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Taking on the big guy

Scott N. Miller
High Country Business Review
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
ALL |

Amy Yundt knows Goliath is in the next town. She opened her small store anyway.

Yundt, owner of the Open Book in Frisco, took over the former Winds of Change bookstore in April. So far, business has been good at the 900-square-foot shop.

She’s getting to know her good customers, and tourists sometimes come in thanks to referrals.

But a 10-minute drive away is a Borders, one of the largest bookstore chains in the world.

Like most big chains, Borders has thousands of square feet of books, magazines, music and more. How does a small shop face down a giant?

“In a smaller shop, you can focus on having good-quality books without filler,” Yundt said. “And we can provide excellent service. I know virtually every book in the store.”

Yundt and other independent business owners in the High Country are facing more competition than ever before. Wal-Mart has been in the area forever, it seems, but over the past several years other big chains have looked at Summit County and Vail Valley and have seen enough local and tourist traffic to open stores.

Big chains can often sell merchandise for less than what small retailers pay for the same items. How can an independent compete?

Yundt and others say the secret is to do what the big guys don’t, or can’t. But, like real estate and location, the independent business people interviewed for this story have a one-word mantra: service.

In the case of the Open Book, service means more than just a friendly greeting, comfy chairs and coffee ” although all that helps. Yundt pores over best-seller lists, reads reviews and talks to local book clubs before placing orders. The result, she believes, a store packed with books her customers want.

“We don’t have any filler here,” she said.

In Eagle, Craig Colby opened Broadway Liquors knowing there would be a liquor store associated with the Costco store just down U.S. Highway 6 in neighboring Gypsum. The liquor outlet isn’t owned by Costco, but the outlet’s owner use the kind of buying power the warehouse does to bring in big lots of adult beverages.

Colby can’t compete straight-up on the price of certain wines or liquor. So he focuses on doing things the big competitor doesn’t.

“Costco sells warm beer by the case and we sell it cold by the six-pack,” Colby said. “We look for varieties of wine they don’t carry.”

Colby said his store has done well since the big retailer opened a few minutes’ drive away.

“I’m not saying it hasn’t been a tough row to hoe sometimes,” Colby said. “But there are always bumps trying to grow a business.”

As with Yundt’s bookstore, Colby is a big believer in listening to customers. He’ll special order certain wines or other drinks for customers, and knows many, if not most of the faces who come in. It also helps that his store is in the heart of Eagle’s old town, and an easy walk for many residents.

Sometimes, competition comes from more than one source. Gary Koenig has been hit from all sides over the last few years.

Koenig, owner of Affordable Music in Dillon for the last 16 years, had five employees once. Now it’s just him, Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., selling music the old-fashioned way in the face of Borders just down the road, as well as Internet retailers including Amazon.com and iTunes. Throw in millions of songs a month that are downloaded for free from other sites, along with slumping sales and an entire industry that seems to be floundering, and it’s no wonder that the old-style record store seems so endangered.

But Koenig is still making it ” although he acknowledges he won’t be retiring to a warm beach any time soon ” and believes he can keep his store open and profitable as long as he wants to.

Over the years Koenig has diversified ” he now sells instruments and accessories including guitar strings, harmonica holders and tambourines. He also takes in instruments on consignment to sell for others. While he’s expanded and changed his inventory, Koenig also remained steadfastly loyal to the 12-inch vinyl album, a format once thought dead and now making something of a comeback (audiophiles have nothing but disdain the MP3 digital format, and have long claimed vinyl provides truer, “warmer” sound than any digital recording).

He also has a somewhat different customer base.

“The customers I have want to put their hands on the product before they buy,” he said. “They want to touch it, feel it, read the liner notes.”

Koenig has outlasted other local music stores in Summit County, and has already outlasted one national chain, Sam Goody’s.

Sam Goody’s came into Breckenridge several years ago, and the local record store eventually closed, Koenig said. But not long after that, the chain store wasn’t producing revenue the way the company thought it should, and it closed, too, leaving Breckenridge with no music stores.

“That’s the way it works,” Koenig said. “(National chains) don’t care about locals. If the numbers don’t work, they close them, and the community is out of luck. A small business will weather the ups and downs.”

While Koenig faces competition from many sources, other business owners have to compete with just one company, albeit one with seemingly infinite outlets: Starbucks.

Kent Beidel owns Loaded Joe’s in Avon, perhaps 200 yards from the nearest Starbucks.

Loaded Joe’s has been a success, thanks to a few factors. First, the coffee house also serves liquor into the night. Loaded Joe’s also hosts bands, trivia nights and exhibits work from local artists.

“We’re locally focused,” Beidel said. “We’re geared toward a local clientele and have a loyal customer base.”

Like other independents, Loaded Joe’s prides itself on getting to know customers. The shop also hosts countless out-of-office meetings for local companies.

But Loaded Joe’s gets its fair share of tourist trade, too.

“We have a lot of concierges that refer people to us,” Beidel said. “And I’ve had a lot of tourists tell me ‘I wish we had a place like this at home.'”

In Eagle, George Yoder is counting on locals to keep his newest venture running. Yoder, owner of Zach’s Deli near City Market, just opened a second shop in Eagle Ranch, the town’s booming new subdivision. Starbucks recently announced it would open a store in Eagle Ranch, virtually across the street from Yoder’s store.

“We knew it was coming,” Yoder said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Yoder’s shops serve breakfast and lunch, while Starbucks depends mostly on sales of drinks. And Yoder already has local clients.

But, with a double-digit annual growth rate, Eagle is a different town every few months, Yoder said, adding he hopes some of those new arrivals will pick his shop.

“Starbucks seems more for the traveler type,” Yoder said. “I’m hoping with the new medical center and Starbucks opening about the same time, we’ll be OK.”

In the end, local businesses depend on locals, and Yundt believes her faith in the community will be rewarded.

“People want to support their local stores,” Yundt said. “And I think a lot of tourists want to shop local stores, too.”


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