Small Retail Business Owners Share Joys and Challenges

Retail small business panel, from left, Don Taylor, Allison Bennett, Katie Brousseau, Cyndi Wells, Karen Wray, Ruby Alexander, David Jolly,  Gloria Smith Brehm and Ken Nebel. Photo by Greg Kendall/ladailypost.com

By GREG KENDALL
Los Alamos Daily Post

Earlier this month, Ken Nebel, owner of Village Arts (art supply store) organized a gathering of Los Alamos County retail business operators to discuss the small business retail environment in Los Alamos.

“I’m relatively new to business and I don’t have all the answers,” Nebel said. “It felt like it was time to pull together a group of experts who are all doing business in Los Alamos to jointly discuss why we do what we do. The County and Chamber have been open to meeting with businesses, but I think it’s important that we have our own platform to discuss, collaborate and support one another. The goal of this panel is to perhaps provide some little revelations, but it isn’t designed to solve all our problems or to make new ones, it’s designed mostly to make us better neighbors.”

Nine businesses were represented on the panel. Panelist included Don Taylor of Don Taylor’s Photography, Allison Bennett of UPEX and Bennett’s Fine Jewelry, Katie Brousseau of Warm Hearts Yarn, Cyndi Wells of Pet Pangaea, Karen Wray of Karen Wray Fine Art Gallery, Ruby Alexander of Ruby’s K’s, Dave Jolly of Metzger’s, Gloria Smith Brehm of Perch Paperie and moderator Ken Nebel of Village Arts and Fuller Lodge Art Center.

Village Arts

Nebel started things off. He noted that to keep him in business for a year in Los Alamos all it would take is for everyone in Los Alamos County, 18,500 people to buy 12 96-cent pencils. In referring to how hard Los Alamos retailers work, he said, “These people up here are gladiators and I see that every day.” He invited the public to come in to Village Arts and expect to be surprised. Village Arts has carries more than you think. This theme was repeated by many of the retailers.

Perch Paperie

Perch Paperie owner Smith Brehm enjoys teaching people how to think “outside of the box” using surprising things in your crafting. Smith Brehm said it’s a challenge to get people out of the habit of going to Santa Fe for their craft needs. Getting people to open up to something new is another challenge. People get stuck in their ways and may not be willing to try a new store. It’s difficult to be a new business. Being located in White Rock is a challenge, but it’s the only location that was economically feasible. 

Metzger’s

Jolly of Metzger’s said the business has been operated by the same family in Los Alamos since 1947. Lee Metzger Senior was asked to come to Los Alamos by the Atomic Energy Commission. Jolly was an internal consultant for a chain of hardware stores, marinas and a restaurant in Central Alabama before coming to Los Alamos three and a half years ago.

Jolly noted that the stores he worked with in Alabama were in towns just like Los Alamos. He remarked that the things people say are unique to Los Alamos can actually be found in many small towns.

The man who first recruited Jolly into retail said, “You don’t get rich in retail. You have to do it because you love it. You can make a decent living if you’re good at it.” 

Jolly noted that Metzger’s is asked every single day for donations and people need to realize that retail is not a big money business. You need to love working with people. Jolly feels he is good at recognizing good people for positions at his stores. Jolly commented that people say there were a lot more businesses in Los Alamos 20 years ago, but back then there wasn’t a five lane highway going to Santa Fe. The big box stores nearby also hurts local business. 

Jolly feels it is important to stay relevant and to adapt to changing times in order to keep customers coming in the door.

Both Nebel and Jolly requested that customers don’t wait till the last minute to buy stuff for kid’s projects. Jolly warned that if you’re buying your things at a big box store that has little customer service just out of convenience of time, you are costing yourself the opportunity to get good customer service from a store like Metzger’s that might be gone when you need them to help you more than a big box will.

Jolly said Los Alamos is not dying, but is going through what every town goes through. Twenty years ago Los Alamos was a different place and twenty years from now it will be different again. We can’t fixate on the way things look right now. Over time there are all kinds of reasons for people to be in Los Alamos. Jolly told the group, “Never give up. You just never know what is going to happen.”

Ruby K’s

Alexander identified customers knowing you are there as a challenge for retailers. Ruby K’s has been in business for eight years, yet it is not uncommon for people to ask “What’s Ruby K’s?”

Alexander is proud to have created a community gathering place after being told that restaurants couldn’t survive. It is tenacity that made it work and keeps it going. Alexander likes to make people happy and that seems to be something to retail, that you must enjoy making people happy. 

Ruby K’s is now providing box lunches that you can order ahead or come in and pick up. She provided box lunches to the vendors at the recent Arts & Crafts Fair. If you are heading out for a picnic, it would be something nice and easy to take with you up to the Jemez.

