The Durham community seems to be well aware of the constant turnover of downtown real estate but Town & Campus, a local staple for 56 years, is realizing that a decline in business is due to online and chain retailers.
Store Manager Richard “Stogie” Many, is not surprised. According to him, “It’s no secret that small retailers are facing tremendous pressure.” He added, “As it becomes more and more convenient for any consumers, let alone students, to shop online, it puts pressure on local businesses. One of the consequences of that is that we’re less busy so we hire fewer students.”
Many explained further, “When I took over as manager in ’87, we had the two floors and we had about three full time-part timers, older people from the community, and 18 student part-timers. Today I am the only full-timer and I have about five part-time student workers.”
The store has also had to cut down on the types and number of products offered. Many noted that, “We provide pretty much any product or service that students could want, except textbooks and we used to sell a lot more. We used to have a second floor where we sold records, tapes, CDs, books, sheet music, and more. Twenty years ago students used to come here at least once a week, even if they just bought a stick of gum. Now we sometimes don’t see students for months and it’s very difficult to deal with.”
It can be apparent that online and chain retailers do have some advantages over small businesses. Many pointed out an issue the store faces today is the large number of different brands offered online.
“One of the big problems is selection,” he said. “I can’t offer 1,300 different types of dishwasher fluid.”
Posters relating to local events and fundraisers cover the walls to the entrance of the store, though Many noted that the support is not always reciprocated. He said, “We try to make our boards accessible to local people. These groups keep coming in for donations but their support of us has waned.” He added, “If you buy from some source, they have an obligation to support the community. Zappos, Amazon, and Jet don’t. Since the students are buying from them and not us, we don’t have the resources to help them [and their causes or organizations] as much as we used to.”
The changing technology of the world and how communications are sent has also influenced the store. “We sell greeting cards, which used to be a third of our business. Students don’t send cards anymore, so now it’s just a sideline,” said Many.
Students are still the main target customers of the store, though not as many students frequent it anymore. Many said, “Foot traffic is key. If you want an interesting downtown, you’ve got to have a mix of businesses and you’ve got to support those businesses.”
If you’re in a rush or have an emergency and don’t have cash with you or don’t want to buy up to the $5 credit card minimum, not only is Cats Cache accepted, but the store also continues to use paper “I owe yous” (IOUs). Richard Many explained they’ve never had a problem with a student not returning to repay an IOU, so they still trust that system.
“We try very hard to remain competitive. We’re not Walmart, we don’t have that buying power and we’re not Amazon, we don’t have that size, but we certainly can make up for it in other ways, such as customer service,” said Many.
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