Small stores still thriving amid giants

Advent of large retailers forced difficult decisions

Posted: Thursday, November 28, 2002

When several large, nationwide chain stores began moving to the central Kenai Peninsula a decade ago, consumers embraced the idea of cheaper prices, larger inventories and greater convenience. However, the ringing of cash registers in places like Fred Meyer, Big Kmart and Blockbuster often sounded like a death knell for area small businesses.

Those small businesses that survived learned quickly that the only way to survive was to provide services or amenities not found elsewhere. Although maintaining a small business in the era of retail giants is not always easy, it can be done. According to Kenai business owner Ron Malston, who operates a small clothing and engraving shop, downsizing and finding a niche market can enable a small business to stay afloat.

Malston began his business, Malston's, as a large clothing store in 1971. He branched out into department store items in the early 1980s, but an economic downturn, followed by Kmart's move into Kenai, forced him to make some tough decisions about how to run his store.

"We moved into a smaller space," he said. Where once his store occupied a large part of the strip mall it's currently in, Malston's now takes up just a small sliver of the building, located on Overland Street in Kenai.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

Brenda Van Bibber has found a business niche for The Video Place.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Malston said he now gets the majority of his business through his tuxedo rentals and engraving business, services that aren't offered elsewhere in town.

"There's nobody else that does tuxedos. And we also went into the trophies and engraving. That's probably our main business, the engraving," he said.

He said that since the larger stores moved in, it's easier for small businesses to identify areas not being served in the community.

"Since Kmart and Fred Mayer came in to the area, there's a lot of things that you just can't get," he said.

Besides finding a niche market, Malston said he keeps labor costs low by spending most of his time working in the store. Although he's been in business for more than 30 years, Malston said he doesn't see his shop closing down any time soon.

"It gets me up every morning. I like what I do, and it's fun," he said.

Two doors down, in the same mall occupied by Malston's, is The Video Place, Kenai's lone "independent" video store. It also has had to make significant changes in order to stay afloat against the tide of chain-store consolidation.

Owner Brenda Vanbibber said her approach has been to put the customer above the bottom line, catering to the needs of individual patrons rather than the masses.

"I like it to be more user friendly," she said. "I like to let (customers) know their ideas and thoughts are important to us."

In addition to video rentals, Vanbibber also offers video games, a kids section and a game room complete with "Par-T" indoor golf, a pool table, dart board and couches. In the main rental area she has set up a couch and big screen television where customers can lounge or kids can sit while their parents browse the shelves. She said customers appreciate the experience of coming into a small, more relaxed environment.

"They can come in and not have to feel like they're in an assembly line," she said, adding that she often spends time just chatting with people who come into the store.

"Some people like to kind of get away from the world out there. You can't get that warmth at other places."

She said although The Video Place might not be able to carry as many copies as Blockbuster, her store does keep current with the new releases. And she said customers can often find some movies --including adult titles -- they can't get anywhere else.

"There's a few amenities you can't get at the bigger stores," she said.

Vanbibber said she tries to adjust to what the customer needs, whether it's a fishing crew needing movies for longer than a week, or tourists in town for just a couple days.

"We try to accommodate all of our customers," she said.

As for remaining what she calls, "kind of the last of the Mohicans," of the video stores, Vanbibber said she plans to continue serving the area in ways other stores can't -- not because the business is important, but because it's important for her to feel like she's part of a community.

"We live here. This is our life. The big corporations, they just want your money, " she said. "I like small towns, I like being part of the community."

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