Alexander enjoys mentoring the youth that work in her restaurant. Employment is Alexander’s biggest problem. Finding good employees with a proper work ethic is a challenge for her. There is constant training and the turnover is high. Alexander notes that the profit margins are really small in her business and many people don’t realize how close some businesses are from not being here anymore. “It’s hard, it’s really hard.  We do this for the love, not for the money.”

She went on to say, “This community wants additional businesses. We are not going to attack any of the big businesses because we can’t seem to make decisions and get anything accomplished.” The only way to get additional people to open new businesses in Los Alamos is to incentivize entrepreneurs. Alexander noted that Ruby K’s is staying open later during the week. They also are now making cupcakes and cakes for weddings.

Karen Wray Fine Art Gallery

Wray started her business as just a private studio. She had a studio near the dry cleaner on Trinity Dr. It turned into a shop gallery. It’s a great business community that is really struggling hard to survive. Wray really enjoys working with the artists. “They stay young and they stay excited about what they are doing.”  

Some people she knows have left the Lab, gotten into art and now they seem younger and more enthusiastic. Wray enjoys watching the transformation and growth of new artists. Art is very personal. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Wray has been in Los Alamos for 33 years. She loves the small town feel and running into people at the store. However, retailers are losing ground. Many struggle for years trying to get people to know you are even there despite advertising. 

Wray said the Downtown area has too many offices. There use to be a lot more retail stores. Over time the retail locations have been replaced with Lab, contractor and medical offices.  Where is the downtown? 

Wray would like to see the downtown get rezoned so that retailers are downtown where they need to be and get offices off the main drag. This would free up parking spaces that offices use up and would make the downtown more cohesive with everybody closer to each other. It is hard to get people to want to shop downtown now.

Wray teaches classes and loves to see that “ah ha” moment when people who have never done art before get an art technique.

Pet Pangaea

Pet Pangaea has been open for eight years now. Wells said that when she gets a thank you from her customers it makes her go for another 200 hours. So that’s my pay. Wells also enjoys her fellow business owners and how they cross promote. “We all understand the same issues that go on.”

Wells sees challenges for retailers due to the complex issues of operating in Los Alamos. Wells said, “I think this is a community that cares about small business. I think it is. A lot of people don’t know what to do and there are a lot of complex issues. It is not an easy problem to fix. There are a lot of smart people here who would have fixed it. I appreciate doing business in this community.”

She continued, “I moved here in 2000 as a PhD chemist and worked at the Lab. I passed the IQ test and left the lab to start running my store. I am a glutton for punishment.” Wells told the group that retailers have to be tough to be in business, but in Los Alamos you have to be a little bit tougher.

The high cost of doing business here is a reality. The lack of suitable habitat for retailers is also a problem. You don’t have loading docks and you are unseen. Pet Pangaea has been here for eight years. She said, “I try everything on the planet to get the word out, but we still have people who walk in and say, when did you open?”

Wells said the problem is an old problem. This is a town set up by the government. Wells found a paper from the 1950’s where people were complaining to the energy commission that rents were too high.

Another challenge is the high cost of personnel turnover. Wells spends $10,000 per employee for training. Wells said “I love Los Alamos. I moved here because I love the outdoors. I think there is a lot that Los Alamos has that is fantastic. But, I had a great manager who only worked for me for a year and a half. She said she couldn’t take it anymore. She moved to Durango.”

Wells told the group that we need the critical mass downtown, but we need things for the labor force to exist here as well. Wells has used an HR consulting firm, job fairs in Espanola and national magazine ads to try and entice people to come here.

Trying to obtain services can also be a challenge. Wells was trying to make simple cosmetic changes to one of her warehouse spaces to convert it to retail and the thing was unbelievable. It took weeks just to get an electrician to put up tract lighting.  

In addition to the cosmetic changes to the retail space, Pet Pangaea is converting their point of sale system so they can try online sales. Wells said, “I don’t believe people should shop local for shopping local sake. I think you should shop locally because it is the best store in the state and the nation.”

Pet Pangaea has been open on Sundays since they opened eight years ago. She echoed other retailers request that the public give local retailers a chance. People assume local retailers don’t carry what they need, but don’t call and inquire before they make the drive off the hill.

Wells agrees with Wray about rezoning. Retailers aren’t paying these rates anywhere else. She cautioned that retailers in Los Alamos will continue to disappear if we don’t figure out how to reduce expenses such as high rent.

Warm Hearts Yarn

Warm Hearts Yarn co-owner Brousseau thanked Ken and everyone on the panel. She has been in Los Alamos for 20 years having moved here when she was eleven.

