Industry Report

E-Commerce Challenges, Boosts Retail in Volant

By Jeremy Lydic
VOLANT, Pa. — For 22 years, Amanda Stanek has worked at The Kitchen Shoppe here, assuming ownership of the shop 16 years ago. In its history, the shop has gone through “the ebb and flow” of the small town and today, Stanek is “really excited for the future,” she says.

Still, Stanek is keenly aware of the reality the 27 business owners in this small town face as online shopping continues to increase. The Kitchen Shoppe in particular, which specializes in kitchen supplies and appliances, faces competition from internet retailers and big-box stores, including those at Grove City Premium Outlets just eight miles away.

“Right now, it’s a struggle,” Stanek says. “A lot of these shops in town do specialized crafts and particular things that you can’t find anywhere else. I’m selling things you can find in your local Giant Eagle.”

Nevertheless, The Kitchen Shoppe has its niche. Upon entering, visitors enjoy the aroma of freshly baked cookies in the kitchen upstairs, where Stanek hosts cooking classes and private parties as a way to set her shop apart from competitors. She also serves specialty coffee drinks and looks to open a small café with a breakfast and lunch menu, she says.

“I need to get out of my head and what I did years prior, and start looking to what I can do in the future to maintain and sustain,” she says.

Amanda Stanek hosts cooking classes and private parties at The Kitchen Shoppe as a way to compete with big box and online retailers.

Then there’s the building itself, built in 1884. It was Volant’s general store until the local fire department bought it in the 1960s and installed a garage door for the fire engine. Customers walking on the hardwood floors can still feel the grooves where the truck would roll in.

In the 1980s, the owner of Volant Mills returned the building to a retail location, she says. Many of the buildings in town housed various businesses at one time or another.

“This whole valley has been based upon shops since the 1800s,” Stanek says. 

For 30 years, Wendy Morris, owner of Intertwined Designs, worked at several shops in Volant and has seen them come and go, including the former James Creek Galleries, which closed this year. Someone recently bought that building and “another shop will be opening soon,” Morris says.

Watching a shop close is difficult because, for the shop owners, “it’s a little piece of their heart,” she says. However, she’s seen as many as eight new shops open in Volant in the last eight months, “so that’s a good sign.”

This year, Morris opened Intertwined Designs in space she rents from one of her former employers. Morris rents booths to 14 other vendors who sell antiques, vintage and new items, jewelry and her own wares, including a chair and table set she reupholstered.

“I’ve always wanted to do it. This is pretty much all I’ve ever done,” Morris says. “It has been way better than I even hoped for. All of the vendors that are in here – every booth sells.”

Despite the growth of online shopping, Morris believes smaller specialty shops provide something that online shopping can’t compete with.

“I like it that the shops here are different,” she says. “That people don’t come here and see the same thing in every shop.”

Sean Gramelt agrees. The clerk at Derailed Distillery says the shops that tend to stick around longer than a year don’t try to compete with large retail locations such as Grove City Outlets and instead are unusual in what they offer.

Derailed Distillery specializes in whiskey and moonshine and is housed in one of three old train cars owned by Bobby Palko, who opened the Boxcar Cigar shop in one of the other cars. This winter, Palko looks to possibly renovate the middle car and open it as a lounge, Gramelt says.

“There’s places like the witches shop [Wicked Little Witches] and Special-Teas tea shop that you can’t find anywhere else,” Gramelt says. “But the shops here that were just your generic touristy-type shops were open for about a year and closed down.”

In 2008, Roberta Butchy opened Special-Teas Etc., which carries nearly 200 varieties of loose-leaf teas from the Three Thousand Leaves line of tea. 

Customers can browse the entire selection, packaged in two-teaspoon “Teaser” bags stored conveniently in an old library card catalog and sold at $1 or $2 each, says Joan Heasley, who has worked in the shop since it opened.

Special-Teas is open year-round and enjoys a “very big following” that’s boosted by its online business, Heasley says. 

“Every year it has increased,” she says of online sales. “Because people come through in the summertime traveling to Volant. They taste our tea and they love it, so if they’re living in Arizona or California or New York, anywhere, we ship all over the country.”

