Business Monday

5 small businesses and how they find ways to stand out during the holidays

Couturier: René Ruiz, left, and business partner Brad Rosenblatt hold parties with a charitable bent to draw clients to the Coral Gables store, relocating to Merrick Park.
Couturier: René Ruiz, left, and business partner Brad Rosenblatt hold parties with a charitable bent to draw clients to the Coral Gables store, relocating to Merrick Park. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

As the end-of-year holidays loom, it’s no secret that everyone — shoppers and merchants alike — is frazzled. People hunting for presents are often in a last-minute panic, wondering what on earth to buy for that wayward uncle or picky mother-in-law, while they weather an onslaught of advertising messages from national brands, chain stores and big-box retailers that spend millions of dollars to lure them in.

Independent shopkeepers and other small-business owners don’t have that kind of pull, let alone a big marketing budget. They must also battle the widespread impression that it’s easier and more efficient for a shopper to go to a single location — a mall, for instance — and make every holiday purchase there. In that view, shopping at small stores on America’s Main Street is a quaint relic of the distant past.

Small businesses must compete vigorously for the $465billion that the National Retail Federation says Americans will spend in a shopping season that began in September and runs until year’s end.

Yet the nation’s 23million small businesses account for 54percent of all sales, according to recent figures from the federal Small Business Administration, which says that the number of small businesses increased by 49 percent from 1982 to this year. And according to the 2014 American Express OPEN Fall Monitor, 42 percent of entrepreneurs say their revenues are higher when compared to those of a year ago. (The Monitor also said small businesses were feeling more generous toward their employees this year: Forty-two percent intend to give end-of-the-year bonuses, up from 27 percent in 2013.)

The Miami Herald interviewed a few owners of small businesses as the holiday season was getting underway to see how they try to stand out in this highly competitive environment.

1. Toy Town (Key Biscayne)

The owner of Toy Town in Key Biscayne makes no pretense that hers is anything but a small-town operation.

“You’re invited to shop small at Toy Town,” Mary Tague’s website said in the days leading up to Small Business Saturday last month. The store, which she bought almost 18 years ago, has been in business since 1954, when it opened as Bristol’s Toys.

“It’s had deep roots here in Key Biscayne all that time,” Tague, 60, said by way of explaining the constancy of local shoppers who return to the store year after year. “Loyalty is a hard thing to find these days.”

To prepare for the holiday shopping rush, the store doubles its inventory and uses social media intensely — Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — a task aided in no small measure by Tague’s 27-year-old daughter, Megan, who among other things designed the store’s website.

“I wasn’t very savvy,” said Tague, whose husband is a lawyer. “You have to do what you’re good at, and hand off what you’re not good at. We found that we get a lot of feedback from those platforms.”

Tague’s biggest promotional event for the holiday shopping season is Toy Town’s Santa & Elf Magic party, held in the store this year on Dec.4.

“That kind of kicks everything into double-throttle,” Tague said. “People realize that Christmas is around the corner, and business picks up quite a bit.”

Tague also hires additional staff on a part-time basis, usually a handful of high-school and college students who have worked for her before while they were growing up. For many customers, entering the store means seeing some very familiar faces.

“We have a captive audience,” Tague said, referring to Key Biscayne residents who live nearby. “It’s quite a hike to Toys"R"Us or Target.”

During the rest of the year, when those shoppers are not busy buying gifts for the holidays, Tague said, “we’re kept afloat by people going to birthday parties.”

Toy Town

Address: The Square Shopping Center, 260 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne

Telephone: 305-361-5501

Website: http://www.toytownonline.com/

Staff: Mary Tague is helped by a full-time manager, Michelle Camps, and three or four part-time students. The store has a wide range of toys and games for children, as well as fashion items and accessories for teenagers.

Snapshot: Tague bought the store with a partner in 1997 after working for years as a commercial real estate agent. She bought her partner’s share three years later.

With some exceptions, she said, the store’s revenues have generally increased by about 10 percent each year during the time she has owned the business. During the heavy shopping months of November and December last year, sales were up by 25 percent.

2. Isabel Fine Home Accessories & Gifts

(South Miami)

“The holidays are big,” Isabel Merritt said on a recent morning, happily stating the obvious, while the business of Christmas shopping continued around her in the small gift store she has owned in South Miami for 24 years.

And yet it’s no easy task to make a go of it, she said, when megastores and malls offer endless enticements to the harried and the time-pressed.

