IN PHOTOS: Portraits of South Bronx Small Businesses

A collaboration published by The Hunts Point Express

Photo: Desiree Martinez works at Janet Jewelry in the Bronx’s Longwood neighborhood on Dec. 1, 2017. Credit: Kyle S. Mackie.

Historically, holiday sales have made up for shortfalls in year-round revenue for small businesses in the South Bronx as elsewhere.

But some business owners in Longwood’s main shopping district along Southern Boulevard say they’re not optimistic amid steady declines in sales revenue they have seen during Christmas season in recent years.

Online shopping and the incursion of big box stores, notably including the announcement of a new Burlington Coat Factory outlet that will soon open in Mott Haven, has many in the area worried that the upcoming holiday season won’t help sagging sales.

Though many customers say they prefer shopping at local small businesses to big box stores, many are shopping online or at one-stop behemoths like the Gateway Mall, hoping to save a few bucks.

Some small business owners say that mall customers will overpay for name brands, even though small businesses provide more personal service. In order to cope, some are using social media to attract customers, while others plan to start selling their products online.

Others are extending the hours of their brick and mortar operations to increase their chances of pulling in customers. For some small businesses, the trend has led to the painful consequence of laying off employees in recent years.

The Express visited several mom and pop stores on Southern Boulevard in Longwood to take the pulse of area businesses as the holiday season kicks in, and see how they plan to weather the storm of competition from the internet and big boxes. The Express spoke with a dozen local businesses about their prospects this December and beyond.

All photos by Kyle S. Mackie:

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David Abadi co-owns Players USA, Kicks Closet Sportswear and Urban Style, all located on Southern Boulevard, with his brother, Ismail. Holiday sales usually represent about four months of revenue for the businesses, but Abadi said that they have steadily declined over the past three years. He said it’s hard to compete with cheap online prices, which take a lot of the stores’ sales.

Abadi said that he believes his customers prefer to shop at small businesses rather than big department stores, so he’s not too worried about the new malls in the area. But he said there are plenty of other factors impacting business on Southern Boulevard.

“Politics is affecting the business. [The] economy is affecting the business,” Abadi said. “We keep having the hope that it’s going to pick up, we’re going to do better. But it depends.”

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Three brothers, three businesses: Larry, Gary and Rony Franco own Boulevard Menswear, Plaza Menswear and Man Fix Fine Menswear, respectively, all located on Southern Boulevard. Boulevard Menswear is the original Franco family business – their father opened it more than 40 years ago.

Larry Franco said that the brothers anticipate the holiday season all year, but that sales had been falling in recent years. In order to try something new this season, the brothers imported merchandise from Europe, and they said it’s been helping boost this year’s profits. The businesses haven’t experienced much of an impact from the mall yet, and Franco said it’s an opportunity to draw customers in with better prices, products and customer service. The brothers are also using social media to try and attract customers, and are planning to start selling their products online.

“Mom and pop stores like ours, we’ve been affected by the online business. So I guess the only thing for us to do is to step up to the game,” Franco said. “Any type of merchant on the avenue should start getting some type of online business.”

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Muhemmad Zahad opened Janet Jewelry, near the intersection of Southern Boulevard and Westchester Avenue, 12 years ago. He said that holiday sales have been going down by about 3 percent every year, and he credits local unemployment for the drop. He said there’s been “no impact” on his business by online sales or the new mall on 163rd Street. In order to try and boost sales, Zahad has extended the store’s operating hours by two hours every day.

But one of Zahad’s employees, Desiree Martinez, who’s worked at Janet Jewelry for two years, does believe online sales have had an impact on the business. Martinez is an artisan jewelry maker who previously ran her own online shop, and she said she’s trying to convince Zahad to start selling online.

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Asif Khan is the owner of A&K Jewelry, Inc., located on Southern Boulevard between Aldus and 163rd streets. Holiday sales used to account for up to 50 percent of the store’s annual profits, but Khan said that figure’s now down between 10 to 25 percent. Even with Christmas coming, he said, there aren’t many in-person customers because so many people are shopping online. To try and compete, Khan said that A&K is working now on launching its own online store.

The store was also negatively impacted by the new mall on 163rd Street. Khan said that department stores at the mall can sell products for less than his small business, and that it’s easier for customers to shop there because parking is readily available. He also said that customers will overpay at the mall for name brands, but that a small business like A&K can provide better service.

“We cannot compete with them [big department stores]. No way, we cannot compete with them,” said Khan. “We have to pay the rent. We have to pay the employees. We have to pay the electricity.”