How small Aroostook stores are competing with mega-retailers

3 months ago

Small businesses in Aroostook County know they can’t compete with big-box or internet powerhouses. So they’re focusing on what makes them unique to attract holiday shoppers. 

Americans spent a record $9.8 billion online on Black Friday, and Cyber Monday sales were also expected to be high, The Associated Press reported.  

In an economy where prices of fuel, food and utilities are rising, Mainers are watching their wallets closer than ever. But despite cheaper online goods, some merchants say they’re seeing solid sales because they sell items large retailers don’t.

“I think it’s been pretty comparable with last year,” said Lukas Lagasse, manager of Monica’s Scandinavian Imports in Caribou. “We might have had a few more people, actually, but people were spending a little more conservatively this year.”

Many of the shop’s specialty Christmas products have sold well, particularly a Scandinavian dish pattern and wooden Tomtes, or gnomes, he said. Imported Swedish linens are also big sellers.

Though people shop on Black Friday, it’s afterward that traffic becomes more steady, and especially just before Christmas, Lagasse said. Given what he’s seen so far, he is cautiously optimistic it will be a good season.

Traffic has been a bit slow so far this season, but sales spiked on both Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, Jamie Pelletier of Fort Kent’s Bogan Books said. 

FORT KENT, Maine — November 28, 2023 — Jamie Pelletier (left), bookseller, poses with owner Heidi Carter at Bogan Books in Fort Kent. (Courtesy of Bogan Books)

It’s no secret people can find more inexpensive books online, so she does a lot of Facebook posts to interact with customers and get them excited about new things, she said. A personal touch helps.

“Especially now with the economy, it’s a challenge for small businesses,” she said. “But I think most online shopping has been a challenge for independent small businesses.”

Diversifying their merchandise is another tactic that’s been successful. Pelletier and owner Heidi Carter also sell products from local crafters and small businesses, including charcuterie boards, home decor, blankets and jewelry, making Bogan Books into a gift shop as well as a bookstore. 

This year, fantasy novels and thrillers have surpassed romance in popularity, including books by authors Freida McFadden and Ruth Ware. Children’s books are always popular, as well as book-related merchandise and learning games, she said.

In Presque Isle, Carli Simon-Cleaves said her children’s clothing store, Simon & Estelle, had a profitable Black Friday. Sales were at 50 percent more that one day than during a regular month, which was what she had hoped.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — November 28, 2023 — Carli Simon-Cleaves (left) and Jordan Collins smile at Simon-Cleaves’ children’s clothing store Simon & Estelle, located at Merchants on the Corner in Presque Isle. Due to brisk sales, Collins will soon open JoJo’s Boutique in the shopping space. (Courtesy of Carli Simon-Cleaves)

Presque Isle’s Main Street Mania on Nov. 17 was even bigger, and she wishes the city would do a similar night every month when merchants have special promotions and are open later.  

“I think my best day so far was Main Street Mania,” she said. “People come just to walk downtown and see what’s going on. That’s when they see all the new stores.”

Simon & Estelle recently moved across Main Street to the Merchants on the Corner space at the corner of Academy and Main.

The store’s big sellers are clothing made from organic fabrics, as well as learning toys, Simon-Cleaves said. Parents also have favored what she called “rustic toys” — those made with wood and rubber that are safe for babies.

As reading is always popular, so are children’s books. In fact, she sold out of a bunch of kids’ Christmas books, she said.

Another new business got a head start during Main Street Mania, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. Jordan Collins debuted her clothing store, JoJo’s Boutique, and did so well she will soon open full time at Merchants on the Corner, Simon-Cleaves said.

Small businesses really need to be creative to survive the internet onslaught, Curt Johnson of Mac’s Trading Post in Houlton said. Privately owned stores don’t have multiple locations to spread costs around, so they can’t sell as low as large corporations can. 

Things like customer appreciation promotions and liquidating older lines of merchandise have proven successful for him.

The store does its best sales during mid-December. Right now, it’s too early to project what the season’s sales will be like, but there are always people who shop local, Johnson said.

“These days, so much of the Black Friday phenomenon pretty much belongs to online retailers and box stores,” he said. “Our niche, where we tend to shine, is the last two weeks before Christmas.” 

Several small businesses in the area have told him they see the same trend, Johnson said. Later in December, when people can no longer order anything in time for the holiday, is when customers really come out to local retailers, he said.

Though restrictions for crossing the border have been lifted on both the Canadian and American sides, Canadian shoppers aren’t a big portion of their customers, merchants said. 

In Fort Kent, which is just across from Clair, New Brunswick, the constant changing of border requirements during the pandemic affected shoppers, Pelletier said. The store sees a few Canadian customers once in a while.

Lagasse said he recently saw a small group in the Caribou store.

“I had a few folks in from New Denmark, which was encouraging,” he said.