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Some Shops Report Better Sales, Others See a Dip

Outside The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kyle Barr

While Thanksgiving weekend is synonymous with stuffing one’s mouth with turkey and leftovers, it has been transformed into the time when people take advantage of some of the best sales right before the thick of the holiday season. 

But beyond big box stores and online, local small businesses still shuffle for room and attention amongst giants like Amazon. 

From 2010-18, spending on Small Business Saturday had reached a reported estimate of $103 billion, according to data from American Express.

It was estimated that in 2018 more than 104 million people shopped and dined on Small Business Saturday generating a record $17.8 billion in reported spending — up from $12.9 million in 2017. 

This past Saturday, U.S. consumers spent $19.6 billion at small businesses, according to survey data from American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business. 

For small businesses, everything can be a factor for foot traffic, whether it’s the economy, the weather, even construction just down the road.

Here’s what a few business owners across the North Shore had to say on how they did on the busy shopping weekend.

The East End Shirt Co., 3 Mill Creek Road, Port Jefferson — owner Mary Joy Pipe:

Pipe has been at the head of the famed custom screen-printed design shop for years, and was recently named president of the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.

Outside East End Shirt Co. in Port Jefferson. Photo Courtesy of Google Maps

“We had a very good day and we were pleased with how many people came out. It was nice to see how customers were expressing their support for local businesses. 

“My business gets a lot of transient customers [from the village] but we also had a lot of locals and repeat customers come in. Sales were up a little bit from last year — we always try to offer great deals. 

“Being in business for 40 years, I think the nice weather on Saturday really helped and I think it helped other businesses in the area as well. 

“I think it’s good to show that there can be a happy medium of online and small business shopping.” 

Niche Boutique, 430-11 N. Country Road, St. James — owner Christine Mazelis: 

Niche Boutique, which was once located on Lake Avenue, moved over onto North Country Road earlier this year, opening in time for the Black Friday weekend.

Outside the new location of Niche Boutique in St. James.

“The store was offering 10-30 percent off a minimum purchase of $50. 

“We had a really nice day, with the new location we have definitely noticed the increase in foot traffic. There is definitely a different vibe in this location. I was very happy with the turnout and sales, we had returning and new customers coming throughout the day.” 

Red Shirt Comics, 322 Main St., Port Jefferson — owner Josh Darbee:

Red Shirt Comics, which opened in 2017, has been a mainstay for the comics community in the local area. Last year, Darbee said he saw a steady stream of customers walk through his doors Small Business Saturday.

Outside Red Shirt Comics in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We had Black Friday sales throughout the weekend. … Saturday went pretty poorly we didn’t see the foot traffic and sales as in years past.

“The weather might have had something to do with it, people are not going to go out as much when it’s cold. 

“We saw an initial crowd of holiday customers earlier in November. The people that did stop by [Saturday] bought a lot of books, periodicals and comic books.”

The Gift Corner, 157 N. Country Road, Mount Sinai — owner Marion Bernholz:

The Gift Corner owner Bernholz has over the last several years gone to lengths to promote her store on the Black Friday weekend. Over the past few years she reported good sales on Small Business Saturday.

Outside The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We had a wonderful day. It was one of our best Small Business Saturday [events], sales were way up. “We had so many regulars and new customers come in throughout the day. 

“We have a good following [of customers] and many of them told us that they came out just to support us on Saturday. 

“People are decorating their houses for the holidays, so many were buying Christmas signs, ornaments and other festive items. We have a lot of different areas in the store so a lot of customers we are trying to find some nice gifts for their families or their dogs. 

“I think it is really refreshing that people continue to come out on Small Business Saturday and remember that we are here.” 

 

Rebecca Kassay along with the crew from Aureate Visuals and local hired help in front of their 1991 Winnebago. Photo from Kassay

Baltimore, Maryland. So much has been said about the city, criticism that came from way beyond the city itself. But Rebecca Kassay, the co-owner of the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson, saw something incredible from the people living there. There was a community in the neighborhood of Cherry Hill growing fresh fruit and vegetables, teaching others to farm, giving access to fresh food for people who live several miles from the nearest supermarket. The program, called the Black Yield Institute, was making a difference in their community, and the Port Jeff resident said she knew it needed to be seen by the world.

