Big box stores mean big competition for many small business owners, including Dave Patel, who owns 50% Off Cards in East Setauket and Cards n' Such in Sayville.
"It’s a card shop, but card shops always have gifts with them. It’s a part of the business," Patel said. "You cannot survive selling cards alone in this economy."
Here's how the discount card portion of his business works: When card companies sell stock to small business owners, they sell them at a discounted price. The business owners then pass those savings on to their customers rather than charging the full price generally printed on the backs of the cards.
And here's how the rest of his business works: Patel has added a wide selection of gifts that complement the seasons, new trends, and customer needs; Lottery games; and services such as custom invitations with a 24-hour turnaround. Patel said he sells more gifts than he does cards.
"The trends are changing," he said. "... It’s a changed planet. People like more useful stuff. Figurines? Collectibles? Slowly going out of fashion. The trends are changing, we are changing."
To sell those gifts effectively, Patel said he works eight to nine months in advance of a product's commercial debut, attending trade shows to order them and playing a guessing game for what's going to be trendy several months down the road.
Around the holiday season, Patel said his store even carries items that the big box stores often sell out of – such as Elf on a Shelf. And the most unusual item he has ever sold?
"Live frogs," he said. "We used to sell mini aquariums. We sold 60 frogs like that. "That’s the weirdest thing in a card store. Hey, if it sells good, sell it."
Patel, born in India and raised in New York, lives in Ronkonkoma with his wife, 8-year-old son, and mother. Prior to owning his card stores, he owned a Subway restaurant in New York City. But he sold that business, partly because it was a long commute and partly because he preferred to have a more independent business model.
"I like to run my business my way," he said. "Not a franchise."