Struggling Second Ave. Hopes Small Business Saturday Will Boost Sales

By Jill Colvin and Fred Dreier  on November 23, 2012 7:27am  | Updated on November 23, 2012 10:24am

UPPER EAST SIDE — Before the constant blasting and endless barricades, Second Avenue’s Hi Life Restaurant used to draw a steady stream of customers with its large, open windows, abundant parking and cozy vibe.

Thanks to the Second Avenue subway construction, things have changed.

The business has "suffered incredibly" due to the loss of parking spaces along Second Avenue, said manager Chris Van Zile. He said the project had also forced the restaurant to keep its large bay windows closed during the summertime, destroying the ambiance of its open-air patio.

"It's loud, it's smoky, it doesn't do good things for the foot traffic," Van Zile said.

To try to help ease the pain, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with American Express and local business owners to help promote this weekend’s third annual Small Business Saturday, a shop-local initiative pegged as the small business version of big box stores’ Black Friday and online outlets' Cyber Monday.

At a press conference with merchants, elected officials and MTA brass at Eneslow Shoes on 78th Street and Second Avenue, MCC President Nancy Ploege said she hoped the event would help boost merchants in the neighborhood, as well as others who are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

"We are thrilled to be able to add Small Business Saturday to the mix,” said Ploeger. “And we of course encourage shoppers to shop local throughout the city and especially in the post-Sandy communities where businesses are struggling to get back on their feet."

MTA brass also apologized for the inconvenience of the construction, which is finally slated to finish in 2016. MTA president of capital construction Michael Horodniceanu encouraged merchants to be "creative" in attracting customers.

"You need to be aggressive in pursuing business. Customers are looking for bargains," he told them.

Outside the shops, a sizable crane towered over a construction site in the middle of the street, which was reduced from four to two lanes. Scaffolding obscured business signs, and heavy traffic squeezed into an area that had previously been street parking.

Reed Glassman, 61, who owns Second Avenue's Ropal Stationery with his sister, Leslie, estimated he'd lost between 30 to 50 percent of his walk-in traffic since construction began on the subway line in 2007. He laid off one employee and cut back another’s hours because of the lost foot traffic, he said.

"It's a tough battle," said Glassman, who said he had experimented with posters, flyers and Internet deals to help lure in local customers.

While he supported the idea of Small Business Saturday, he said the event needed better promotion to help spread the word.

Small Business Saturday was started by American Express in 2010, and gives customers the chance to get $25 back when they spend $25 or more at qualifying small businesses on Nov. 24, if they register in advance. Many businesses also offer promotions for the occasion, similar to Black Friday or Boxing Day sales.

Merchants along Second Avenue said they supported the promotion, but out of 10 businesses polled, only four knew about the event.

"I'd say 98 percent of our customers don't know it’s happening," Leslie Glassman said.

Adi Shavlov, owner of the fashion boutique Accolade Collection, said nobody had informed her of the promotion.

"I would be happy to participate," she said.

But others were agreed they needed the help.

Bob Schwartz, who has owned Eneslow Shoes since 1973, listed the loss of parking spaces, heavy bus traffic and loss of signage as contributing to depressed sales and said he'd tried flyers, cross-promotions with other businesses and email blasts to try and improve sales.

Nonetheless, he's been forced to cut back from three to two employees, he said.

"The whole street is suffering," he said. "The only way we could stay open was to cut labor costs."

Like Schwartz, Van Zile said his restaurant had tried flyers and signs to lure in foot traffic, and spent approximately $1,500 on five large cartoon signs advertising the bar, which it draped out front.

But then the MTA removed the signs in March, Van Zile said.

"We thought it was ridiculous," he said.

Schwartz said the relationships between the "mom and pop shops" and other businesses in the neighborhood and the MTA has been contentious at times, but welcomed the recent efforts.

"We need to focus on making [Second Avenue] a place to shop," he said.

"If these small businesses survive, it's going to be because the local consumer supports us."

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