ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The past couple of generations have been tough on mom and pop retailers. First came the rise of big-box retail, and now the internet surge.
Even the big guys now are struggling to adapt in the face of changing consumer habits. Sears, Macy’s and smaller specialty retailers like Bebe’s and The Loft are shedding stores and jobs.
But somehow, some small, independent businesses in Albuquerque have found ways to adapt and survive, in some cases for decades. It may be filling a niche, providing a service or adapting to new realities, and nearly all of them point to having longtime, repeat customers. The Journal talked with a handful of local retailers to find out just how they make it. Here’s what they had to say.
Two keys: diversification and adaptation.
“If I had to rely on sales of musical instruments alone, I’d fail,” laments Baum’s owner Dan Louton. “I’m a brick-and-mortar store in 2017. I (have to) change with the times.”
Baum’s has found its way to success by expanding its services and making connections in the community.
Baum’s operates out of a 5,000-square-foot store at Candelaria and Eubank NE where it has resided for more than 30 years, though Baum’s itself was started by Jerry Baum in 1947. The music store employs five people and a slew of subcontractors who handle music lessons, instrument repairs and deliveries.
During the summer months, Baum’s does on-site instrument repairs with schools all over the state. Louton has also made inroads with UNM.
Although Baum’s does face some competition from large national chains like Guitar Center, the main competition these days is the internet. But the relationships he has formed in the community keep customers coming. “I can’t compete with online,” Louton said. “I have to find ways to be proactive and stay relevant.”
Shane Louton, the store manager and Dan Louton’s son, said Baum’s also offers high-end products that many customers may feel uncomfortable ordering online. “People may buy a $150 trumpet online and just take the risk,” Shane Louton said. “But not many will want to buy a high-quality, $600 trumpet on the internet.”
The Man’s Hat Shop
The Man’s Hat Shop also offers items not easily purchased online, has strong community ties and a loyal customer base.
Stuart Dunlap has been in the “headwear” business for 43 years, but his father started the shop in 1946. The Dunlaps have occupied the same 3,000-square-foot space Downtown on Central between Fifth and Sixth streets for 53 years.
“Our store is a destination,” Dunlap said. “Cowboys will climb through the muck to get here.”
Last year, he said, was their best sales year yet.
Dunlap is fairly unfazed by online buying tendencies. He sells high-end hats, and though it might not seem like it, a lot of details go into purchasing high-end headwear.
“I personally wouldn’t want to go online to purchase a $300 hat,” he said.
Dunlap also said there is always at least one customer base that will need a hat: “A lot of gentlemen don’t have a whole lot of hair.”
Archie’s Books on Tape
Nick Bolanos has owned and operated Archie’s Books on Tape for two decades.
His shop, a 1,500-square-foot box on Osuna NE near San Mateo, began as a paperback and comic book store. Roughly 10 years ago, Bolanos converted to exclusively audiobooks.
We changed “to make sure we have a niche, which you have to do in this market,” he said.
Bolanos keeps his overhead low and has only one part-time employee, not including his dog Billie, who Bolanos said is the biggest customer draw. He offers rentals, allowing him to make money several times off of a single item.
Bolanos still finds that his largest competition is online sites such as Audible and iTunes. His only direct physical competitor, Aardvark Audiobooks, closed last year.
His competitive advantage? Knowing his trade and offering customer service. “People really come for the recommendations.”
David Peralta is in the business of DVD rentals and sales, an industry that was thriving in the brick-and-mortar sphere a decade ago. Then, more-convenient options like Netflix, Amazon and Redbox took over that market, which is now being supplanted by online digital sales and rentals and streaming services.
Hollywood Video, Blockbuster Video and Hastings have all come and gone. Peralta is still standing.
Peralta sells both new and used DVDs. He has survived by keeping overhead low and diversifying products. Those methods, he said, are helping him thrive now.
And with the demise of Hastings, his last large national competitor, a new opportunity opened up. Peralta had only been selling DVDs in recent years, but he started renting new releases last October after Hastings closed and he began getting “a lot of questions about rentals.”
He acknowledges the consumer shift online but believes there will always be people who want to buy products in a store. And as large national brick-and-mortar retailers fall away, he says, mom and pop stores are well positioned to fill that niche. “Yeah, the mom and pop rental places, and comic book stores, and everything, they are going to come back,” Peralta said.
Page One Books has been a fixture in Albuquerque for 36 years, and co-owner Steve Stout said they plan to be around much longer.
The company survived a Chapter 11 reorganization in 2011, and then four years ago, Page One moved from its Montgomery location to a 7,000-square-foot store at the Mountain Run Shopping Center at Eubank and Juan Tabo. Though Stout says he hasn’t noticed much of an uptick in business since Hastings closed, he did say that business has improved every year since the move to the new location.
Stout said online sellers, notably Amazon, are his main competition, but he also uses the internet to help his business. Page One has a large antiquarian book section, and those rare items are listed at www.abebooks.com.
Compared with other bookstores, Page One has a relatively high overhead, employing 10 people and carrying new books as well as used. But Stout says he found a niche in offering a large selection of used and inexpensive books, a niche that his largest brick-and-mortar competitor, Barnes and Noble, can’t fill.
He said he is also lucky in his customer base. “In the last few years, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of teens and kids who are coming in. They want actual books. It’s great,” Stout said.
Kirby Company of New Mexico
Kirby Company of New Mexico, located at San Mateo and Copper NE, has been around since 1949 – and at its current location since 1954.
Kirby N.M. is a service company and an independent distributor for Kirby Vacuums, a Cleveland-based company.
To some extent, Kirby N.M.’s fortunes rise and fall with the success of its parent company – Kirby is the only brand the store handles. But as an independent distributor, the company also has to find ways to succeed on its own.
Owner Lowell Dickerson said things haven’t really changed much since his grandfather started the business. House calls are still central to the sales model; family is still the heart of the company – his mother does the bookkeeping and his daughter Katie is the project manager; and personal touch is “what it’s all about.”
Kirby N.M.’s main competition isn’t a specific online entity or a nearby business – it’s the overall trend of consumers to replace rather than repair, according to Dickerson. Luckily, Kirby vacuums tend to last a while, he said, and their owners buck that trend.
Dickerson’s business succeeds with vacuums that have been passed down through generations as heirlooms as well as the popularity of items deemed “retro.” The business has sold about 94,000 units since 1949.
Katie has brought a younger spark, setting up a web presence and other marketing campaigns.
Dickerson’s strategy, he said, relies largely on a good sales team and a workshop full of replacement parts dating back to the 1940s.