Rebecca Kassay fist bumps a volunteer at Cherry Hill, Baltimore’s Black Yield Institute. Photo from Kassay

“What they’re doing there is just so incredible as far as combining uplifting the community — integrating culture and fun,” said Kassay. “It was amazing to experience it with my own eyes and be there while this incredible group said, ‘we’re going to create this garden, how can we help people become more aware of health issues and social issues?’”

The inn owner is out on the road, touring in a renovated 1991 Winnebago with her husband, Andrew, and their dog. Filming with a Setauket-based crew, she is trying to spread the news of just how many nonprofits and volunteer works are out there and how much good they do for their respective communities.

“What I really love is connecting people, not just with a cause they love to help, but more importantly, connecting them with the power within themselves,” she said.

The show, titled “Be the Change with Rebecca,” is finishing filming throughout the fall before transitioning to full post-production during the winter. The show expects to come out sometime in spring 2020 on Amazon Prime video.

Kassay, 30, who was born in St. James and later moved to Port Jefferson to open the Fox and Owl Inn with her husband, said the show is inspired by modern serialized documentaries, and takes a form much like a show she loved as a child, “Dirty Jobs,” hosted by Mike Rowe. In much the same way to that Discovery Channel hit, which had the host performing a variety of blue-collar jobs on screen along with the regular workers, Rebecca gets down and dirty with the volunteers, whether it’s driving in nails while building houses or digging in the dirt in a community garden.

“We’re collecting the stories of how they do the work and how they decided to come out,” she said. “Such as, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer at a community garden, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer to restore an oyster reef.”

By the end of their trip, they will have traveled as far east as Baiting Hollow on Long Island, as far south as Washington D.C. and as far west as Detroit, Michigan.

Kassay had the idea for this project nearly two years ago, working off her own background as a youth volunteer project manager at Avalon Park and Preserve. She reached out through local Facebook groups for a crew interested in taking on the project, and the Setauket-based Aureate Visuals production team answered the call.

The three filmmakers, Steve Glassner, Larry Bernardo and Marvin Tejada, have donated their time on a pro bono basis to help make the project possible. All three have worked on projects before, such as Mentally Apart, a feature film set to premier by the end of the year. All three met while in school at Five Towns College.

“It’s been a very, very fun experience, especially all the people we meet and the locals who worked on the crew with us,” said Glassner. “It’s been a real learning experience. We’re meeting people from all walks of life, and it’s amazing and incredible what they’re doing in their own communities.”

The project has taken in this spirit of volunteerism with the crew. The folks at Aureate Visuals, in keeping with the spirit of the show, have volunteered their time to the project. Several of the crew work day jobs, and so they are constantly travelling back and forth from Long Island to where the next shoot is taking place.

Rebecca Kassay, middle, works with a group of volunteers at an oyster farm. Photo from Kassay

Glassner added production has been smooth, and each shoot “felt like we were a family — no egos — it’s one giant collaboration.”

For the most part, the project is self-funded, though they have received significant pledges from the Port Jefferson Rotary Club and have financed $1,654 so far from backers on Indiegogo. Everything else is coming from the owners of the Fox and Owl Inn. Their minimum budget, according to their Indiegogo page, includes $3,000 for travel and lodging, $3,000 for local crew wages, $1,500 for per diem food, $500 for miscellaneous expenses and $800 in Indiegogo related fees.

As the family goes around in the renovated Winnebago, retrofitted with whitewashed cabinets and flooring to make it feel like home, she has become surer this was the right way to get the message across.

“Working with these young people when you connect them with a power within themselves, they just light up,” Kassay said. “The light in their eyes is something the greatest gift you can give someone, connecting them with that.”

The project still has investor space open, and the Indiegogo ends on Sunday, Aug. 18. People can visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/be-the-change-with-rebecca#/to donate.

Amazon, the online retail giant, tried to set up shop in Long Island City. The company came onto the scene in 2018 promising to build its second headquarters in Queens and create more than 25,000 high-paying jobs in the process, but by Feb. 14 Amazon had pulled out of the deal after months of community antagonism and protest. 

What did Amazon do wrong? After all, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) were both completely behind the idea. 

What happened was Amazon, like Marcus Licinius Crassus of Rome marching into the Parthian Empire in ancient Iran, wanted to stamp its logo in the dirt without thinking of the logistics, or whether the people wanted them there.