Her parents moved to Los Alamos not for the lab, but for the education. They previously lived in Santa Fe and heard really good things about the schools. Brousseau’ mother is a social worker for the schools. Brousseau taught 4th grade in Los Alamos. Her husband teaches middle school and her father works for Del Norte Credit Union.

“We love the community and that is why my parents came up.” She enjoys when customers come in chat and stay for tea. Warm Hearts has customers that come in multiple times per week. “I love seeing people in Smith’s, which is the happening place in White Rock. I really enjoy going somewhere and always knowing somebody.”

Brousseau misses teaching. She is able to fulfill that love of teaching through her retail business. “I have weekly classes for children and adults. I love when the light bulb goes off and it gives me an outlet.”

The personal touch differentiates Warm Heart Yarn from stores like Michael’s in Santa Fe. Warm Hearts will not only sell you the yarn, they can teach you to knit. Brousseau has been doing hand work since she was ten, whether it is crocheting or embroidery.

The challenges Brousseau identified included the challenge that “it takes twice as long to drive from Los Alamos to White Rock as it does to drive from White Rock to Los Alamos.” One customer told her that she goes to Albuquerque more than she drives down to White Rock.” But since discovering Warm Hearts Yarn, the customer has been in once a week and has brought her friends.

Brousseau is very pro White Rock. She started the White Rock Community page on Facebook. They have 300 members. “It doesn’t mean I am anti-Los Alamos. I am pro both.” She thinks there is a way to market and emphasize both communities.

The other challenge she identified is customer perception that everything is more expensive in Los Alamos County. She has priced her yarn to be the same or lower than what is available in Santa Fe or online. By competitively pricing her yarn, she hopes to build customer loyalty.

The third challenge is the high overhead that others discussed. Before opening her business, she didn’t understand what all went into overhead. She said, “The rent, utilities, shipping costs, credit card machines and payroll all adds up.”

Brousseau echoed the other business owners, “I love our community. I love our education and providing items to the community so we don’t have to go off the hill. Customers shouldn’t assume that what they want can only be found at the best prices off the hill.”

UPEX and Bennett’s Fine Jewelry

Bennett, along with her parents operates UPEX and Bennett’s Fine Jewelry. Her parents opened the store in 1988. Her father worked for UPS and fell in love with Los Alamos. He left UPS and opened up UPEX.  

Overhead is a big issue for her business. They run on a skeleton crew. Bennett has great employees, but it is really hard to find and keep them. As a result, single-mom Bennett works 60 hour weeks. “But, the people in town are just awesome.”

Bennett finds it fascinating when customers come and sit down to talk with her for hours. “I was told I am approachable and I am cool with that.” Bennett came up with the idea of the jewelry side of the business. Her Mom gave her $300 and a rental car and said “go find some vendors.”

Bennett champions other small businesses when out-of-town visitors come into her store. She gives advice on where to eat and where to shop. She prints out a map and writes directions. Cross promotion is important.

Bennett’s advice to her children is to “pay it forward and work hard because nothing comes for free.”

Don Taylor’s Photography

Taylor has been in Los Alamos almost 30 years. He said the issues facing retail today aren’t new. “This stuff has always been out there and I think as a small business you have to love what you do.”

He said to all you have to do is look out the window to see what attracted him to this area. Taylor thinks there is a trade off. We have this beautiful place, we have a small community and therefore there is a limited number of customers you can draw on. He thinks one of the best things is that we have people in Los Alamos who can spend money.

Taylor’s best advice is to give people unbelievable customer service. He laughed when saying that he “drowns them in customer service and it seems to help.” All retailers at the forum have created a niche. “I think that is why we are all here, because we all have a niche. We just have to keep at it and smile everyday when we get up.”

Taylor also struggled to find a new building, but is happy with his current location.  It is a struggle to do business in this town, but people who do business with Taylor really appreciate his service. Since Hallmark and Otowi went out of business, people come in and tell Taylor that they are happy he is still here.

Taylor said another big challenge for him is the fact that his business has changed so much in the last five years. When film was popular, he had a one hour photo that processed about 60 rolls of film a day which was 50% of his business. Film went away and so “we are trying to change with the times. So, we created a website and people load files to print. You have to diversify.”

Last year Taylor dug right into the sports business and he does senior portraits. It is good to be visible out there in the community as a business person. “Staying on my game is always a challenge. You can’t get complacent, you have to be out there always trying to figure out what is going to work. I am a very positive person. Don’t get me wrong, I do have my days. Taylor was talking to Dave Fox recently and Fox agreed that it is challenging times for everybody, regardless of where you are or what size town you are in. Taylor closed with “we are all going to be okay. If we made it this far, we can get better from here. But, boy my business has changed a whole lot. You just have to diversify and figure out what is going to work for you.” 

 

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