Around Town

It’s A Small (Business) Christmas, After All

How SP Brick-and-Mortars Are Surviving in Online Jungle
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Ash Harikian, who has owned Speers TV on Fair Oaks Avenue since 1997, is one of the South Pas shopkeepers who says his longstanding status in the city helps his business. Photos by Henk Friezer

THE online world is tugging at the fabric of South Pasadena’s retail businesses.

But traditional values keep many longtime shop owners afloat against competitors found both online and in bigger retail stores.

“South Pasadena has been called ‘quaint,’ a ‘small town’ (and) ‘Mayberry,’ and many businesses here really do embody that. They are often small mom-and-pop stores,’’ said Laurie Wheeler, president of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.

“If that ever changes, South Pasadena loses its uniqueness. People come to find that sort of thing. People are coming to find that experience that they can’t find online.”

I talked this week to local store owners who have spent more than a decade watching how customers have reacted to increased choices — especially during this holiday season, when many of them did bigger business as recently as five years ago.

South Pasadena isn’t unique in that regard. PwC — an auditing, tax and consulting firm — reports in its 2019 “Holiday Outlook’’ that online shopping nationwide has gone from 42 percent in 2015 to what it estimates will be 54 percent in 2019.

South Pasadena owners report that the change is not only noticeable, but is in their face.

“Technology has definitely increased among our customers,’’ said Lucia Wiltrout, founder of Lucha’s Shoes on Fair Oaks Avenue, who has been in business here for more than 30 years.

“We had a customer who had a metric size-42 shoe, which is a (U.S.) size 12. It took an hour to fit her. And she says, ‘I’ll find it online. She said that she was going to take the shoes, but if she found them for less online, she’d return them. And she did.’’

Several other owners had the same feeling about the internet. People are Googling more now, and it isn’t even subtle. Jean Boujekian, owner of Vana Watch and Jewelry on Mission Street, is going right after the elephant in the room.

“We’re seeing the same thing as other stores,’’ Boujekian said. “They try on a watch, and I’ll say, ‘What is the best price you have found online?’ and I’ll try to compete with that. I’ll say, ‘What have you seen it for?’ In some cases, I’ve been able to win some of these customers over.

“It used to be that, four years ago, we had a much higher profit margin. Now, when I sell a watch for 50 percent off, I’m just hoping that the customer might (also) buy something else,’’ added Boujekian, who used to have three stores, and now has one remaining — that being in South Pasadena, where he has been in business for 13 years.

“The community helps out in South Pasadena,’’ he said. “It’s amazing. They will pay a little more rather than search elsewhere in some cases. I’ve had three generations come in now. My other stores couldn’t create the relationships and there was no loyalty like I have here in South Pasadena.’’

Meanwhile, Alan Uehara, owner of the UPS store in town, gets lots of holiday business from Amazon. Photos by Henk Friezer

People who do end up buying online often end up coming into his store, observed Ash Harikian, who has owned Speers TV on Fair Oaks Avenue since 1997.

“A lot of people will buy online or at some other store, and they will ask us to install it. We do, and then they know we will always be there for them.

“People who buy from us know about our services. Kids come in to us —second- or third-generation grandchildren. Once the young customer buys our service, they don’t go to the bigger stores. When they buy our TVs, they are happy to pay a little more because they know we are going to be there for them for installation and repair.’’

It seems the tradition of passing along loyalties through generations is what helps keep South Pasadena’s small retail businesses in business.

Marcia Ellinger, founder of the Marz gift shop on Mission Street, was telling me that she has had three generations of customers who have shopped at her store. Just as she said that, two women walked in and overheard our conversation.

“Here’s one generation,’’ Margaret Germond said with a laugh.

“Here’s the second generation,’’ answered her daughter, Marion.

Marion still remembers the fragrant smells of soaps and other merchandise she encountered at Marz as a child. “It’s an inviting atmosphere and it’s different,’’ she said.

“Online is fine, but this is so much more personal,’’ her mother added.

Ellinger said the difference is that she and her daughter Jasa, who now runs the store, “stock what we like. People buy into it or they don’t. We don’t want to be in competition with Target. We want to have our own look.’’

All of the owners or managers I talked to have 10, 20 years — or in the case of Lucha’s, 30 years — of waiting on South Pasadena customers, which gives them an advantage in welcoming and knowing the needs and wants of their customers.

Boujekian said that the entire month of December used to be booming. Now the boom has settled into a boomlet the week before Christmas.

Alan Uehara, owner of the UPS store in South Pasadena, said that 50 percent of the store’s business is now dealing with Amazon.

“Three, four, five years ago, we would have people come in here frantic and they wouldn’t care how much it costs, just so their packages got there by Christmas,” Uehara said.

Uehara, who has owned his store for 20 years, said that Amazon has actually brought about a new season.

“In January, things used to die way down,’’ he said. “Now we are processing all those things that need to be processed to be returned to Amazon.’’

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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