Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

June 12, 2017

Small is big: In the land of L.L.Bean and outlet stores, small businesses find their way

Photo / Tim Greenway In Freeport, L.L.Bean (at top of picture) draws 3 million visitors annually. Mixed in with national outlet stores, independent retailers work hard to be recognized. Here are three such retailers: From left, Natalya Nikitina, of Rustic Arrow; Ann Marie Connor, New Beginnings Consignment Boutique; and Cari Karonis, Skordo.
Photo / Tim Greenway Natalya Nikitina, left, and Sarah Cronin, co-owners of Rustic Arrow in Freeport, host workshops to draw customers to their Bow Street store.
Photo / Tim Greenway Ann Marie Connor, owner of New Beginnings Consignment Boutique, which has been in Freeport eight years.
Photo / Tim Greenway Cari Karonis, co-owner of Skordo, arranges herbs and spices in her store in Freeport. Prior to opening the store, she was a retail consultant.

A year into operations and looking forward to a summer surge of shoppers, Sarah Cronin and Natalya Nikitina — owners of Rustic Arrow, a “free-spirited contemporary boutique” at 25 Bow St. in Freeport — are planning new events to grow the customer base.

“The store is a culmination of everything we talked about — gifts and women and clothing,” Cronin says on a recent weekday afternoon, before peak visitation in mid-summer through early autumn.

The idea of hosting events started accidentally. Their workshops now draw 10 to 15 people, mostly local residents.

“And now we're thinking that, because that's been so popular, maybe we should do parties, like a girls-night-out-type party,” Cronin says.

The shop is one of many small, independent businesses on Freeport's side streets that vie for just a fraction of the 3 million visitors a year that visit L.L.Bean's flagship campus and surrounding outlet stores. They're finding that even having a major anchor nearby doesn't guarantee that shoppers will come to your door. Like small businesses everywhere, they're finding ways to promote their businesses, through events, social media and collaboration.

Turn the corner

Expanding the visiting public's awareness of Freeport's small businesses is a theme in Freeport. Businesses are tackling the challenge through their own intiatives, like those of Rustic Arrow, and through the organized efforts of the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce, a traditional local business networking group; and Freeport USA, a destination marketing organization that specializes in events and promotions.

Small-business owners see plenty of opportunity — and in fact located in Freeport precisely because of the visitor numbers generated by L.L.Bean and outlet stores like Gap, Banana Republic, The North Face, Sperry, Orvis, Patagonia, Jockey, Oakley and Brooks Brothers, to name just a handful. Freeport also a base for restaurants and lodging.

Among independent retailers, there are long-time operations, like The Mangy Moose gift shop, started by Susan Culkins in 1996, and Earrings & Co., which was founded in 1993 and has been owned for the past decade by Carrie McBride. Others are more recent arrivals, like the Rustic Arrow; Mom's Organic Munchies, started in 2009 by Betty Crush and now selling wholesale nationwide; Vintage Maine Kitchen, started in 2015 by Kelly and Scott Brodeur and leveraging Maine-made potatoes to create small-batch potato chips; and Skordo, a spice shop started by Cari and John Karonis earlier this year.

Cheaper rents off the beaten track

With the national chains taking up Freeport's center, the small businesses tend to congregate at the far ends of Main Street or down the side streets, where the real estate is cheaper — as low as $20 a square foot, versus $50 per square foot in the village center.

“We loved the area, and didn't think we'd ever find space here, so we were really lucky,” Cari Karonis says of Skordo, which is at 32 Main St. at the south end of the downtown.

Cronin and Nikitina of Rustic Arrow spent two months looking for affordable space. They got lucky when Nikitina happened to be driving by the space at 25 Bow St. — an 1800s trolley house converted to retail — on a day when the previous tenant was moving out.

“She stopped her car in the middle of the street and said, 'Are you moving?'” Cronin relates. “He said, 'Yes.'”

The presence of the small-business community is invaluable for the town, says Economic Development Executive Director Keith McBride.

“We reject the idea that Freeport is an outlet mall on the street,” he says. “That might have been the case years ago. But now Freeport is a business hub town.”

