March 12th, 2020

Beset by Powerful Forces, Long Branch Stores Find Hidden Strengths

Beset by Powerful Forces, Long Branch Stores Find Hidden Strengths 

The word ‘Business’ can be deceptive. It can refer to Amazon Inc. — or to the corner grocery store, even though the two have essentially nothing in common. 

Titans of the business world can influence – sometimes even define – their own regulation. While nothing is absolute, in many ways the big guys control their own survival. They have lawyers. They have publicity. They have access

Long Branch’s small businesses have almost none of these things. As one store owner told the Newsletter last month, “We have no power.” 

The feeling is understandable. In some ways a Medieval peasant farmer had it easier! Tradition and custom offered some stability at least. 

Rising Rents, Costs 

Almost nothing is stable for the typical Long Branch small business. If a property owner should choose to tear down and rebuild – what recourse does the small business have, but to move, in accordance with the fine print in their lease agreement? In such a case, all the years and money invested in this particular space, and building this particular clientele, can easily be lost. 

Rents for the typical retailer go up at least 3% per year. One Long Branch 

retailer recently saw their rents skyrocket 25% in a single year. That same store’s earnings, meanwhile, were flat. Such cases are not at all untypical. And the unpredictability is by no means restricted only to rents. 

In the case of Reliable Cleaners, a county-wide class action lawsuit brought against G&G Tow-ing left the well-liked local cleaners in a terrible situation. Despite having clearly posted no-parking/towing signs on their small private park-ing lot, Reliable is being forced to pay out more than $60,000 to persons legally towed from their own lot — a burden that has drained over $4,000 from their coffers every month since late 2019. 

Little Guy Fights Back 

Such challenges, which are by no means unique to Long Branch, have inspired this neighbor-hood’s small businesses and their non-profit partners, such as MHP and LEDC, to unite and find creative ways to try to even the odds. 

The strategy of the Long Branch Business League (LBBL) includes rebranding local business as essential to the neighborhood’s culture. Indeed, that was the logic behind last September’s trans-formative eight-day Long Branch festival — to which, incidentally, the County Parks and Planning departments hugely contributed. 

Today, the Business League, thanks to support from the County Executive and DHCA, is able to provide Long Branch small businesses some top-notch marketing, design and other consulting services. (Even more such assistance would be even better.) 

Businesses that get involved in these programs — ideally while also joining the Business League — get access to free social media marketing and receive free store design advice from leading industry consultants. 

What is more, thanks to actions taken by the Business League and MHP, the property owner who had raised rental costs by 25% agreed to lower them somewhat. As this article goes to print, the LBBL is attempting to reduce the financial burden that has been imposed on Reliable Cleaners. The outcome of those efforts, to be sure, remain uncertain. 

Fortunately for Reliable Cleaners, they have a strong customer fan base appreciative of the Kims’ kindness and consistent dry cleaning quality. Culture – both the store’s and that of the neighborhood — may end up saving the day for them. 

Indeed, as noted in ‘Portrait of a Small Business District’ (this Newsletter, p.2), Long Branch’s commercial culture is distinctive, charming — and getting more so every day. 

Portrait of a Small Business District 

Downtown Long Branch is surrounded by larger, better-known shopping districts. It has no Macy’s, no Apple Store. Its retailers – like retailers every-where – keenly feel the dark shadow of Internet pricing and convenience. 

Despite the challenges, Long Branch stores persist, sometimes thrive. They do so by offering what the larger and more impersonal locations cannot. 

The enchanting, intimate smells of pastries freshly made right there in the store. 

The security of giving your favorite wool sweater — or your federal taxes paperwork — to someone you actually know and trust. 

Also the pleasure of seeing the same waiter, or salesperson, or hair cutter, year after year, and the something-like-a-real-friendship that, in Long Branch at least, often grows out of such familiarity. 

It is the absence of that kind of informality and personal touch – so often found in Long Branch — that makes online shopping such a joyless even if ‘efficient’ experience. 

The authenticity of the Long Branch experience is largely defined by its brick and mortar stores. Some of the lesser-known peculiarities of its stores are listed in the sidebar at left.