We, as journalists, know the routine developers need to take to successfully settle into our areas. The prospective business must work with the local municipality, whether it’s a village or town, and establish site plans and conduct environmental reviews. If their idea is sound, the area representative works with the developer, relaying questions and concerns from their constituents to the developer.

More important is reaching out and connecting with the local residents. After all, they are the ones who will likely patronize the business. They are the ones who will see it affect their local ambiance or property values. They are the ones forced to live next to it day after day. 

It might be the height of foolhardy narcissism from all involved, from the government to Amazon themselves, to think there wouldn’t be any blowback from residents. The announcement of HQ2 was kept secret until leaping onto the scene, and residents were stuck either saying “yes” or “no” to Amazon. 

We often see how the community reacts to new developments, and while sometimes there is a little not-in-my-backyard ideology to go around, many residents are keen to know how a development will affect them. The developer needs to listen to their concerns and make changes to their designs, otherwise the plans could blow up in their face.

The Town of Brookhaven, especially Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), has recently shown its desire to see Amazon keep its promise to New York. It has offered the retail giant to set up in the town near the South Shore, all the while keeping the massive tax breaks promised by the governor using the town’s own Industrial Development Agency. While we appreciate the idea of bringing so many high-paying jobs into the area, which may boost the local tourism industry, we also caution the same sort of secrecy and backroom dealing which led Amazon to abandon its Queens plans in the first place.

It’s also a lesson to local governments and prospective developers. Not all residents will agree with every new structure and every new business, but developers absolutely need to listen to their concerns. Amazon is not the only company to be pushed back by protest. The Villadom project in the Town of Huntington that would have created a new Elwood mall, was lambasted by community members who felt they were being sidestepped and ignored. 

The community has a stronger voice than some might expect, and like Crassus eventually learned as he was roundly defeated and humiliated by the Parthians, one can’t simply stake claim on property unilaterally without a spear pointed at one’s neck.

Satellite image of the 795-acre Brookhaven Calabro Airport. Image from Google Maps

Most couples agree there’s nothing worse than receiving a breakup message on Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, that’s the message New York City received Feb. 14 when Amazon said it would no longer build its next headquarters in Queens.

Reactions from Long Island’s elected officials was swift. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said the blame rests on New York’s unfriendliness to business.

“New York’s 1st Congressional District would be happy to be Amazon’s Valentine today and take these 25,000 great-paying jobs,” Zeldin said in a statement. “New York wouldn’t even need all the subsides if we didn’t have one of the worst business climates in the United States. We must level the playing field, reduce taxes and burdensome regulations, stop picking winners.” 

“New York wouldn’t even need all the subsides if we didn’t have one of the worst business climates in the United States.”

— Lee Zeldin

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who were both heavily involved in the Amazon deal, also made public comments lamenting the loss. Meanwhile, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) reaffirmed the town would welcome the retail giant with open arms. 

Now that Amazon is no longer courting New York City, Romaine offered to sign over the 795 acres of Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Shirley if the corporation chooses Brookhaven as a site of their future headquarters. 

“We would close and give them the airport,” he said. “That’s a transfer of property. We’re interested in economic development.”

The town had offered the airport to Amazon before they had originally settled on Queens. The supervisor said the same tax deal proposed by Cuomo is still on the table should the company want to come to the East End of Long Island. The state offered a total of $1.2 billion in refundable tax credits to Amazon, in addition to providing a $505 million capital grant to aid in building its new headquarters. With New York City also pitching in, the total aid package would have been at least $2.8 billion. Romaine said the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency could make up the same amount of aid should Amazon rethink its plans and come back to Long Island.

A representative from the Brookhaven IDA did not respond to requests for comment.

The town supervisor was adamant the airport location was perfect for Amazon’s needs, boasting of its proximity to Sunrise Highway, the Long Island Expressway and William Floyd Parkway. The site is also a few miles away from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Mastic-Shirley train station. He said the proposed location’s close proximity to the Hamptons, Shoreham and Wading River would be an extra incentive for those looking to make day trips.

“They’re looking for a campus-life situation, and this would provide that,” Romaine said. “If they wanted to they could keep one of the runways for light aircraft. That is totally negotiable.” 

