Wandering down Main Street in Cortland, eateries and bars abound, but what is glaringly absent are the retail establishments that were once the staple of every downtown.
There are a few: Bernard’s on Main Street, Geared 2 Sports on Court Street, Underground Leather on Groton Avenue and Nancy’s Bridal on Main Street — a couple of drug stores and florists, a local-foods grocery, two convenience stores.
But the face of retail is changing, growing smaller — a 15 percent decline in the number of retail businesses in Cortland County since 2004 and more drastic declines before that.
Retailers, to survive, are responding. Some have created an online presence; others offer their own specific brand or a service along with their product. Still others move to find new clusters of retailers that will draw customers.
A larger trend
The changes locally reflect a national trend. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, changes in the economy over the last 10 years have cut into the growth of retail.
When the economy worsens, consumers try to save money, shopping for products at reduced prices — bolstering discount stores. When the economy expands, consumers spend more of their disposable income — resulting in more demand for retail businesses.
The trend actually goes much further back then that. In 1954, retail sales accounted for 8.7 percent of the U.S. employment and value added; by 2014 it had dropped to less than 6 percent — a 30 percent decline, reports Ali Hortacsu and Chad Syverson in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Downtown Cortland once sported four department stores and dozens of other retail shops. Today, all of Cortland County has one department store. You can count the number of retailers in downtown Cortland on your fingers and toes. Notice the vacancies at Tops Plaza in Cortlandville, where Staples used to be, or the Cortlandville Crossing mall farther south, once anchored by Kmart.
Retail has certainly changed.
Expect the face of retail to change over the next 10 years, says U.S. Retail Sales Report. You’ll see more brick and mortar stores tied to an online component. Eventually 3-D printers will become as affordable as cellphones and people can simply print off special gifts for their loved ones, the website reports.
Quick facts about retail
• 2017 median pay: $11.24 an hour
• Entry-level education: No formal educational credential
• Number of jobs in 2016: 4,854,300
• Job outlook (2016-2026): 2 percent growth (slower than average)
• Employment change (2016-2026): 92,400
Also of note:
• Retail salespeople make less than other salespeople, nearly $3 an hour less in May 2017 than other sales professions.
• Employment of retail sales workers is projected to grow 2 percent from 2016 to 2026 — slower than the average — there should still be plenty of job opportunities because turnover is so high.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
A brighter future
The future doesn’t have to be hopeless, said Stijn M.J. van Osselaer, a professor of marketing at S.C. Johnson College of Business at Cornell University.
Rather than retail dying off, he expects more businesses to concentrate on selling things that don’t work well online — unique merchandise and a fun shopping experience.
He pointed to Ithaca as an example. The Shops at Ithaca Mall, he said, is foundering, while the Ithaca Commons and Ithaca Farmers Market are thriving.
“So basically, unique merchandise and fun shopping,” he said. “The social, fun aspect of shopping, if you can get that to come back, it makes a big difference.”
With change comes opportunity, said Adam Megivern, executive director of the Cortland Downtown Partnership.
People looking to buy things are looking for something different, something that may represent a unique tie to the area they bought it from — such as a particular artisan’s crafts. Or maybe they’ll spend their money on experiences — a dinner out, or a show — rather than products, he said.
People will pay to watch a glass-blower making something right in front of them, he said. The experience ties the person to the item in a way that buying it at the store won’t.
“When you look at downtowns, it’s more and more a blend of culture and commerce,” Megivern said. Festivals and outdoor seating at eateries all play a part in drawing people to a downtown.
A shopping center doesn’t have to founder, if it can find ways to draw people to it, van Osselaer said.
People need a destination, a place to have fun and interact with a large number of people, and with that foot traffic comes people willing to spend money, Megivern agreed. A city can create an atmosphere that helps that, and let the entrepreneurs set up shop, and provide the goods that are in demand or the experiences people seek.
A good move
One example of a small business owner that moved to find an atmosphere more conducive to business is Chuck Sheridan, owner of Sheridan’s Jewelers. Sheridan moved in May to North Main Street in Homer from Main Street in Cortland and hasn’t regretted it.
