains in retail: a Starbucks coffee shop.

It doesn't look like Santa will bring one in time for Christmas this year, but that's OK because the Grinblats plan on being around a while. They'll open their doors six days a week, count on a big rush right before Christmas and then do their own "market research" for next year: That involves taking note of what sells well in their store this season.

The owners stocked every shelf, case and stand with gem-filled necklaces, blown-glass bowls and boxes and clocks made of wood. There are stuffed puppets and chenille scarves and candles in every color of the rainbow.

And while many of the items tend toward the high end, they also offer picturesque night-lights, miniature glass hearts and a variety of ornaments that hang from the ceiling.

The Grinblats say holiday shoppers account for about a quarter of their business -- enough to linger in the backs of their minds long after the sun goes down each day of December.

"We won't know how good the holiday season was until January," Bernardo said. "Every year, some things work, some things don't, even when you think you have the best possible item. All we can do is listen to our customers. And try not to worry too much."

Next in series

Tomorrow: In the maze of coupons, markdowns and instore discounts, who knows what constitutes a good deal?

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