Looking west for sales

04/08/2010 12:00 AM |

James ‘Nick’ Nicolino and Victoria Collett, proprietors of The Clearing House.

Despite North Fork merchants’ best efforts to create a thriving year-round business climate here, most will tell you that, with the possible exception of Christmas, the winter months remain a struggle. And between the always erratic weather and the economic downturn, many local businesses have failed or been forced to downsize.

That’s what prompted Victoria Collett and James “Nick” Nicolino of Greenport’s Clearing House to launch an idea they hope will gain currency in the business community.

“We have the double whammy with the recession and then we’re seasonal to boot,” Mr. Nicolino said. “Everybody’s struggling. Across the board, everybody took a hit.”

The choice was to sit back and wither away or find a way to fight back, he said.

“We’re not going out with a whimper,” he said. The idea is to go to where there are year-round communities and then drive that traffic out to the East End for a more complete shopping experience.

By Memorial Day, he and Ms. Collett will open a satellite store at Routes 25 and 112 in Coram, where they plan to rent space for weekends, a month or whatever time those leasing space want to operate their own smaller stores. Because of the shop’s location, they believe they can tap into larger Suffolk County communities such as Smithtown and Port Jefferson.

“We’re not off the beaten path, we are the beaten path,” Mr. Nicolino said.

“We’re really about supporting our neighbors,” he said.

Toward that end, the two spent hours thinking about what they’d want if they were the tenants instead of the leaders of this effort.

They knew their fellow business owners were already hard hit with overhead costs and couldn’t absorb a lot more. They also knew that many would approach the idea with skepticism, so they wanted to offer short-term commitments to give people a chance to try the concept without major investment.

Once the concept was clear, they began looking for space and are pleased with the store they found.

But wait, won’t that mean an end to the East End businesses? Ms. Collett and Mr. Nicolino don’t see it that way. Instead, they believe the satellite operations will drive business to the East End. They also think the 30,000-square-foot Coram space, with its pathway of individual intimate nooks for each operation, will be a cash cow for struggling East End businesses. And they believe the Coram location can provide an inexpensive way for new entrepreneurs to bring their products to market without a major overhead investment.

With many people having lost jobs in the recession, they may have business ideas, but lack the money to invest, Mr. Nicolino said.

“This is a chance to have their little thing go,” he said.

In season, business operators have the potential to run a small operation on Route 25 in Coram, from which they can direct customers to their main stores for a larger array of products. In the off-season, when many close their doors on the East End, they can continue to make a profit up-island, which should make them viable for the long run.

Some will choose to operate their Coram spaces only in the off-season. Others will want to operate during the week and spend weekends at their East End businesses. Some will want to try the idea for a month or two to see if it does succeed in attracting more business to their local stores.

Ms. Collett and Mr. Nicolino are taking all the risk. The spaces will be turnkey operations where electricity, heat, air conditioning, water, security and other basics are all in place.

The Clearing House also has an established Internet presence and a thriving customer e-mail list, and Ms. Collett and Mr. Nicolino are set to promote the Coram “bazaar,” as they like to call it, with other advertising as well.

“They can ride our steam, our coattails, and, at the same time, it scratches our backs,” Ms. Collett said.

They’ll also be creating an attractive ambiance for shoppers with appropriate music and an upscale image, Ms. Collett said.

“I want people to come in and say, ‘Wow! Look at these shops,’â” she said.

Business operators will pay a flat rental fee, to be negotiated, for whatever time they choose to run their satellite stores.

“These are perfect little shopping spaces,” Ms. Collett said, comparing them to niches in some of New York City’s finest department stores.

“It’s all built out and ready to go,” Mr. Nicolino said. The store can accommodate about 20 different businesses, he said.

They have just begun showing spaces to potential tenants, but expect to have a full complement of businesses operating there by late May, Mr. Nicolino said.

They’re also considering how to expand their charity efforts into the new operation.

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