Downturn hits Elm City

Cooper’s Dress Shop and Cosi are closing their doors, and if sales trends in New Haven continue, they will not be alone.

Large, Wall Street investment banks are being bailed out by the national government, but struggling small businesses in the Elm City cannot expect similar support from the local government. As a result — from the art shop on Chapel St. to the burrito joint on Elm St. — small businesses are finding ad-hoc solutions to slowing sales.

Bulldog Burrito, which opened its doors five years ago, has typically enjoyed steady demand and sales, owner Jason Congdon said Monday. But over the past couple of months, he said he has seen about a 15 percent drop in business, primarily because customers are more frugal when they eat out.

“People are trying to find out where they can get things the cheapest, and it seems like everyone is making tradeoffs,” Congdon said.

Congdon said he is confident his restaurant will make it through the economic downturn.

“Bulldog Burrito will make it because we have a lower price point, which is going to help us out,” he said.

Mike Morand ’87 DIV ’93, associate vice president for New Haven and State Affairs and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, said the foundation of New Haven’s economy is not small businesses but rather higher education and health care.

“We are, as sectors, more recession-resistant than others, so the forces driving the local economy tend to have less high-ups and less low-downs,” Morand said.

The Chamber of Commerce provides small businesses with services such as access to affordable health care through the chamber insurance trust, networking and helping to create business-to-business opportunities.

Congdon’s optimistic view differed from the other business owners interviewed, who cited a variety of strategies for surviving. Just around the corner from Bulldog Burrito, Paul Richard’s, a shoe shop on York Street, opened the same year as the burrito restaurant. But owner Paul Cuticello said despite good summer profits, he has seen sales drop dramatically since then.

Cuticello said that he does not expect help, such as tax breaks or special promotions, from the Chamber of Commerce or even from the city government even though he feels the economy is at its lowest in his lifetime, he said.

“I’m doing at least half of my normal business from what I was doing this time last year,” Cuticello said.

The Uggs and dress shoes, among other types, sold at Paul Richard’s cater to a wealthier clientele, but the recession, Cuticello said, is hitting all socioeconomic levels, even the upper-middle class.

To combat the drop in sales, Cuticello said he tries to keep his inventory down, even if that means a customer might come in and the certain product they need might not be on the shelf.

“I’m just trying to ride this out, so part of how I’m doing that is by ordering less,” Cuticello said.

Rob Muller, owner of Merwin’s Art Shop, a painting and frame store on Chapel Street, said he is also looking to reduce his overhead costs and is not taking any gambles with his inventory.

“I’ve noticed business is down, but this month will be better, knock on wood,” Muller said.

Muller said this upcoming winter will be the indicator for him about the status of his business. He said January and February are traditionally slow months.

“If those months are even slower than usual, that is going to really hurt,” Muller said. “All we can do is wait and watch.”

Comments

  • Linda

    This would be a perfect time for the independents in town to get together and create a New Haven Merchant Discount Card….display the logo in their store window (or cart)…and offer discounts to card holders. Keep the business in the city!