Michael’s opening forces independent supply stores to shift focus

TRAVERSE CITY – For some, the opening of Michael's craft store in April was a long time coming.

"It's about time they finally opened one in Traverse City," said a local shopper. "We've needed one for some time."

Apparently, many others agree, because on opening weekend cars crowded the freshly tarred parking lot. Inside, crafters and the curious packed aisles like sardines. Many more stood in line to check out, not a cart empty in sight.

But for others, like Creative Outlet owner Barbara Buelow, Michael's opening has come at a bad time.

"It's been absolutely dead," Buelow said. "Once Michael's opened, it killed this area. There are days when I only have one customer."

Buelow and her husband, Bruce, relocated their craft supply store from U.S. 31 to Eighth Street last year when they learned Michael's was moving into the neighborhood.

"And partly because the building we were in was too big," Barbara admitted. "We were a mini-Michael's at that time and I knew we wouldn't be able to compete once Michael's actually opened."

So the Buelows settled in to a smaller retail shop, changed their inventory and sales approach. Barbara splurged on paint selections and began carrying higher-end brands.

"That's part of the fun of owning your own craft store," she said, "you get to buy what you like."

The store also features works from local artists, from Petoskey stones to fine art, painted gourds to beaded jewelry. And somewhere between running the business and playing grandma, Barbara, a certified one-stroke teacher, found time to teach one-stroke paint classes on Wednesday afternoons.

But the classes didn't completely fill up and the stock hasn't moved nearly fast enough, which has forced the Buelows to do the inevitable, close shop.

"We've got to cut our losses," Barbara said. "It's too bad because I really think if I had another 25 years to give, it would take off. But we're suppose to be retired now and I don't have another 25 years to give."

The Buelows haven't set a closing date, but are in the midst of a storewide retirement sale. Some items are up to 75 percent off and most are marked down at least 25 percent.

Word travels fast of a good sale in this town, but Barbara has to wonder if she'll see any increased foot traffic. After all, it was the lack of it that ultimately put her out of business.

"Part of our problem was that people didn't know we moved," she said. "We had to advertise a lot to let people know we were here."

For independent store owners, advertising costs are a problem. Where big box stores have bigger budgets to absorb weekly advertising costs, which can run up to $3,000, independents simply can't keep up, according to Buelow.

"We can't complete or even come close to the advertising Michael's does," she said.

Most independent stores rely on a core of loyal customers and word-of-mouth advertising.

But Betty Frederixon, owner of Ben Franklin on Eighth Street, admitted to advertising "a little bit more" since Michael's opening.

"Our business has slowed some, but that's to be expected when a new store opens in town," she said.

Frederixon, who has been in business for 19 years, seems undaunted by the new big box across town. Maybe because she's been down this road before.

"I remember when the mall first opened and people took off work and kids left school early to go see it," she said. "That affected us too, but the novelty wears off and our customers always come back."

While grateful for their loyal customers, most independent stores have had to get crafty, marketing their wares in a more competitive environment now that Michael's has opened.

JoAnn Fabrics recently expanded its fabric selection, nearly doubling in size. However, according to operations manager Charlene Widrig, the expansion had been in the works for the past five years and was not a knee-jerk reaction to Michael's opening.

"We were just so packed, we needed more room," she said.

Choosing to focus on what Michael's doesn't offer crafters may be the key to survival for some independent stores, like Ben Franklin and JoAnn Fabrics.

Frederixon said her store carries more gift items and children's toys and can special order whatever isn't found on the shelves.

"That's the difference between a big box and an independent store," she said, "we can make special orders and corporate stores typically can't."

Besides offering different products, independent stores are also focusing on customer service. Take, for example, framing. According to State of the Art Framing owner Steven Loveless, it's a technical service that requires years of training and experience to do right.

Loveless said he attends industry seminars to keep up on the latest tools and equipment and doesn't see that kind of commitment at the big box level.

"They have higher turnover, so the training's not there," he said.

"Michael's opening has had a positive effect on my business," Loveless added. "More customers are coming in because they understand the quality of our product is better."

Much is the same for veteran business owner Pat DeYoung, owner of DeYoung's art supplies on Front Street. She and her small staff cater to an older, more established clientele that isn't necessarily looking for the best deal in town, but wants quality products and knowledgeable service.

"We're not a craft store, we're an art store," she said.

But DeYoung did concede that anytime a big box opens in Traverse City, it draws people away from the downtown area, which affects all of the downtown businesses, including hers.

"Many people simply don't understand how their buying power affects the smaller mom and pop shops," Barbara Buelow said.

For many crafters, the decision to shop at larger retail stores isn't made with malice, but out of convenience. Michael's has longer operation hours, easy access to parking and 21,000 square feet of supplies, ranging from scrapbook materials to wedding decorations.

"They carry everything," said one Michael's shopper. "I find all kinds of supplies, usually things I don't even need. I don't think I've walked out without buying something."

For local business owners it's a bitter pill to swallow.

"If they're willing to drive to Michael's to buy craft paint five cents cheaper than what they can find at their local shops, then say good-bye to your independent stores," Buelow said.

While management at Michael's did confirm good opening numbers, the store manager referred all questions to the corporate office in Dallas, which did not return calls in time for this publication. BN