Small Business Saturday is growing in popularity, despite the convenience offered by online retailers, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Retail Federation.
The survey revealed that 59.9 million shoppers were in stores on Nov. 30, compared with last year’s 58.2 million.
For many merchants in East Meadow, however, it was business as usual. The community faces obstacles as it competes with online retailers during the holiday season.
Chris Hackert, the owner of East Meadow Florist, sees most of his holiday business two weeks or so after Thanksgiving weekend. “I always find people get flowers much closer to Christmas week itself,” he said. “I don’t really promote Small Business Saturday for that reason.”
Business usually picks up around Dec. 18, Hackert said, and customers come in looking for poinsettias and centerpieces to give as gifts.
Al Anselmo opened East Meadow Florist on Hempstead Turnpike in 1961, and Hackert, a past president of the Chamber of Commerce and East Meadow Kiwanis, began working there in 1980. Hackert bought the shop from Anselmo’s son Albert in 1996 before moving it to another property on the same street in 2009. Two years ago, he downsized the business and moved to East Meadow Avenue, where he is now the sole proprietor.
“My claim to fame is that I’m a one-man operation,” Hackert said. “I’m the guy who takes your order, creates your order, delivers your order and sweeps up when I’m done. I like it that way, and the customers have responded well to it.”
Hackert’s story is unique to East Meadow, where small business owners face clear challenges in an age where consumers can do all their holiday shopping without leaving their houses.
There is some good news for brick-and-mortar shops: This is the first holiday season in which online shoppers are paying sales tax when buying from out-of-state retailers, the result of a state mandate passed this summer. The legislation came a year after the U.S. Supreme Court found, in South Dakota vs. Wayfair, that local businesses are at an unfair advantage when attempting to compete with out-of-state online retailers that don’t collect sales taxes.
But some business owners are still not satisfied in East Meadow, where many large entities are exempt from taxes, including Eisenhower Park, Nassau University Medical Center and the Nassau County Correctional Center. This does not affect homeowners, but the burden is shifted to local business owners.
“The average homeowner doesn’t know my office [property] taxes are four times greater than the property taxes on my home,” said Walter Skinner, a past president of the chamber and owner of the Skinner Agency, a chapter of Allstate Insurance.
During Skinner’s tenure as chamber president in 2011, East Meadow was dotted with empty storefronts. Skinner looked into some of the reasons, and the obstacles that local business owners still face today, such as high retail property taxes that force some first-time store owners to close.
But almost a decade later, the tide seems to be turning, as more and more businesses are arriving in East Meadow, the chamber is growing, and its board chairman, Frank Camarano, represents the community as vice president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce.
Camarano, the owner of East Meadow’s World Gym, took part in Vision Long Island’s annual Smart Growth Summit on Dec. 6 at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Westbury. Attendees spoke about ways in which business owners can entice consumers to shop local as opposed to online. One method is what he termed “experiential retail.”
“People are shopping local by going to World Gym because you can’t work out online,” Camarano said. “If you’re going to buy clothing, you may want to try it on — you could experience it firsthand. It’s about creating an experience for shoppers.”
Camarano pointed to East Meadow’s Stew Leonard’s and Ryann’s Wines, both of which regularly host events like Leonard’s upcoming Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 14 and 15.
Where the community is at another disadvantage, Camarano said, is the lack of a vibrant downtown, which many communities have built around a Long Island Rail Road station — which East Meadow doesn’t have.
“East Meadow was a farming community back in the day,” he said. “The [hamlet] was built with some stretches of stores and then clusters of houses. For people to shop local and stay in their community, they have to get in a car and travel from shopping center to shopping center.”
But Camarano is hopeful, he said, because of franchises like Stew Leonard’s that are attracted to the community. In recent years, businesses like Qdoba, Sonic and the Greene Turtle have opened in East Meadow. This year, a Chick-fil-A is set to open on Hempstead Turnpike.
“We have those businesses coming here because big corporate places could afford to,” Skinner said. “But we need people to understand that shopping local supports the new businesses that might not be able to afford to stay here.”
Camarano lauded his colleagues in the chamber, which hosts many events and programs for, and in coordination with, its member businesses. “We do whatever it takes to have people shop local and support our merchants here,” he said.
As Camarano was speaking with the Herald on Monday, he was preparing for the chamber’s annual holiday party that night. There, chamber members presented checks to the beneficiaries of their annual Culinary Delights events, fundraisers in which dozens of local restaurants share samples of their food with the community.