Inside the Current State of Westchester’s Retail Business Scene

Can brick-and-mortar stores compete in an increasingly online-loving world where everything is at your fingertips?

The “Retail Apocalypse,” the severe downturn in brick-and-mortar storefront businesses, hit the US in the 2010s and saw the demise of icons like Borders books, Sears, Toys R Us and J.Crew. The pandemic hit at the decade’s end and many couldn’t pivot to e-commerce fast enough and even more retailers failed.

Our culture has come out the other end of the COVID 19 nightmare but where has that left the retail business? Can a brick-and-mortar storefront survive when everything consumers want is quite literally at their fingertips.

“The long and the short of it is, it is really, really tough,” Brian Orsi says. He co-owns Peekskill’s Bucko!, with his wife, Katie. “When you’re going up against the internet and Amazon, their products are just a click away.” Bucko! carries unique clothes, gifts and home goods.

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Online businesses changed the playing field almost as fast as the proliferation of personal computers and smart phones. For many, the changes caught them blindsided.

“There’s no doubt business has gotten harder but I’m not going to say it was COVID, it is definitely the internet,” Michelle Anderson, the owner of Le Dentelliere in Scarsdale, says. “It used to be we would be worried about what the guy in Larchmont or Bronxville was carrying but I don’t even think about that any more. It is the internet.” Le Dentelliere carries high end fine gifts, home décor, and bedding and bath.

“Every day at Country Willow we have eight designers in house ready to help furniture shoppers. This isn’t something you can get online.”
Marissa Foster
Marketing Assistant
Country Willow

Orsi and Anderson may acknowledge that retail businesses have their hands full when it comes to challenges but not everyone is ready to sound the death knell for this sector. In fact, there are indicators that retail is thriving or getting ready to thrive post COVID.

“The Westchester Mall saw fantastic growth in 2023 with nine new stores. Same for the Cross County Mall in Yonkers. Toys and home goods are strong performers and they’re seeing an uptick of sales. Strong categories include fragrances, clothing and career wear, which is interesting because you can’t feel or smell things over the internet,” Marsha Gordon, the executive director of the Business Council of Westchester, says.

Being able to touch what you want to buy means that brick-and-mortar outlets offer something the internet can’t — an in-person experience. Sure, everyone wants to get the best deal that they possibly can but small businesses have the ability to make the experience part of the package. A big part of that package is service.

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“The internet is convenient and many times they have good prices because of the low overhead but the internet can’t wrap your gift, they can’t show you around, and they can’t help you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for,” Anderson says. “Retail is in my DNA, this what I do. It is what I know how to do.”

Brick-and-mortar stores may be at a disadvantage when it comes to setting competitive prices and margins but their ability to cater to consumers’ needs and desires isn’t something e-commerce can easily reproduce. The in-person experience and the service that goes along with it sets them apart from online businesses.

“Every day at Country Willow we have eight designers in house ready to help furniture shoppers. This isn’t something you can get online,” Marissa Foster, Country Willow’s marketing assistant, says. “Wouldn’t anyone want to touch fabric before they bought a piece of furniture? I can’t imagine buying a mattress that comes in a box.” Country Willow is a furniture store in Bedford Hills.

Louis Scamardella is the executive director of the Lower Hudson Small Business Council. He believes service should be the central focus for small businesses and where they can really widen the gap in the competition.

“Excellent service is how a business can separate itself from the online distributors. It is the chance to personalize what you’re in business for and service is what people are looking for,” Scamardella says.

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What constitutes service can take different forms. It may mean the social attention that goes along with things like gift wrapping, custom products or value-added attention like free design work. It can also mean doing the research and homework for the consumer who isn’t sure what they want or what they want as a gift for someone else.

“At Bucko! part of what separates us is curation. We have things that people can’t easily get somewhere else or things they didn’t know exist. That’s a very hard thing for a web business to duplicate,” Brian Orsi says.

“When you’re going up against the internet and Amazon, their products are just a click away.”
Brian Orsi, Co-owner
Bucko!

Orsi’s curation is not just about service, it highlights another advantage that small brick-and-mortar establishments can cultivate with some effort. Big box stores and giant online retailers may have large inventories and low overhead but bringing unique items to the forefront isn’t easy for them. It is much easier to present the unique items physically so customers can discover them as they browse.

“We purchase all of our products from small businesses in South Africa. The products are mainly handmade and when people come into the store it is an experience for them,” Sarah Briginshaw, owner of Sarza, in Rye, says. “Our store is made up of products you can’t see anywhere else.” Sarza features curated home goods, furniture and accessories.

The uniqueness can also come in being able to truly customize products and meet the needs of what the customers demand. When you combine attentive service with items that the consumer can’t get other places or that would be very difficult to get online, you have created a market. It is an effort and takes some creativity but it can and must be done for a small business to win.

“When people come into Country Willow they can see and experience what the possibilities are and, as I said before, get free guidance from a designer. We can also customize furniture and present the customer with thousands of color choices,” Foster says.

The idea of creating an experience is central to retail success. That can mean different things to different retailers but all agree it is essential. It is something that Gordon puts on the top of her list of have-tos in today’s market.

“The internet is convenient and many times they have good prices because of the low overhead but the internet can’t wrap your gift, they can’t show you around, and they can’t help you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.”
Michelle Anderson
Owner
Le Dentelliere

The idea of creating an experience is central to retail success. That can mean different things to different retailers but all agree it is essential. It is something that Gordon puts on the top of her list of have-tos in today’s market.

“Small retail businesses have to create a really pleasant environment in which to shop. The businesses that can create that atmosphere and a specialized niche have success,” she says.

A specialty gift shop like Le Dentelliere not only displays items that surprise and delight, they also have nurtured an atmosphere that people come back to. Anderson may have retail in her blood but that just may be another way of saying she’s a people person. Her personality lights up her store and people come in because the experience is welcoming and simply put, fun.

“It is really about relationships. I run into customers at restaurants in Manhattan and they maybe be multi-millionaires but they know us from the store and come over. It is really, really sweet. I’m just a shopkeeper but we form relationships,” she says.

It almost seems like it is a battle between brick-and-mortar and the online world but in reality, successful small businesses have to live in the e-commerce world to survive. It may not be their main focus but it at least has to be a component. Online offerings may drive consumers into the store and the storefronts can drive people online. To not live in both worlds is a mistake.

“It is an absolute necessity to be online with a quality website and with good photographs that show the store in the best light. I would say every business should be an online business,” Scamardella says.

Retailers have a choice when it comes to how much they want to dive into e-commerce. It can be everything from a true ordering platform, an order online and pick up in the store feature, or something as simple as a bridal registry. Social media, whether it is X, Instagram or Facebook, allows for back and forth interactions that build virtual relationships.

“Instagram saved us during the pandemic. We posted daily with photographs and offered deals that people reacted to. It was an important part of what we did,” says Anderson.

“It is an absolute necessity to be online with a quality website and with good photographs that show the store in the best light. I would say every business should be an online business.”
Louis Scamardella
Executive Director
Lower Hudson Small Business Council

For others, online is much more of a fundamental part of their business.

“Customers can order online and that makes up a significant part of our sales. It also brings people to the store so the benefits go both ways,” Susan Briginshaw says.

There’s no question retail isn’t what it was 20 years ago but for the small business owner with interesting, niche products who provide excellent service and a shopping experience, there is clearly cause for optimism.

“What does the future hold for retail? I see it continuing to grow and boom for both online and brick-and-mortar businesses,” Gordon says.

Related: What Does the Future of Business Look Like in Westchester?

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