He says business has been great, people have been welcoming and the village caters to retail establishments in a way he felt Cortland did not.
Parking and crime were problems particular to Cortland, Sheridan said, particularly over the latter part of his 30 years there. His Homer location solves both problems.
While Sheridan concedes that online sales are a threat, he says brick-and-mortar retailers will always be able to offer something more than the product.
“Retail stores with a service connected to them can survive,” he said. “You can buy a diamond ring on Amazon, but what are you going to do if the stone gets loose or it doesn’t fit?”
Riding the online wave
Derek Allen has an online storefront, but the foot traffic remains critical for his business. Allen is manager of Geared 2 Sports on Court Street in Cortland, the storefront part of the clothing and printing business Graph Tex, on Elm Street, both of which have an online presence: www.graph-tex.com.
Getting the foot traffic in the door is important, and then making sure visitors purchase something once in there, is crucial.
“Even if it’s a $5 item, they are going to come back and remember you for the next, larger purchase they make,” he said.
Allen says the online component, established about six years ago, extended the nearly 30-year-old company’s reach considerably. The company now has a global presence, with customers in England and Japan.
The store increased its line of footwear after the Sarvay shoe store closed in 2014. And it has a niche, specializing in lacrosse equipment, Allen said. A retailer adapts.
“Our main clientele in the store is any local youth, kid, that wants to get into sports,” Allen said.
Entry-level jobs getting tougher
The Associated Press
Nearly a third of all first jobs in the United States are in retail, but 62 percent of service-sector workers, which includes jobs like cashiers and store sales assistants, have limited literacy skills and 74 percent have limited math abilities, according to the National Skills Coalition, funded by Walmart Inc.’s charitable arm.
As a result, some chains are increasing training. The nonprofit arm of the industry’s trade and lobbying group, the National Retail Federation, launched a training and credential program for entry-level workers last year, joining with nonprofit groups like Goodwill to teach classes. But that may not be enough to fill the skill gap. More than 700,000 retail job openings were in retail in March, according to government data.
The retail industry “relied on a largely unskilled entry labor force. Now, it’s leaning more toward skilled people and competing with other sectors,” said economist Frank Badillo, founder and director of research at MacroSavvy.
Small business attitude
Denise McNeal’s secret is customer service. The owner of Underground Leather on Groton Avenue sells motorcycle goods like leather jackets and helmets, but adds to that smoking supplies. She serves a college crowd with dormitory accessories like incense, tapestries and posters.
McNeal also can get aftermarket parts for Harley Davidson motorcycles, but doesn’t stock them because online competition is fierce, and she won’t have an online presence.
Instead, for 27 years, McNeal has catered to her clientele: special orders, credit lines and relationships with customers. “I tell them everything and they tell me everything,” she said. They keep coming back for her personality and her honesty.
“I don’t put it in here unless I would buy it and I don’t price it unless it’s what I would pay for it,” she said. “That’s small business.”
Still, she thinks downtown Cortland could do more. She’d like to see more parking options and rent reduction programs for businesses in months when college students aren’t in town, and a two-way Main Street. (She says her business tripled since moving off of Main Street 16 years ago, because customers had easier access with the two-way Groton Avenue.)
A quality purchase
Some items just have to be seen, touched and tried on, said Nancy Elster, owner of Nancy’s Bridal on Main Street, Cortland. Like bridal gowns.
Elster says she often sees customers disappointed with an online purchase. She charges double for alterations to online purchases, because the product wasn’t made to be altered, like dresses in her shop.
Even so, business at her 10-year-old shop has been stagnant for years, and Elster relies on word of mouth or Facebook for her foot traffic.
Retail establishments will survive, Elster said, once people get sick of buying items online and returning them multiple times for the correct size.
“You just don’t know how heavy it is, all these things,” she said. “You’d better get something that’s solid because you don’t want your kid standing out when it’s 20 above, with windchill 20 below, you want that warm winter coat.”