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Three Wantagh stores take on the internet

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As shoppers become increasingly comfortable fulfilling their needs online, brick-and-mortar businesses have had to adopt a variety of strategies to survive. And as online behemoth Amazon moves into more and more sectors, even retailers once immune to the threat, such as gourmet groceries, are looking over their shoulders and developing unique ways of surviving.

Brands Cycle & Fitness, one of New York’s largest retailers of bicycles, components, accessories and clothing, elected to join forces with Amazon, leveraging the retail giant’s size and market reach. At the same time, a large part of Brands’ market consists of items that cannot easily be bought sight unseen, like bicycling shoes. Brands is the largest retailer of the footwear on Long Island, if not New York, according to Byron James, one of the store’s four managers.

Fit is critical, especially for the serious cyclist, James said. And while Amazon allows customers to return items, Brands’ enormous selection and expert guidance makes shopping for the right shoe more efficient, he added.

Fit is equally important in the selection of a bicycle frame. The casual cyclist may buy equipment more or less off the rack, James said, and here, Amazon is also a useful partner. But “serious cyclists need to fit a frame’s geometry to their physical dimensions,” or they can develop health problems over time, he said.

“We also have an entire section of the store dedicated to eBay shoppers,” James said. And Brands has its own website, brandcycle.com, which offers the store’s complete range of products. Shoes are sold through a second website, bikeshoes.com.

Here, Amazon’s order fulfillment has been most useful. “They warehouse a range of our products,” James explained. “When an order comes in, they can fulfill it immediately, because they stock our products.”

In contrast to Brands, Iavarone Brothers, 90-year veterans in the gourmet grocery segment, have taken an independent approach to web marketing. The four brothers, great-grandsons of founder Pasquale Iavarone, own and manage four markets and two restaurants in Nassau County, including the chain’s largest store, in Wantagh, which opened in 2004 in the Cherrywood Shopping Center.

Store manager Chris Iavarone is acutely aware of Amazon’s looming presence in grocery shopping, saying, “It’ll definitely be a game changer,” especially in packaged goods such as pastas and sauces, where the brothers have their own brand. Iavarone pointed out that online shopping services like Peapod have been around for at least a decade. His company has developed a relationship with Mercato, a service that specializes in gourmet foods.

In addition, Iavarone has a substantial catering business. “We do everything from complete Thanksgiving dinners to gift baskets to corporate luncheons,” he said.

“Online shoppers are maybe a little more popular with millennials,” he continued. “They don’t always have quite the same experience with fresh food that some of our older customers have,” where smell, taste and freshness can only be judged in person. “Look at our apple section,” he said. “No bruises, everything the freshest and best quality we can find. Everything’s chosen for freshness and flavor. We offer top-quality produce, meats, bakery items and prepared foods — everything across the board — at a very competitive price point.”

Shopping at Iavarone is only marginally more expensive than at any of the local chain groceries in the area, despite the focus on premium quality.

Like Brands, Iavarone has a website featuring its own line of products. Customers can also place catering orders or use the Mercato shopping service. Unlike Brands, the Iavarone brothers handle their own order fulfillment.

The two businesses are large, well-known, almost iconic presences on Long Island, with strong, established brands. The Iavarone family has been doing business locally since 1927, and Brands has been a leader in its business sector for more than a half-century.

At the other end of the spectrum, D’Angelo’s sports, a small, highly specialized business, has carved out a niche selling darts, pool sticks and baseball cards. At first glance, it would seem that Mike D’Angelo’s business would be just the sort to suffer most from online competition. Similar — or identical — products are available online through both Amazon and eBay.

So why is D’Angelo confident? His store on Wantagh Avenue, founded by his father and operating for more than 30 years, is doing quite well, D’Angelo said, and for many of the same reasons that Brands and Iavarone Brothers cited for their success: Customers like to see and touch the product.

Online, buyers take their chances, hoping what they’ve chosen will look and feel as they imagine it from the websites. At D’Angelo’s, “we have dart boards in the back of the store,” Mike said, “and customers can come in and shoot as may different darts as they want.” The three-dart sets range from about $20 to as much as $200, depending on factors like tungsten content and the type of tips. Dart weight varies, from about 20 grams to roughly 40 grams, and personal taste plays the same role in this sector as it does in clothing and food.

D’Angelo’s offers discounts to bars and bar leagues, and the company sponsors a professional darts player, Jonathon Gambino, who competes in D’Angelo’s colors. But customers come from across the metropolitan area to shop in his store.

“Our prices are very competitive compared to what you’ll find on Amazon or eBay,” D’Angelo said. And when it comes to baseball cards, “we blow them away. We’re much more competitive,” with a more complete selection of cards, as well as the accessories collectors use to display or store them.

The store also sells a range of Pokemon cards, which continue to be popularity, generation after generation. “Each new generation of kids discovers them all over again,” D’Angelo said.

The three businesses have adapted to changing market conditions in different ways. Brands has opted for accommodation, partnering with two of the Internet’s major players. Iavarone Brothers has remained independent, while keeping a wary eye on the gigantic competitor entering the market. D’Angelo’s has carved out a niche for itself in areas where it can compete successfully.

For Wantagh Chamber of Commerce President Cathy McCrory Powell, succeeding in business on a local level isn’t all about price. “We all know that sometimes it’s more convenient to shop online,” she said. “But businesses like Amazon do nothing to support the local community. They don’t care who wins the local championships; they don’t support local sports teams or give anything to the schools.”

McCrory Powell also underscored Amazon’s sometimes predatory business practices. “They track local businesses or segments,” she said. “When they’re successful, Amazon comes in and takes over.” Because the company is so big, it can afford to sell products at a loss — something few local businesses can do. Eventually, local stores are driven out of the market, and Amazon takes over, McCrory Powell said.

In addition, she continued, “when you shop online, you don’t always know what you’re getting. Something advertized as crystal turns out to be glass. Products that are supposed to be new turn out to be refurbished. That voids the guarantee.”

With all these disadvantages in mind, McCrory Powell is apt to repeat the mantra over and over: “Shop local.”