These Companies’ Inventories Pick Up Where Amazon’s Leaves Off
Customers flock to these businesses for unusual products from unicorn pinatas to rare Perry Como albums.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
On each day of Small Business Week, Inc. will spotlight a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies. Our subjects are among the country's best small businesses, selected because they have won multiple Readers' Choice awards from their city or regional publications.
Although chains like Best Buy, Nordstrom's, and Whole Foods appear dispiritingly often on Readers' Choice lists, many small retailers carry inventories that compensate with quirk or quality for what they lack in breadth. Magpie-like secondhand and vintage stores are especially popular. So are businesses that carry local specialty and handmade items. Longtime retailers reflect the specific--and sometimes peculiar--tastes of their communities.
These companies excel in product selection.
A visit to Jerry's Records is shuffle play brought to life. Looking for Zeppelin, Joplin, Pink Floyd? They're there. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders? Yup. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass? Likely. The song-stylings of Gilligan's Island star Tina Louise? "Chevrolet Sings Songs of Safe Driving and You?" Bingo.
"We are proud of the weird," says Jerry's owner Chris Grauzer.
Jerry's Records, named one of the country's top record stores by Rolling Stone, carries half a million used albums ranging from hard rock to easy listening, from sermons to soul. The two-employee business occupies the second floor of a former car dealership in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, home to Carnegie Mellon University. Locals lug their old records--as many as 1,000 a week--up the narrow stairs where Grauzer sifts through them. He takes everything but pays only for what he thinks will sell. The rest he boxes up and deposits at the bottom of the stairs for whoever wants them. "We say they can take them to other stores, but they'll just be wasting time and gas," Grauzer says. "Nine times out of 10 they just leave them."
Grauzer, a longtime employee, acquired the business from founder Jerry Weber in August. Weber has been Pittsburgh's wizard of wax since 1978, when he and a partner opened The Record Graveyard, followed a few years later by Garbage Records, which then became Jerry's. "His vision has always been to rescue records from people who did not want them and turn them over to people who did," Grauzer says.
Weber's strategy was more passionate than practical. "He just kept buying records regardless of whether they sold or not," Grauzer says. "He wanted this to be a completist store." Since buying the store Grauzer has shared Weber's aversion to offering new releases, and has kept prices low: $4 to $5 on average.
Grauzer has made few changes, though he has moved the rare, more expensive offerings near the checkout, where he can keep an eye on them. And he's creating a section for "antiquated" media--cassettes, VHS tapes, laser discs--in the space where Weber's son Willie operated a store-within-a-store selling 78s. (Whistlin' Willie's 78s is relocating to nearby Swissvale, where Jerry Weber maintains a warehouse from which he runs a business that auctions off the 400,000 albums he held onto when he sold the store.)
Grauzer acquires much of his inventory from customers and collectors, as well as those clearing out the belongings of relatives who have died recently. "If it is somebody's grandmother, a lot of times it is pop music from the '50s. Perry Como and Mantovani. A lot of big-band stuff," says Grauzer. "Stuff that does not sell." He takes it all anyway.
"I guess it doesn't sound like a great business model," says Grauzer. "But it has worked."
Every so often, Laura Kneib paddles her kayak out on Puget Sound to harvest sea lettuce, a kind of edible seaweed. She also collects sand and water. Back at her shop in downtown Bremerton, Washington, Kneib performs the alchemy that transforms these natural ingredients, along with assorted oils, into bars of soap.
The word "bars" is misleading. Kneib's products look more like slabs of fudge with mounded tops resembling dollops of cream. Colors are layered as though in a rainbow cookie. For her seaweed bar, called Puget Sound, "I use a layer of light brown on the bottom for sand and then indigo for water and white at the top. It is swirled together like waves," she says. "The seaweed is very healing for your skin." (Prices vary but most bars cost around $6.)
With a few exceptions, all products sold at F.R.O.G. Soap are made by Kneib, aided by just one part-time employee and a couple of volunteers. A retired graphic designer who learned soap-making from her mother, Kneib produces around 50 kinds of bars, as well as creams, balms, and pet shampoos. Named Recycler of the Year by the Washington State Recycling Association, she collects and filters French fry oil from the Admiral Theater, a non-profit venue that serves food and is conveniently located right next door. The shop's name stands for "From Reclaimed Oil and Glycerin." Kneib estimates she has reclaimed just over 5-1/2 tons since starting the business in 2012.