“If they wanted to they could keep one of the runways for light aircraft. That is totally negotiable.”

— Ed Romaine

Despite the pushback the Queens Amazon headquarters received from residents and city politicians, Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Brookhaven residents are much more open to the idea of a company like Amazon coming in.

“We’re looking for corporate businesses that would create good-paying jobs,” she said. 

Romaine said he knows it’s a long shot, especially with Amazon saying in a Feb. 14 blog post it would not be conducting its new headquarters search again. Instead, the corporation would be looking toward northern Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee, for its new headquarters location.  

“I think it’s worth a shot,” the supervisor said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Mount Sinai-Miller Place Chamber Alliance Co-President Donna Boeckel, co-owner of Awsomotive Car Care in Mount Sinai, talks to members about new goals during the chamber's first meeting May 16. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Mount Sinai-Miller Place Chamber Alliance has sprung up from the ashes after the dissolution of the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce and hopes to learn from its mistakes.

“We will help promote shop local,” said Donna Boeckel, co-president of the chamber and co-owner of Awsomotive Car Care in Mount Sinai. “We want to help people recognize how much value and how many personable small businesses we have in these two areas.”

The first meeting of the new chamber was held last wednesday and was

“We want to help people recognize how much value and how many personable small businesses we have in these two areas.”

— Donna Boeckel

She was joined by more than 30 local business operators and owners, Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) who wanted to show support during the chamber’s first meeting May 16. The Mount Sinai-Miller Place Chamber Alliance expects to hold meetings the first Wednesday of every month.

In October 2017, the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce, which covered businesses from Port Jefferson Station to Wading River, dissolved because the time commitment proved too much for such a large coverage area. It was then decided that the chamber would split up to take on original shapes, which focused on business in just a handful of hamlets.

“It got too big — the businesses of separate hamlets, whether they’re in Miller Place or Mount Sinai, know their needs and know their concerns,” Bonner said. “If you think about the Shoreham-Wading River chamber, their competition is the [Tanger Outlets in Riverhead.] That isn’t the same here.”

Boeckel said the previous group did not encompass enough volunteers but said that while these splintered chambers will remain separate organizations, they do expect to work with each other.

“We’ll probably do some joint meetings, maybe some joint events — we’ll bounce ideas off each other,” said Jennifer Dzvonar, owner of Bass Electric in Port Jefferson Station and president of the Port Jefferson/Terryville Chamber of Commerce. Her association began meeting in January of this year.

Chamber leadership anticipates forming connections with leaders at Heritage Park and Cedar Beach for plan or sign on to participate in events. Members also hope the chamber will help them and their business with networking and exposure.

“People have to remember to shop local — Amazon is not going to the schools, Amazon is not supporting your community, it’s not employing your children.”

— Jennifer Dzvonar

“It’s good to immerse yourself in the business community,” said chamber member Brett Hochreiter, managing director of Long Island Tint in Rocky Point. “You get your name out there, you get some exposure, hopefully you get some leads.”

One of the biggest issues that members said they face is maintaining clientele when the lure of online shopping, especially with Amazon, is so strong.

“People have to remember to shop local — Amazon is not going to the schools, Amazon is not supporting your community, it’s not employing your children,” Dzvonar said.

Anker echoed the Port Jefferson Station chamber president’s sentiment.

“Chambers are so important because you can energize your community,” Anker said. “You can make sure people understand they need to put their money where their house is. Made in the U.S.A and shop local are taking precedence over convenience.”

Boeckel emphasized that the work for the chamber was and will continue to be done on a volunteer basis. Every members work full time, but she said the important thing is that local businesses should continue to support one another by donating just a little time.

“That’s what it takes,” Boeckel said. “We’re all doers. It takes doers to do what we do.”

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In the wake of a political battle that characterized 2017, it appears solutions for potentially improved and more affordable health care may be on the horizon.

While federal lawmakers bicker over the Affordable Care Act, three corporations are teaming up to resolve the issue for their employees. If the companies are successful in creating an effective health care system, it’s possible their idea could benefit all Americans.

Online retailer Amazon, holding company Berkshire Hathaway and bank JPMorgan Chase issued a press release Jan. 30 announcing plans to start an independent health care company. The statement provided little detail about the joint venture except that “the initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent health care at a reasonable cost.” The hope is that it will balance rising health care costs with enhanced patient satisfaction and outcomes. The release also mentioned a desire to transition away from a profit-based health care system.

