Our Towns: Boardman Shops Compete with Chains

BOARDMAN, Ohio — One of the biggest complaints about U.S. Route 224 through this township is the traffic. Every day, the township – population 41,000 – swells to near 100,000 and during rush hour, traffic can slow to a standstill for the busier sections of the 4.5 miles of the five-lane highway that runs through the township.

Scattered among the big box stores, chain restaurants and strip malls in Boardman, small businesses often find a benefit to what many consider a detriment.

“At our old location, we were more of a destination whereas here, with the traffic, a lot more people see our store and a lot more people just stop in to see what we have,” says Kristyn Mancini, owner of 850 Blues, a women’s clothing store.

Before moving to 362 Boardman-Poland Road, the store was on Western Reserve Road just west of Interstate 680.

Another benefit is that people sitting in traffic look around, Mancini says, which means they’re more likely to notice smaller, locally owned stores.

The big box chain stores, too, benefit small businesses. While his store isn’t on Route 224, Tony Ricchiuti, owner of Outdoor Recreational Equipment, 5316 Market St., says the construction of Dick’s Sporting Goods on the thoroughfare has helped.

“If we don’t carry something, we send them up there and vice versa. People are looking for the things we have. We sometimes have a little bit higher-end selection of bicycles and kayaks,” Ricchiuti says. “Being closer to them is a plus because people like to shop around.”

And because of that selection, Outdoor Recreational Equipment gets customers that chain stores won’t. Recently, Ricchiuti says, the parks and recreation department of the city of Canton bought kayaks and canoes for its Kayak Canton! program.

“It was a rather large order for us, too,” he says. “We’ve supplied Kent State, Youngstown State and the Poland Fire Department. Even Austintown, Youngstown and Boardman come to us to buy rope gear or other supplies they need.”

While there is some overlap between what Ricchiuti offers and what Dick’s keeps in stock, the difference between the stores is service, both in knowledge of products and demeanor.

“That’s what customers look for as soon as they walk through the door,” Ricchiuti says. “We greet them. We talk to them, find out what they’re looking for and do everything we can to meet their needs,” even if means clerks going out of their way to find and order a product not in stock at Outdoor.

Robert Yankush, the third generation of his family involved in YM Camera, says that with so many chains nearby – and the prevalence of online shopping – customers often assume that the mom-and-pop shops have higher prices.

“There are some preconceived notions, like you’re going to spend $20 or $30 more,” he says. “But it’s simply not true. It’s all the same price, just with better service.”

At the camera shop, 755 Boardman-Canfield Road, employees are trained on almost all camera equipment. Yankush regularly brings in representatives from companies such as Nikon and Canon to host classes on their products. “Offering classes and knowledge has been great for business,” he says. “The customers love it. And we love teaching.”

Another route for small businesses to set themselves apart is carrying completely different stock than the big box stores. Jeff Harvey, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, 90 Boardman-Canfield Road, says he keeps an eye out for new products.

“We want to stock things from smaller manufacturers that don’t usually have the capacity to supply big box stores,” Harvey says.

While Wild Birds Unlimited is a nationwide chain, each store is independently owned and operated, leaving the owners to decide the products they carry. Most of the help franchises get from their chain is setting up suppliers for birdseed, which typically is higher quality than what Lowe’s or Walmart offer, he says.

“Big box stores usually try to sell on price so they cheapen their blends by adding crack corn, milo or millet,” Harvey posits. “That’s OK up to a point. Our seed is designed to actually attract birds without leaving a mess.”

At 850 Blues, Mancini attends trade shows throughout the year – most recently one in Las Vegas – to find new brands entering the market but not yet picked up by chains. Among the brands in her store are Hudson Jeans, Joe’s Jeans and LA Made.

“I try to carry brands that you can’t find around here. Some, you have to go to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to get and some aren’t even there,” she explains. “It’s not something you can go to the mall and get.”

With their nearly exclusive brands and customer service, the small businesses in Boardman have developed a contingent of loyal customers, these businesspeople say.

At Wild Birds Unlimited, Harvey notes, many customers return because they see the difference in quality.

“Lots of my customers are regulars,” he says. “We get a lot of people who have moved away but come back to visit. They stop in to see what’s new. Even though there are a lot of these stores around the country, they don’t all carry the same thing.”

At YM Camera, Yankush is aware of the steadfastness of his regulars and tries to keep up with their demands, at times anticipating what they want before they enter his store.

Outdoor Recreational Equipment has its share of regulars too, but Ricchiuti says he devotes time to reaching to new customers.

“We reach out into the community through print, flyers, television and radio, which helps bring a lot of people in,” he says.

Even with all of that, small businesses have to stay alert to customer tastes and keep on eye on what their large counterparts offer.

“You’re always competing, so you have to stay sharp,” Ricchiuti says. “You have to sharpen your pencil, keep customers happy and give them good service.”

Pictured: Jeff and Patrice Harvey (and their dog, Charley) are the owners of Wild Birds Unlimited, 90 Boardman-Canfield Road. The store carries bird supplies and nature-themed gifts.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.