There’s more than just a little irony the official Small Business Saturday promotion that encourages people to spend their money with small, independently owned businesses on Nov. 26 rather than only with big box retailers. Irony or no irony, though, the message is still relevant — small businesses are the engine of our economy, particularly in areas such as Western North Carolina. Let’s hope consumers remember that truth throughout the entire holiday shopping season, not just on this big kickoff weekend.
Now to the irony. The Small Business Saturday promotion was started by American Express, the huge credit card company that controls almost 25 percent of the credit card market in the U.S. That said, let’s give the company kudos for getting on a bandwagon that many of us have been riding on for years.
Whether it’s this Saturday, Black Friday or anytime between now and Christmas, dedicate a portion of your holiday shopping to local, independently-owned small businesses. These businesses generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years and employ just over half of all private sector employees, according to the Small Business Administration.
When you spend money with these businesses, a higher percentage of those dollars stays in the community. Those business owners and their employees are your friends and neighbors.
During the recent Waynesville election, this issue of local vs. big box was a campaign issue. Some argued that the town’s land-use policies inhibit economic development by making it hard for standard big-boxes or chain stores to build. Alderman Leroy Roberson captured my sentiments exactly when interviewed by our newspaper. Here’s an excerpt from that story from last month:
“Cracker Barrel is not my main concern. We are getting lots of good restaurants without Cracker Barrel,” Roberson said. “I want to create a climate that provides for small business. The big chains can take care of themselves. They have millions of dollars they can invest.”
Roberson said it is appropriate to ask chain stores to respect the towns they come in to.
“They should at least try to become a part of the community, in terms of ‘OK, this is the appearance you have, how can I fit into this?’ Not ‘This is the way we do it everywhere else and if you don’t like, we are not coming,’” Roberson said.
Roberson’s philosophy fits nicely with the argument I feel compelled to make every holiday season. It’s the local businesses — whether art galleries, auto parts stores, restaurants, and local and regional retailers — that make our mountain communities such special places to live. Keep that in mind as you make your spending decisions during the holiday season and throughout the year.
It’s not everyday that you can shop at the local feed and seed store for organic foods and produce, but that’s the case these days in Sylva.
Last year at almost exactly this time, Deb and Randy Hooper took a significant business risk. The couple used the back portion of their building on N.C. 107 and expanded the 40-year-old Bryson Farm Supply by adding a small organics grocery. That means folks can pick up their fertilizers and shovels and other gardening needs from Randy Hooper, then shop in the Natural Food Store section of Bryson’s for that night’s dinner from his wife.
The Natural Food Store carries such hard-to-find delicacies as grass-fed local beef, natural pork, goat cheeses, free-trade coffee from the Cherokee-based Tribal Grounds, bins of grains and beans, locally raised trout and more.
Time has proven the Hoopers’ business hunch a good one: There is a definite local clientele for organics and naturally and locally produced foods, as also evidenced by the rapid growth of the county’s popular Saturday farmers market on backstreet in Sylva and at St. John’s Church during winter months.
The community has been hugely supportive, Deb Hooper said. That includes some free help from residents eager to see the business survive and thrive. Kolleen Begley of the Village of Forest Hills helped build a website for the business, www.brysonfarmsupply.com, free of charge.
“I did their website as a type of community service and really had fun doing so,” Begley said. “I’m thrilled to see this small, local, family owned business carry the local foods as well as organic and Amish foods, and I support that — I hope to see them expand that part of their business.”
Deb Hooper also has her hopes set, perhaps, of one day growing the store still larger. The size of Earth Fare in Asheville, she said, referring to one of the region’s largest natural food-based grocery stores.
But, don’t expect that kind of growth anytime soon: the couple wants to build the organics portion of their business slowly and wisely.
“This is still a work in progress,” Deb Hooper said, gesturing out toward the Natural Food Store, complete with its large coolers, stock laden wooden shelves and bulk bins. “We want to move forward with even more here, first. But I’d love to get big.”
It’s that kind of willingness, one of being open to forward motion after carefully calculating business opportunities, that often spells the difference among local businesses that endure and survive this tough economy and those that don’t, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association and head of economic development for the town.
“They’ve changed as needed over the years,” Roberson said of Bryson’s, which Deb Hooper’s parents opened in 1972. “They try and meet customers’ desires for certain products.”
Roberson knows a good bit about the hardware store business: her family once ran Roberson Supply, a hardware store then located a mile or two on N.C. 107 from Bryson’s.
Deb Hooper said opening and running a Natural Foods Store has proven quite an education. She and her husband are eating more local and naturally grown foods themselves these days, supplementing vegetables raised in their home garden.
“He settled right into it,” Deb Hooper said of her husband’s agreeability to try new foods that the expansion into organics has led to.
In addition to meats and bulk foods, the Natural Foods Store purchases and sells local honey and fresh eggs. Deb Hooper tried selling vegetables but discovered that her clientele is apparently made up of the same people who visit and support the farmers market. Seeing no need and little business opportunity, Hooper reversed course on the vegetables, limiting herself at least for now to other product lines.
Running a grocery store seems to come easily to Hooper. Though she openly acknowledged “I never thought I’d be doing any of this stuff,” her grandparents in fact owned and managed one of Sylva’s most popular groceries, Ensley Supermarket, for years.
“This is really my heritage,” Hooper said.
As the holiday shopping season nears its final frenzy, Sylva’s business community is stressing the importance of buying local.
The Downtown Sylva Association has seized on a national campaign called the 3/50 Project to encourage local people to patronize their own business community. It’s built around the idea that if half of the country’s employed population spent $50 per month in three locally-owned, independent businesses, it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue.
Downtown Sylva Director Julie Sylvester learned about the 3/50 Project from several local business owners. The association’s merchants have decided to use it as an ongoing promotion that will stretch beyond the holiday shopping season.
“I really see it as an education campaign,” Sylvester said. “I want people to understand that if they spend a total of $50 at three local businesses each month, that’s really what will make a difference.”
Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers in downtown Sylva, has embraced the 3/50 Project’s mantra at his store.
“When Julie first came in, I was impressed with the idea,” Dennis said. “Folks should be aware of the impact of buying local, but sometimes you have to rattle the cage a little bit.”
Dennis said it’s difficult to convince consumers to pay more at a time when they are struggling, but he said the campaign encourages them to think about the long-term value to the community where they live rather than merely price points.
“Folks will use big boxes and convenient set-ups out of habit more than necessity,” Dennis said. “They go because they’re convenient — not because they’re better. That’s where the education comes in. The cheapest isn’t always the best.”
Dennis has placed a 3/50 Project flyer on his counter and has enjoyed explaining the program to his patrons.
Sylvester said the DSA members have embraced the campaign as an organizing principle.
“There’s so much you can get out of a local store,” Sylvester said. “The money you spend in your own community comes back and helps grow the community.”
While the DSA is focused on 3/50 the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce is spreading a similar message through its “Love The Locals” coupon campaign. Director Julie Spiro has dispersed 1,000 coupon books featuring local retailers to high-volume traffic locations in the county.
Spiro said it’s hard to tell exactly how much the books are used, but the campaign delivers an important message.
“All we can do is put something out there to try to help the local retail and business owners and get some people to their stores,” Spiro said.
The Chamber also maintains a holiday shoppers’ hotline that helps customers locate specific items in local stores.