Competition from chain stores and the Internet has caused many locally-owned stores to close up shop, but a handful of Alachua County retailers are still thriving.
Their formula for success? It all starts with strong customer service.
“We respond to our service calls immediately,” says Travis Martin, co-owner of Martin’s Family Appliance Center. Martin’s is the only Gainesville appliance store with its own repairman, Martin says. “To get service on something you bought at another store, you have to call an 800 number, and it’s two to three days before someone comes out.”
The service side of the business helped Martin’s when the recession hit. “Our service skyrocketed, and we had to add staff,” Martin said. “When things are tight, people are more willing to make a $400 repair than to spend $1,000 on a new appliance.”
In addition to service, the surviving local stores have each carefully cultivated niches. Ward’s Supermarket, for example, specializes in locally grown produce and quality beef.
“We only have one row of groceries because we can’t compete on price with Wal-Mart” says Trish Ward, who owns Ward’s along with her husband Billy.
Alachua Farm & Lumber, located in Alachua, felt the need to add an extensive section for guns, bows, and other hunting merchandise in the midst of the recession and the opening of a near-by Lowe’s store.
“If we hadn’t diversified, we would just have a skeleton crew now,” says owner Wayne Tanner. Instead of withering, the store is prospering with 25 employees and diverse inventory that includes lumber, hardware, equestrian gear, clothing, shoes, boots and animal feed. Alachua Farm & Lumber now attracts hunters from a 75-mile radius and is one of the few places around that repairs bows.
Adapting has also been the secret for Lloyd Clarke Sports in Gainesville, notes Bobby Burk, who is co-general manager.
When Lloyd Clarke, who is now retired from day-to-day management, took over the store, it focused on running and tennis gear. As interest in tennis waned, the store expanded into other sporting goods, including equipment for baseball, basketball, football, and disc golf, explains Burk.
Deep Roots and Family Tradition
Many local merchants are carrying on family businesses that go back several generations.
J.B. and Ilajean Ward founded Ward’s in 1951. Years later, they passed the business on to their son Bill, and his wife, Norma Lee, who then passed the business to their son Billy and his wife, Trish. Billy and Trish’s son and daughter – as well as their spouses – are also involved.
“I started dating Billy when I was 15, and I began working at the store when I was 16,” says Trish Ward. “We got married when I was 18. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
The Wards treat all their employees like family, says Trish. “We bend over backwards to help them. They’re a name, not a number.”
Martin’s Appliance Center has a similar pedigree. Edgar Martin founded the appliance service business in 1948 and added appliance sales in 1968.
The succession of family members began with Edgar’s son, Bob, followed by his grandson Ken and has now extended to his great-grandsons, Travis and Chris.
As Travis and Chris grew up, their father groomed them to be part of the business by having them repair trade-in appliances. Now, they do almost all of the store’s sales. “We don’t hire professional salesmen because we want you talking to someone who has a service perspective and knows which appliances we’ve had problems with,” Says Travis.
“We’ve stayed in business for 64 years primarily by word of mouth,” he says. “If people are happy with us, they send us business. If we treat them wrong, they’ll tell even more people.”
Ilene Silverman, owner of Ilene’s for Fashion in the Thornebrook Village, is also following a family tradition. Her father, Joseph, started Silverman’s for Men and Women, in downtown Gainesville. “It feels so good to continue to provide the kind of service my father provided,” says Silverman.
Since opening her store in the Thornebrook area in 1989, Silverman has embraced the area’s love for the Florida Gators by working with designers and manufacturers to create unique Gator-themed merchandise.
“It used to be that we brought the Gator gear out just for football season,” she says. “Now interest in the Gators is year-round, and the Gator items make up 80 percent of our sales.”
Some owners of locally based stores are relative newcomers, such as Jan Fronk, who bought Book Gallery West, in the Millhopper Shopping Center in 2004.
“It was my favorite store and was fun and interesting,” said Fronk, who worked as a social worker for 25 years and flipped houses for several years before buying the store.
Fronk offers a diverse blend of merchandise, with one-third of her sales coming from greeting cards and unique gift items including jewelry organizers, children’s activity sets, personal care products, and accessories. “I stock things that you won’t find at Wal-Mart or Target,” says Fronk. The store also features 20,000 used books and 6,000 new ones.
Staying Competitive in Price
Many local merchants are able to keep their prices in line with chain stores by using buying groups.
Martin’s is part of the Nationwide Marketing Group, which can negotiate prices due to the buying power of its 3,000 member stores. “Our prices are within a few dollars of everyone else’s,” says Travis Martin. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room in appliance pricing.”
Similarily, Alachua Farm & Lumber is part of Do It Best, a hardware store cooperative. “People sometimes tell me that I’m cheaper on an item than Lowe’s is,” says Tanner.