After the announcement of the initiative, stock prices of major health insurance companies dropped, and rightfully so. If it expands in the future, the new partnership may create much-needed competition in an arena fraught with overpricing, complicated procedures and an abundance of paperwork. Competition is always a good thing. It prevents medical costs from being controlled by just a handful of insurance providers, and in an important area like one’s health, everyone should have coverage options that will ensure
receiving the highest quality of care possible.

“The ballooning costs of [health care] act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” said Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffet.

The joint venture also creates opportunities for other employers to join forces with the giants, or attempt to come up with their own answers to provide better health care options for their workers.

But this isn’t the first time a corporation has become involved in health care. In December, CVS Health bought health insurance giant Aetna for $69 billion with a similar goal — to remake the consumer health care experience and build a health care platform around individuals.

In an era where many Americans fear that one accident or illness will drastically alter their financial future — because they can’t afford health insurance to assist with potentially high medical expenses — the idea that legitimate solutions are being sought is refreshing. What’s even more uplifting is that these companies understand the importance of their employees being able to afford health insurance and, in theory, politics will be held out of the discussion.

Considering all three corporations have enjoyed immense successes in their respective fields, the potential for innovative ideas from the three giants is exciting.

We look forward to seeing if the private sector can produce what elected officials were stuck in the mud trying to accomplish all of 2017.

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There was confirmation for what I have been saying over the past couple of years. Shopping has changed. Now I have never been a particularly astute shopper. When I need something, I go into the closest appropriate store and buy the item. The only time I enjoy shopping, for the most part, is when I am on vacation and feel I have the leisure to browse. Especially if I am in a foreign country, shops are a place where the clerk probably speaks English and will be inclined to chat, hoping for a sale. That way I learn about the place I am visiting and also perhaps see unusual products that may tempt me.

That said, I know something about shopping because of the newspaper business. The traditional backbone of the community newspaper has been advertising from the retail shops along Main Street, USA. No longer is that the secure source of our revenue. And why? Because the nature of shopping has changed.

Catalogs presaged the change many years ago. Busy residents could scan catalogs from different stores, pick out the items they needed or thought they needed, call a store’s 800 number and receive delivery a few days later. It wasn’t necessary to bestir oneself from the living room sofa and go out to see the product. If, when it arrived, it didn’t fit or wasn’t the right color, we could send it back, often postage paid. I used to joke that they should put a try-on room in the post office.

Then came the internet, and more specifically, Amazon. No longer do we have the inconvenience of searching through multiple catalogues. We can now indicate what we want and select from among many manufacturers the precise item we seek. Further, that item may appear at our door within 24 hours, or even the same afternoon for a slightly higher fee. Amazon has become the entire world’s bazaar.

Sometimes people venture out to a store to get a three-dimensional look at the desired goods. Yet often they then retreat to their cellphones and order the same item for less money over the internet. E-commerce is king.

This sea change in shopping has been happening gradually but now is moving at an accelerating pace. At least that is what a recent article, “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?” by Michael Corkery, in The New York Times tells us: “Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by an average of $30 billion annually. Over the past three years, average annual growth has increased to $40 billion.” The Times article continues, “This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses.” It has also shaken the money tree of daily and weekly newspapers, as evidenced by the fewer number of pages and hence news stories that newspapers can afford to publish. But we papers are only collateral damage.

“More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery,” according to The Times. One out of 10 people works in retail, and the consequences of their being unemployed are as upending for society as the loss of jobs for manufacturing workers has been.

We are talking about the disappearing middle class here, folks. The small-store owners and their workers are losing their livelihoods. Shopping malls, with the exception of a luxurious few, are emptying out, and their sales staffs are being laid off. The great irony of Amazon now experimenting with brick-and-mortar stores will hardly replace the thousands of workers cut loose, and robots largely operate their fulfillment centers in huge warehouses.

There is a brilliant little business book by Spencer Johnson called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” which summarizes the current condition in first-grader detail. Retail life as we knew it, in this case the old cheese, is elsewhere. To survive in business now requires innovation, retraining and finding the location of new cheese.