Special-Teas features more than 200 blends of loose leaf tea, as well as gifts and accessories. Online sales help boost business, says Joan Heasley.

She’s also met customers from other countries, including a South African man who was interested in rooibos tea, she says. “In Africa, they put rooibos tea in baby bottles and give it to the babies because it’s naturally caffeine-free,” she says.

With holiday shopping in full swing and Small Business Saturday set for Nov. 30, some shops are advertising deals for the season. 

The Kitchen Shoppe’s Stanek plans to offer 20% off everything in the store, aside from food. “But that’s one day out of the year,” she says, and she hopes more people start to think about shopping local year-round.

“We’re diamonds in your backyard,” she says. “If people just come here and shop, even if it’s $50 that I make during the day, at least that pays for whatever it might be.”

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Aside from a few volunteers who help her when needed, Stanek is the sole employee at The Kitchen Shoppe, and she works daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. But the hours don’t matter to her, she says.

“I love it so much that I don’t care how many hours I put into it,” she says. “This is my second home.”

Volant’s history as a destination for commerce dates back to 1868, when J.P. Locke, who owned the town’s grist mill, purchased 100 acres, according to LawrenceCountyMemoirs.com. In 1872, he laid out 30 lots around the mill for a settlement called Lockeville.

With the New Castle & Franklin Railroad coming in, the town – renamed Volant – prospered, growing into a shopping district with a livery stable, two harness shops, blacksmith, a veterinarian and other shops.

Volant thrived until the mill, the heart of the town, slowly declined in the 1900s, in the lead up to the Great Depression and eventually closed in the 1960s.

Some 20 years later, Volant Mills reopened as a gift shop and antiques store. Today, it houses 15 vendors on its first two floors, selling jewelry, clothing, home decor, handmade items, candles, specialty grocery goods and other rare items. A historic display, including period clothing and photographs, is on the third floor

“It’s worked out really well because it’s given us a variety of merchandise that we didn’t have before,” says Cheryl Geidner, who became manager of the mill since moving her shop there in 2012. “It’s very eclectic now. We have a little bit of everything.”

In 2008, the Volant Community Development Corp. purchased the mill to restore its grinding capabilities for educational and demonstration purposes. The nonprofit renovated much of the 207-year-old building, including rebuilding its waterwheel, and is working to raise $500,000 to fully restore the grist mill.

“We feel really fortunate that it was saved and is still part of the hub of Volant,” Geidner says.

Events like Christmas on Main Street and Witches Night Out create experiences that draw visitors to Volant, says Cheryl Geidner, manager at Volant Mills.

Keeping up the historic buildings has helped maintain Volant as a destination. Many of the visitors are from outside of the area, particularly Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland and Youngstown, Geidner says.

The town’s busy season is the last quarter, when it sees anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 visitors, she estimates. Volant relies on annual events to draw customers throughout the year. Two upcoming events – Christmas on Main Street, Nov. 9 and 10, and Noel Night, Dec. 7 – will draw “quite a few people,” she says. “And weekends are extremely busy.”

Among the most popular events is Witches Night Out, typically held in September. For the first year of the event, shop owners agreed to dress up and encouraged their customers to dress as well, says Intertwined Designs’ Morris. 

“We didn’t know if anyone was going to dress,” Morris recalls. “I’m telling you, from 5 to 9 p.m., the street was a sea of witches. They had little kids, themselves and dogs all dressed as witches.”

Shops decorate for the event, which features a costume contest, a parade, live music and other entertainment. Events and the overall atmosphere were enough for Volant to be named Best Small Town in Pennsylvania by Insider.com this year.

“As long as we can continue to offer some type of entertainment, it’s helpful to keep drawing people to the area,” Geidner says. “We can’t exist without our customers. And we do have a loyal customer base that comes yearly, monthly, weekly, just to see what’s different in town.

“Fortunately for us, people still like to touch and feel things, and they like to experience shopping in a different type of environment,” she adds.

Customers such as Alice Regan and Theresa Cerbe of Pittsburgh, who get out to Volant when they can because it’s at least an hour’s drive from where they live, they say.

“We’re older and I think this is what we look for,” Regan says. “For me, it’s going back a little bit and enjoying that part of life. Just the old days.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.