PI businesses finding innovative ways to remain relevant in age of online shopping
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Chantal Graves became the owner of Merchants On The Corner in Presque Isle nearly 10 years ago, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter were still relatively new and online shopping had not begun to profoundly affect how people shop.
“The internet is certainly not helping,” Graves said, while recently reflecting on some of the biggest challenges that have come about for small business owners.
Graves took over Merchants On The Corner — located on the corner of Academy and Main Streets — in February 2010 after the death of her mother-in-law Angie Graves, the store’s original owner. The store features items that Graves said have remained popular with local customers and tourists, such as yarn, knitting and crocheting items, specialty wine and beer, Made-In-Maine gift items and books by Maine authors
Though she acknowledges that the often less expensive online prices can be tempting for consumers, Graves noted that, at times, she finds herself wishing that more folks would seek out and support local entrepreneurs.
“A lot of people are happy when they come in and realize that we sell books because there’s no bookstore in Presque Isle. But when I ask where they usually buy their books, they’ll say online,” Graves said. “If people buy all their books online, there’s no need for a bookstore in Presque Isle.”
But even amidst people’s tendencies to shop online, Graves has gained many regular customers who still enjoy the experience of walking down Main Street, browsing through the stores and having conversations with business owners and employees.
As traditional brick-and-mortar stores compete with online shopping, also known as e-commerce, Graves has also begun to hold events such as beer and wine tastings and Saturday knitting and crocheting classes. Though the internet offers videos of all kinds to learn arts and crafts activities, she said classes give people excuses to get out and enjoy each other’s company.
“With chain stores people can buy 90 percent of what they need for their home right there,” said Graves, who is also a longtime Walmart employee. “But my job as a small-business owner is to find the 10 percent niche that makes customers stop in.”
Despite online trends, the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce has seen continuous business growth in Presque Isle, particularly in the downtown region. LaNiece Sirois, chamber executive director, said that out of the 23 ribbon cuttings held in 2019, more than half occurred at new Presque Isle businesses.
Last year Main Street saw the opening of two hair salons — Bella Vita and The Cutting Edge — as well as Glass With Class, which offers stained glass workshops and related products, and the thrift store Maine Hope Center.
Sirois said that even with younger generations preferring online shopping, there is potential for them to become the next crop of brick-and-mortar store owners.
“The younger generation is very creatively minded and they want to give back to their communities,” Sirois said.
She suggested that the continuing prevalence of online technologies might give many businesses both old and new the opportunity to merge the benefits of in-store experiences and e-commerce.
“Using social media and having an online presence for your business is vital,” Sirois said. “Learning how to grow that online aspect can actually help brick-and-mortar businesses stay where they are.”
While Graves admitted to not having a website for Merchants On The Corner, she said that starting a Facebook page has helped the business advertise its products and events.
But even with more online tools available, she has noticed that the biggest factors in attracting and retaining customers has been word-of-mouth advertising and long-term community support.
“I always tell people to come in and look around. Even if you don’t buy something, you might have a friend who’s looking for something specific that they can’t find elsewhere,” Graves said. “If you don’t shop in local stores, they can’t stay open.”