Go Local: How Gainesville Retailers Set Themselves Apart from Big Box Competition

In recent years, Gainesville and the surrounding areas have experienced major retail business growth. Across from the University of Florida, Gainesville’s midtown area is transforming into a more metropolitan look and feel, which includes new luxury apartments, a city-side Target, Miami Grill and Publix. On the west side, the expansion of Butler Plaza, the addition of Celebration Pointe and the Butler Town Center has brought a literal business boom. National brands like Whole Foods, P.F. Chang’s and Grub Burger Bar will add to the existing chains and retail outlets like Walmart, Chili’s and Nike Outlet.

With the explosion of big box retailers and the rise of online shopping, small locally-owned businesses may fear getting lost in the crowd. One of the ways that local businesses can compete is through embracing a different type of business model and focusing on things big box chains cannot provide, said Jamie Kraft, Director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business.

“Local businesses should continually evaluate their business models and look for differentiating factors that are not as easily replicable by the large chains,” Kraft said. “Developing unique/non-obvious models may allow them to deliver competitive value propositions to their customers in ways others can’t. Competing on service, value and/or experience may be a better approach to standing up to deep-pocketed competitors.”

Many of the locally-owned small businesses take that in stride by specializing in personalized customer service and unique experiences. Gainesville area residents embrace “buying local,” said Mike Carrillo, owner and operator of Gainesville Running and Walking, a full-service specialty running and walking outfitter. In business for 10 years, Gainesville Running and Walking fits each customer specially for their type of fit and need in their footwear. Located in Butler Plaza, the business’ prices are the same as big box stores who sell the latest in athletic footwear and gear.

“Our customer service sets us apart. When a customer comes in, they are helped within 30 seconds. It’s easy to get in and out and be satisfied with your product. We do one-on-one fittings, which is exclusively unique in Gainesville,” Carrillo said.  “Every associate on staff is extensively trained in identifying how to fit a person into the right footwear.”

Besides athletic shoes, Gainesville Running and Walking also offers accessories like insoles, compression socks and supportive sandals as well as fitness apparel. They offer a fit guarantee for their sneakers and will honor exchanges or store credit within 2 weeks. For insoles, they honor a 60-day guarantee to ensure comfort for their customers.

“The return rate for online purchases of these products is about 30 percent, and part of the reason is because people don’t get the expert fitting like they do here,” Carillo said. “Our entire business model is set up for our repeat customers who trust us because of the excellent service we provide.”

Local business owners profit from more customers, and research has shown communities also benefit more from local businesses than from national chains. A 2012 study published in Civic Economics studied fifteen independent retailers and seven independent restaurants in Salt Lake City, Utah and compared their local economic impact with four national retail chains and three national restaurant chains. The study found the local retailers brought a total of 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy, compared to just 14 percent from national chain retailers. Similarly, the local restaurants return an average of 79 percent of their revenue locally, compared to 30 percent for the chain eateries.

Researchers believed that the additional income was because independent businesses spend more on services from local providers, labor and goods. A much larger share of the money spent at a locally owned store stays in the local economy, supporting a variety of other businesses and jobs.

Small locally-owned businesses benefit from not having to scale as large as a national retailer, which can translate to products suited to the specific customers and personality of the community. Uppercrust Productions, a premier artisan bakery and luxury food and wine boutique which has been in Gainesville since 1981, uses this to benefit their business and their customers, who they refer to as guests, said owner Ben Guzick.

“Being small and local is a benefit. Creating special orders for guests while delivering quality is as simple as my going to our patissieres, croissantieres or boulangeres, asking them to work on something special, and tasting the end result together. We absolutely love our core roster of products. Its inherent quality distinguishes itself from big box retail, but our ability to customize beyond that menu differentiates us from major grocery chains and online retailers as well,” said Guzick, who recently assumed ownership of Uppercrust but has worked at Uppercrust for three years.

“Artistry and love are part of food. It also takes great care and discipline to make food the way we do. Our bakers shape croissants and breads by hand and, in most cases, perform the same given step in a recipe dozens, if not hundreds, of times per day. It takes enormous desire and willpower to commit oneself to that purpose. We could not be more proud of the folks who work here.”

