EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 15, 2008

Focus: Some small businesses thrive in big-box environment

By Margo Sullivan

Donahue's Fish Market in Plaistow, N.H., has been a fixture on Route 125 for 30 years. But when its doors first opened, retail business had not yet discovered Route 125, and the store wasn't sandwiched between a Shaw's Supermarket and a Market Basket, as it is today.

It isn't always easy for a small independent market to succeed in today's environment of giant retail outlets, said Jennifer Marois, Donahue's owner and manager. But surprisingly, if she could wave a magic wand and make the competition disappear, she wouldn't do it.

"They bring the customers," she said. "Everybody wants something cheap. So, they bring in the customers, and we have to feed off it."

Donahue's situation is not unique. Many small markets, stores and businesses owned a street corner for years, only to find their spot surrounded by malls and shopping plazas.

Mann Orchards in Methuen has been in business for 130 years. In the last few, it's gotten a few new neighbors — Wal-Mart, Target, Stop & Shop, Home Depot and several chain restaurants, to name the biggest.

"That's how we do survive," said Matthew Fitzgerald, whose family owns the fruit stand. He's convinced the big stores bring the traffic, and although the discount stores and chains also beat down prices, they don't really sell the same product.

"You can't compete with the prices at Market Basket," he said, but because a lot of grocery store produce now comes from China, Chile and other overseas markets, consumers are looking for more fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Mann Orchards appeals to those customers, Fitzgerald said. He said the orchard grows its own apples and tomatoes, and gets lettuce, squash and other produce fresh in the summer from Pleasant Valley Gardens, also in Methuen.

"We just convey that message," he said. "We buy local and fresh."

Donahue's Fish Market has a similar strategy, Marois said. Like other small businesses up against the big discount stores, Donahue's is thriving by appealing to a certain type of customer who appreciates locally produced food and wares.

Marois calls her customers "educated consumers" because they understand the discount stores sell fish that's been frozen, processed and shot full of chemicals, while Donahue's fish is local, and fresh.

"Our fish is caught whole," she said. "It's like catching it yourself and taking it home to cook."

Marois said Donahue's also manages to stay afloat because it has a good reputation and is known for quality, service and selection.

The store also has expanded its market, according to employee Tina Connell. It now sells meat, vegetables and deli fare.

Marois said Donahue's also does a brisk business in "healthy, prepared meals, which people buy on the way home to serve for dinner."