Independent East Lansing shops face unique market challenges
Catering to the college demographic can bring sporadic sales for businesses, due to the seasonal schedule of university semesters — a fact East Lansing businesses The Bike Shop and Action Board Shop experience first-hand.
The Bike Shop
Trek Vandecar, owner of The Bike Shop, said running the six-year-old shop is a roller coaster because of the constant changes he must make to keep up with his clientele.
“We choose our inventory based on what we think we’ll sell to the college kids,” Vandecar said. “We sometimes will change over our inventory different times of the year to accommodate who’s in town at that time of year.”
One way The Bike Shop caters to college students is by providing hybrid bikes — which combine features from road, touring and mountain bikes — at affordable prices. The summer inventory is tailored for local families and consists of more children’s bikes.
Vandecar said the weather impacts his business because nearly everyone seeks out warmer, more protective commute methods in the winter.
“We hope the weather stays nice later into the year because students will come back here in August and September,” he said. “The longer it stays nice, the more business we do. You’ll see as it gets cold, students will start looking into other options, taking the bus or some of them will end up getting cars.”
Smaller businesses deserve more appreciation, Vandecar said. Customer experience is a focus for him, whereas chain businesses have pressure on them to make sales for their higher-ups.
“We want to present you with information to help you make a decision and let you do your own thing and let you decide,” he said. “It’s different, in our own way.”
Action Board Shop
Owner Jim MacGregor opened Action Board Shop in 2011 when he noticed many students had been skateboarding to class, but there was nobody to cater to the longboard market.
“There weren’t really any local stores that were offering a decent selection,” MacGregor said.
As an MSU alumnus, he said he knew the market and picked a walkable location for his shop to convenience students.
A major difficulty for the business is handling Michigan’s cold weather, which eliminates three months of riding boards to class, he said.
With the difficulties of a seasonal market, MacGregor said independent businesses need more appreciation and support. Because his shop does not have the budget to hire more staff like bigger companies, he said he must fill the role of many positions — causing him to work long hours.
“You’ve got to wear many hats,” he said. “We don’t have the budget like a huge company does.”
He handles sales, accounting, website development and packing orders, forcing him to “be very familiar with all aspects of the business and not be afraid to actually do it.”
MacGregor said a personal knowledge of longboarding is what separates his shop’s customer service from that of a store like Zumiez, a skateboard and clothing retail chain.
“We ride every day, so we really know the product and we can help customers customize boards to fit their needs,” he said.
The customer experience at Action Board Shop goes beyond the in-store experience – the shop gives away stickers.
“We see them around campus and it definitely makes us feel good that they’re supporting a local business,” MacGregor said.
Since MSU students make up most of its customer demographic, he said the shop focuses on the times when the most students are on campus.
“We’re in a unique market locally where it’s a seasonal business,” MacGregor said. “Students are only here like nine months out of the year.”
Students’ favorite local shops
MSU journalism senior Lauren Wallenfels and journalism sophomore Rian Jackson shared their favorite independent businesses in East Lansing.
Wallenfels said she likes the ice cream shop Tasty Twist because the business has more control over its prices and quality of products.
“They’re more locally sourced products, so I think that’s important for the food industry especially,” Wallenfels said.
Jackson said Mac Men is a cheap place to repair computers. She said she admires local business owners because they reflect a spirit of entrepreneurship.
“When people start a small business, they’re regular people like us and they just have the dream,” Jackson said. “I think that’s really cool. They should be able to live out their dreams.”