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'Shop Local' Campaign in The Bronx Hopes to Lure Customers

CLAREMONT VILLAGE — When the Southern Boulevard Merchant Association announced the finalists of its "Shop Local" raffle last December, only about four of them showed up to the event in The Bronx to find out if they would be picked to win some $1,000 in merchandise.

But none of the winners chosen that day were even among the four in attendance to claim the prizes.

Rather than let his guests leave empty-handed, association president Jebel Ceesay pulled a few pairs of jeans off the racks at his clothing store and handed them to the finalists, who included a local high school student.

Since then, Ceesay said, the girl has returned to the store countless times, often bringing along friends who later visit on their own.

“The pants cost about $40,” said Ceesay, who owns JB Collection Clothing at 1085 Southern Blvd. “Trust me, she’s brought me $1,000 in business or more.”

On Monday, the association kicked off the second phase of its “Shop Local” campaign, which it organized with WHEDco, a Bronx-based nonprofit focused on housing and community development.

The latest campaign, which will offer free tote bags to frequent customers, is meant to work much as Ceesay’s impromptu giveaway did — by drawing the area’s growing population into local stores, then turning them into loyal customers.

“We’re trying to come up with ideas to bring more people inside,” said Ceesay. “One at a time, one at a time.”

The association targets a mile-long stretch of Southern Boulevard from 174th Street south to Westchester Avenue that is home to roughly 100 active businesses. So far, 19 merchants have been active in the group, which formed in 2010 and is free to join.

Recently, the city’s Department of Small Business Services funded a study of the local market.

The study found that more than 158,000 people live within a mile radius of the retail corridor — an area that includes at least six new housing developments built within the past few years. But because of limited local options, $146 million in potential revenue “leaks” out of the community each year as residents shop in other parts of the city, the study showed.

A survey identified several “unmet consumer demands” in the area, including grocery stores, restaurants and stores that sell furniture, electronics and shoes.

“We saw there was kind of a mismatch between the existing retail and consumer needs,” leading many residents to shop elsewhere, said Akila Shenoy, a WHEDco program manager.

While WHEDco and the merchants’ group work to attract new businesses to the neighborhood, they are also trying to keep residents from leaving — at least when it comes time to spend money.

In the latest phase of the “Shop Local” campaign, participating businesses will present customers with loyalty cards, which they will stamp with each purchase. When customers collect five stamps, they get free tote bags branded with the Southern Boulevard Merchant Association logo.

Ceesay, for one, believes the efforts will lure both new merchants and residents to Southern Boulevard.

“Pretty soon,” he said, “it will be hard to find a place.”