An abundance of women-owned businesses

As it turns out, many small businesses are owned by women. It's something McBride noticed when he first arrived on the job in 2012.

“I think it's really significant — to see these amazing and dedicated women entrepreneurs doing so well,” he says. “It's a great success story, and it's not just one person. It's many.”

McBride cites Wendy Caisse, owner with her husband of Buck's Naked BBQ, and Kelly Brodeur and Angela Garrison, founders of Beansprouts Early Learning Childcare Center.

“It's an exciting development,” he adds.

A number of business owners came from corporate careers.

One example is Ann Marie Connor, owner of New Beginnings Consignment, at 27 Bow St., next door to Rustic Arrow. She worked close to 30 years for the insurance company Unum; her last position was head of client services for the Northeast region. Taking early retirement, she decided it would be fun to have a shop in Freeport, where she lives. She searched online for opportunities and came upon New Beginnings, which had already been going for four years. It felt right, since an employee at Unum had given her a clock with a plaque that said, “Time for new beginnings.”

At Skordo, the Karonises cashed in careers as retail consultants to open a shop selling spices, based on John's family background in Greek cooking. Earrings and Co.'s Carrie McBride early on worked for an international food service company, retiring as marketing manager. Before Rustic Arrow, Nikitina worked in fashion and Cronin worked in business and finance; both were in New York City.

Hot spot

Given its high visitation — peaking July through September, and again in December — choosing Freeport can work for small entrepreneurs.

“We chose Freeport mostly because of the draw it has for tourism,” Cronin says. “Freeport's mostly known for its national chains, so we wanted to get in there and say, 'Hey, it's more than that.'”

Small businesses, though, face a particular challenge.

“People make a beeline to L.L. Bean,” says Cronin. “And when they come back to their cars, we might be an afterthought.”

That's why she considers events and other efforts, like social-media marketing, to be important ways to expand awareness of the shop, both to locals and visitors. Working on a shoestring budget from the beginning, the events are intended both to draw more local-customer traffic and expand the customer base to include more visiting shoppers. With Nikitina in the lead, their social-media marketing averages three posts per day, mostly featuring new products: The store now has 2,335 Instagram followers, as well as Facebook and Twitter followers.

“I went into that thinking, 'No way, we've got to do print ads,'” Cronin recalls. “So I'm shocked how any people come in and say, 'We saw you on Instagram' or 'We saw your Facebook post.' It's so powerful.”

Connor at New Beginnings says that retailers sit back and wait for potential customers.

“How many times do we get asked, 'How long have you been here?'” she says. “It's almost a daily question. And this store has been here eight years. Vistors say, 'We've come to Freeport for eight years and we never noticed you.'”

“It's an issue,” agrees McBride. “People find their parking space and L.L.Bean is the magnet.”

Ultimately, though, everyone agrees that there's a synergy between the outlets and the small businesses that pays off.

“We all benefit from L.L.Bean on Main Street: It's an anchor to the Freeport community,” says Connor.

To promote the small-business community, the chamber produces an annual Insider's Guide. Freeport USA markets local businesses through print, web and information stations, and by reaching out to tour operators.

Still, various parties say, there's more messaging to be done to increase foot traffic to the small shops. Ideas in the air include creating a device-driven wayfinding app to complement existing apps; promoting Freeport's arts and cultural segment; and increasing the customer base by promoting Freeport as meeting and destination.

McBride notes that small businesses are also taking cues from L.L.Bean's “experiential” offerings of events and educational opportunities.

“It's expanded beyond outlet shopping and become a place where it's an experience to visit their campus,” he says of the retail giant. “And a lot of smaller shops are making their shops experiential. For example, Fiore [selling olive oils and vinegars] has tastings, and that's a great sales technique for them. That's the model everything seems to be moving toward. The experiential aspect can play a role in getting people down the streets.”

Good will can help, too, says Connor.

“We're often giving people directions to other little shops and restaurants that are off Main Street, trying to help each other that way,” she says. “But it would be great to have more of a systematic approach.”

Sign up for Enews

Related Content


Order a PDF