To make soap, Kneib combines liquid soy oil from the fries with a "hard" oil such as coconut, palm, lard, or beef tallow. Then she goes wild. She makes soaps with dandelion greens, hemp seed oil, and pureed carrots and cucumbers. The chocolatey brown Dragon's Blood bar derives from tree sap. Espresso and Cream incorporates shots and grounds from local coffee shops.
Kneib will custom-make soap in any design from almost any natural ingredient. "They want something that smells like lime or ginger or they want a certain color because it's for a wedding," she says. "We produce what they want."
F.R.O.G. does some wholesaling, and online sales surge during the holidays. But 50 to 70 percent of sales are from customers walking in off the street. "We have a lot of people moving from Seattle because the cost of living there has gotten out of sight," Kneib says. "The Seattleites are very environmentally conscious. This product speaks to them."
Amols' Party & Fiesta Supplies
"Everyone knows what Mardi Gras is. No one knows about Fiesta."
Jeffrey Weiss sounds proud and a little exasperated as he describes what the rest of the country is missing. Fiesta is a 10-day extravaganza--parades! concerts! balls! coronations!--that consumes San Antonio every year. (The 2018 festivities just concluded.) "If Fiesta generated more revenue than Mardi Gras, I would not be surprised," Weiss says.
Certainly the event is good for Amols' Party & Fiesta Supplies, the nearly 70-year-old family business of which Weiss is the third-generation leader. The company has dabbled in many niches over the years, starting with gags and novelties, followed by cheap imported toys used for prizes at church and school fairs. For a while it was among the nation's largest distributors of bingo cards, balls, and cages.
Party supplies have been the constant. Amols' made its name by staking out New Year's Eve. Later, as both Fiesta and San Antonio expanded, Weiss cast his net wide for Mexican-themed tchotchkes and decorations. The store sells some mass-produced items, such as sombreros. But roughly 70 percent of its Fiesta products are handmade by craftspeople that Weiss and his agents have scouted through the years in Mexico and South America.
The store sells tens of thousands of maracas "made from gourds that they pick by hand and then paint," Weiss says. The same goes for paper flowers and papel picados--traditional party banners with intricate cutouts. "It boggles the mind that they can crank this stuff out by hand," he says. Some of the artisans work exclusively for Amols'.
Most of the company's 50 or so styles of piñata are also handmade in Mexico. Weiss keeps in close touch with his supply chain and places custom orders when he senses new demand. Amols' also draws on its southern supply chain for Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead products. The latter are particularly striking: skulls spun from sugar and colorful papier-mâché skeletons.
Of course other holidays and party themes are well represented on Amols' shelves. But the handmade Mexican goods sell year-round. "The whole city has this Hispanic flavor and feel," Weiss says. "It is one of the great things about San Antonio."
In 2002, Frank Papa could eat well in his small town of Carrboro, North Carolina. Not so his cat. "We had several co-ops, a Whole Foods, some great grocery stores," says Papa. "But there was nothing comparable for animals."
Papa found the big-box pet supply stores depressing, their staffs unhelpful, and their products "junk." He launched Phydeaux determined to sell only healthy foods, without chemicals, byproducts, or fillers. The business has grown to three stores carrying 30,000 different items, both food and supplies. "I look at every product to see if it is best in its category and provides good value," he says.
Often Phydeaux is among the first to offer a hot new product. An early hit for the company were freeze-dried salmon treats: good for joints, coats, and the immune system. Papa found the treats at a small manufacturer in Washington State well before other pet companies picked them up. He was also among the first sellers of raw food for pets. "It is like a sausage tube full of raw meat and bone and veggies ground up and pureed," Papa says. "Dogs and cats thrive on it." And who knew dogs could eat frozen yogurt?
Because customers find many products unfamiliar, Papa sends them home with samples before they buy.
Thundershirts--vests that calm storm-stressed pets by applying constant gentle pressure--have become a national phenomenon. The company that makes them, ThunderWorks, is in nearby Durham; and Phydeaux was one of its first outlets. Other local vendors supply products like leashes made from climbing ropes and ultra-tough fleece chew toys. "I love the local brands," Papa says. "They are great products and we sell the heck out of them."
One thing Phydeaux doesn't sell is animals. "That was one of my main philosophical points right at the beginning," says Papa, who is committed to ending pet overpopulation. On most weekends animal-rescue groups set up inside or directly outside the stores, offering cats, dogs, and rabbits for adoption. "People know that, besides the shelter," he says, "this is where they come to meet an animal in person."