“It’s very hard to be different and find unique things that others don’t have,” said Merritt, a former paralegal who has just one employee. “But because I’m not one of those box stores, I can buy anything I like. I can change my merchandise often. I’m not restricted in any way. You have a general idea of what my store is, but there’s always going to be something new and different.”

Merritt’s offerings include such items as decorative pieces for the home, lamps, monogrammed wine glasses, purses and wallets, luggage and bridal gifts.

“We’re gearing up for the holidays,” she said. “We have things that make people feel good and things that make them laugh. We have nice music, we have candles burning. We gift-wrap things, we’ll hold it for you, we’ll ship it. I provide extraordinary service — that’s one way we can compete with the big guys. Sometimes in big stores it’s hard to get someone to help you, or to stop talking to another sales person so that they can help you.”

Merritt’s eponymous store on Red Road, which used to be a print shop, hosts frequent trunk shows, most often for jewelry. At this time of year, when business picks up measurably, the shows take place every two weeks or so. There are also open houses, with champagne and candy for customers, and men’s shopping nights, for fellows who need a little help finding just the right thing.

“If you own a small business, the owner is really the business,” Merritt said. “Customers want the owner’s personal attention.”

To promote her business, Merritt sends emails to clients, posts pictures on Instagram and displays offerings on her website.

Isabel Fine Home Accessories & Gifts

Address: 7334 Red Road, South Miami

Telephone: 305-667-7497

Website: http://www.shopisabel.com/index.php

Staff: One shop assistant.

Snapshot: Isabel Merritt said her business has seen a 6 percent increase over last year, through the end of November. She is projecting a larger December, too. But, she added, “You’re not going to become a billionaire with a gift store.”

3. Artisan Foods (Hollywood)

Yet another adherent of the “no advertising” rule, Brad Friedman relies solely on what he says is a solid reputation to keep his catering company, Artisan Foods, active and prosperous, especially when the competition for such services is relentless.

“Everything here is word-of-mouth,” said Friedman, who founded the Hollywood-based company in 1987. Instead of buying advertising spots, he said, “I’d rather spend the money on more staff and better quality food, and reinvest it in my clients’ events.”

In the run-up to the holidays, a period that Friedman — with mild understatement — calls “generally a busy time,” Artisan Foods is busy catering events six or seven nights a week. The company handles many events for the area’s Jewish population, with Kosher foods offered for bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, banquets and other occasions.

In a relatively low-key effort to promote his business online, Friedman runs a Facebook page and uses Constant Contact, an online marketing firm that offers email and social-media marketing, surveys and digital storefronts.

A recent Facebook posting from the company said, “Did you know that latkes were supposedly served by the wives of the Maccabees to their husbands as they prepared to drive the ancient Syrians from their land? Latkes are eaten during Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, to commemorate the victory. How do you like yours? With sour cream or apple sauce?”

Friedman, who spoke by phone while an appreciable amount of bustle was going on around him, suggested that customers choose catering companies extremely carefully because the success or failure or a milestone event can hinge on whether the food, drink and service were adequate or not.

“It’s not like buying a car, when it’s all about how cheap it is,” he said. “This is a performance-based business.”

He said that the company’s sales had doubled in the last five years, largely as a result of a deal with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts — recently the subject of a $58 million renovation — under which Artisan Foods handles all but a fraction of the food service and catering there.

Artisan Foods

Address: 5100 Sheridan St. (ballroom of Temple Solel), Hollywood

Telephone: 954-983-5338

Website: http://www.artisanfoodsinc.com/main-md.htm

Staff: Four full-time chefs, up from one just three years ago, and 10 other full-time employees. “We’ve also gone from employing 15 to 20 part-time workers to about 60,” Brad Friedman said.

Snapshot: Besides catering events elsewhere, the company has a facility that can accommodate up to 300 guests, its website says. Friedman would not discuss the company’s revenues or discuss his competitors.

4. René Ruiz (Coral Gables)

René Ruiz, a Coral Gables couturier who has been in business for more than 20 years, knows perfectly well that his clients — some of whom pay as much as $5,000 for an evening dress — enjoy a sparkling social occasion.

As the holidays approach, Ruiz makes a point of inviting longtime customers and other guests into his store for cocktail parties and other events, most with a charitable cause as a motivating factor.

“For our clientele, it’s always a good way to get them into the store, and not just through the holidays,” he said. “This is how we compete with the big companies, during the holidays especially. It’s always a challenge, but we have to be creative. We make it about giving back.”