In addition to baked goods like homemade breads and pastries, Uppercrust also sells gifts including glassware, linens, ceramics, luxury food products, and unique wines. They can also create custom gift baskets. Every Saturday they offer a wine tasting from noon to 4 pm.

“The wine tasting is a unique community event. We see many guests every weekend,” Guzick said. “Our manager, John, hand selects wines that pair with our European-sourced cheeses. It’s a great way to connect to our guests and welcome new ones.”

Guzick said their guests are extremely loyal and share their feedback willingly, which he welcomes because it allows them to grow, improve and better tailor their product and service to guest preferences. It all comes from a place of enthusiasm and love of the business, Guzick said.

The unique thread that exists in these small local businesses is their tie to the community. For family-owned Cilantro Tacos, which has been open since 2013, they feel a great responsibility to represent Gainesville and surrounding community.

“Although our family is from Southern California, we have adopted Gainesville as our home, and we really believe we are part of the ‘home team,’” said Sen Khiev, a partner in Cilantro’s “We love this community and being engaged with our customers in our restaurants, in our food trucks and on social media. As a local business, we take our customer feedback very seriously. We can get an immediate pulse of what is going on around the community. That allows us to be more humble with our decision-making and react to customer opinions and input.”

Cilantro Tacos opened their first location in downtown Newberry by primary owners Sydney Meth, Khiev’s sister, and her husband Nareth Meth. Their children, Nathan and Nataly, were also an instrumental part of beginning the business and continue to contribute to their success. Cilantro Tacos also own and operate two food trucks that are frequently seen at many UF sporting events, community events, food truck rallies and charity functions. They serve quality Mexican food drawn from their time in Southern California as well as their Southeast Asian background. Cilantro Tacos focuses on the quality, freshness, and vibrant flavors of their food, which includes fresh, never frozen meat and prepared made to order. All the side salsas and sauces are made from scratch.

Cilantro will expand their business to a new location in the Town of Tioga shopping center and another store in downtown Gainesville with anticipated August openings. Their food trucks will continue to travel around town wherever the community needs them, Khiev said.

“Our job is not just to create a quality food and service experience but also to have a deep and meaningful relationship with our community and build relationships and personal connections,” Khiev said.

Beyond the relationship with their customers, local businesses have a strong connection to each other. Carillo, Guzick and Khiev all agree the business community support each other and are not too competitive.

“Our local business community is tight-knit and extremely supportive of each other,” Khiev said. “We want to see each other succeed as much as possible.”

When Guzick was planning on purchasing Uppercrust, he said local chefs like Burt Gill, Dean Cacciatore and Byron Terwilliger offered him helpful advice.

“This community is very supportive of local businesses. While I was thinking of taking the leap to buy the business, I had so many food business owners who were so generous with their knowledge and time. They truly want other local businesses to thrive,” Guzick said.

In the Gainesville area, there are resources available at UF and the Chamber of Commerce which helps to assist entrepreneurs and owners. The UF Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center is one such resource.

“Our belief is that our center must be rooted in the entrepreneurial community, in order to build symbiotic relationships and leverage each other to become stronger,” Kraft said.  “We provide access and resources for the local community while they in turn aid in the learning process for our students. Through programs like the Gainesville Entrepreneurship and Adversity Program (GEAP) and GatorNest, we are able to build those local learning connections.”

According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, small businesses who base their products and services on the interests and the needs of local residents ensure a much broader range of product choices.

“It’s important to recognize and patronize local businesses because they really showcase what our city has to offer. In particular, local restaurants showcase the best of what we have to offer, and highlight the local ingredients, people, and passion that make Gainesville so wonderful,” said Ken Peng, founder of Ken Eats L.L.C. whose website Ken Eats Gainesville offers unbiased reviews of local restaurants.  “So, while chains are a necessary ‘evil’ in that they provide a draw for folks to stay in town, it’s important not to forget the locals either.”

By Tracy Wright

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