This shopping season, Ruiz and his business partner, Brad Rosenblatt, have the added stress of planning a relocation in the next few weeks from their current store on Ponce de Leon Boulevard to a new space at the Village of Merrick Park. Once there, they acknowledge, the competition between their independent fashion design house and resident retail behemoths such as Nordstrom will be all the more visible.

“It is daunting, but as a company we need to expand,” Ruiz said. “Either you grow or you stay stagnant.”

Still, Ruiz and Rosenblatt do very little advertising, and rely on their website and social-media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to spread the word about their wares. A typically low-key promotional effort — and one that they hope will gain traction through social events with organizations such as the Cuban Bar Association — centers on a line of day dresses for professional women, a departure from Ruiz’s usual focus on one-of-a-kind couture, ready-to-wear attire, and bridal and men’s collections.

“We’re not Best Buy, Target or Toys"R"Us,” said Rosenblatt, referring to the advertising clout that comes with great size. “We don’t get lines around the block, and we’re not even taking four pages in the back of the Miami Herald. We use more grass-roots kind of marketing.”

One of the enticements to customers is to offer complimentary alterations, which department stores typically do not do. “For us, it’s one of the things we do for our clientele,” Rosenblatt said. “It’s a way to compete with companies that have national advertising campaigns.”

René Ruiz

Address: 2700 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables.

Telephone: 305-445-2352

Website: http://www.reneruiz.net/

Staff: Nine sales people. About 75 workers are employed at the firm’s manufacturing plant in Hialeah.

Snapshot: The firm’s new day dresses retail at $385; cocktail dresses start at $500, and evening gowns at $1,250. Some gowns can cost $5,000 or more.

The firm, which began in a walk-up space in 1993, sells its evening wear not only in its Coral Gables store but at Saks Fifth Avenue locations nationally. Its day dresses are being sold exclusively at 18 Neiman Marcus stores around the country.

Annual sales doubled to more than $5million after the Hialeah facility began production in the summer of 2013 and with the increased business from Saks and Neiman. Overall company revenues should exceed $10 million by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, Ruiz says.

5. Elle Air Blow Dry & Makeup Bar (Surfside)

Beyond the need to shop for gifts, many people see the year-end holidays as a time for parties and, more exotically, for travel, and that’s where Arielle Schrader steps in.

She makes those people look good.

As the owner of a thriving hair and make-up salon in Surfside, Schrader is seeing a big uptick in business as the festive season nears, not only from women who want to dress up for holiday social gatherings but from those bound for Caribbean islands and the like.

“People come to us a lot before they go on vacation, for their hair, manicures, makeup and especially for spray-tanning,” said Schrader, who has been in business since October 2013. “So they’re already feeling good when they get there.”

To keep the business coming, Schrader offers special deals and discounts, but restricts her advertising efforts to small, inexpensive ads that run on Facebook. Since such ads are directed at audiences through their ZIP Codes, Schrader can target, for instance, women aged 20 to 50 who live in Surfside, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Sunny Isles Beach or Miami Beach.

She also uses a client email list to not only offer deals but to remind customers to make appointments for days that typically are very busy at the salon, such as Christmas Eve or the last day of the year.

The discount offers have an effect. “I’m going to do one for New Year’s Eve,” Schrader said. “We’ll be sold out in a week.”

Like many beauty salon owners, Schrader also uses a loyalty program that works by accumulating points for having sought services at the salon or purchased products there. Once a certain number of points is attained, customers can redeem them for complimentary treatments such as scalp massages or a deep conditioning. And in a popular option for the holidays, customers may also buy gift certificates for services or goods at the salon.

“I know a lot of these women by name,” Schrader said, addressing the question of whether her eight-chair business could really compete effectively with much larger beauty salons. “People feel like when they walk in, they know who we are, and we know who they are. It’s a very friendly feeling. A lot of them come in one or two times a week. They don’t wash their hair at home — they come here.”

Elle Air Blow Dry

& Makeup Bar

Address: 9480 Harding Ave, Surfside

Telephone: 305-763-8385

Staff: Five full-time employees, three part-time.

Snapshot: The salon offers hair blowouts, cuts, extensions, “updos,” spray tanning, manicures, and advertises itself as “your one-stop shop for weekly styling or special-occasion glamor.” Customers are offered sparkling wine when they arrive.

Schrader addressed her revenues by saying only that she has come close to reaching her goal of grossing $264,000 this year.

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