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Expert offers tips to keep downtown businesses kicking

Small business expert Tom Shay told local store owners in Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville that recessions are good for one thing: weeding out the weak.

“A recession is a wonderful thing,” said Shay. “It clears the landscape.”

At the same time, Shay doesn’t advocate a cutthroat approach when it comes to keeping downtowns alive. During a presentation in downtown Waynesville last week, he advised small businesses to work together.

Shay, who has 25 years of experience in family business, was brought to the three towns to offer expert advice to local entrepreneurs to help them prosper in rough economic times.

One of Shay’s tips was to become actively involved with the downtown association, speaking up at meetings and providing input as events are organized and promoted.

“When the vote’s taken, shut up and participate,” said Shay, prompting applause from some audience members.

Charlie Trump, who co-owns Olde Brick House Country Store in Waynesville, said he always sees the same six or seven people at Downtown Waynesville Association meetings.

“If more people would come, we would have more of a voice,” said Trump.

Shay said he would also like to see small business owners offering their own expert advice to each other.

For example, Shay asked Edward Sullivan, co-owner of The Chocolate Bear in Waynesville, to offer his decades of branding and design experience to area businesses that need it.

Sullivan said he has already done so in the past, but he thinks the ultimate key is for a business to care deeply about presentation.

“You get out of it what you put in it,” said Sullivan. “I think it shows here how much effort we put into the store.”

Shay’s other advice included keeping in constant contact with existing customers through e-mails or postcards, looking for new opportunities as other businesses close, letting go of unproductive employees to take advantage of a bigger job pool, predicting monthly profit and loss a year out in advance, and continuing advertising even in tough times.

“Stopping your advertising to save your money is like stopping your clock so that you can save time,” Shay said.

Shay also advised storeowners to not allow gloomy news in the media to dictate their business plan.

While some business owners voiced opinions in favor of forming a merchant’s association at the meeting, Shay said smaller towns would be better off with just one organization.

At the Waynesville presentation, he said there simply are not enough people to justify so many associations.

“It’s like the quarterback taking the ball from the center,” said Shay. “Hey, if you’re gonna fight, get someone in a different jersey.”

Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers in Waynesville, agreed with Shay and said it would be better for the town to have only one organization.

“We could support each other better,” said Osondu.

As it stands, there’s a merchant’s association for the Frog Level district, a Waynesville Gallery Association, and a Waynesville Downtown Association.

Outside of the official presentation, Shay offered some creative advice during his one-on-one sessions with local businesses in the three towns.

Shay suggested Olde Brick House make the switch to some “mood lighting,” a move that would create a better ambiance while lowering energy costs.

Over at The Chocolate Bear, Shay asked Sullivan to try to stimulate all five senses with his store offerings. Sullivan almost had all bases covered but was missing something from the smell category. Sullivan said he might add waffle cones to his gelato store next door to help lead customers into the store by their noses.

Shay suggested that David Lewis, owner of The Glass Shoppe in Franklin, change his product offerings to better reflect the needs of his customers in this economy.

“We’ve gone from a lot of new construction to remodeling,” said Lewis. “We need to adapt to what’s going on around us.”

Lewis said he came in to have a talk with his employees to catch them up to speed and impart the importance of providing good customer service.

“We need to concentrate on being more customer-oriented, for everybody from the low guy to the high guy,” Lewis said.

Osondu said after her session with Shay, she is considering putting a book cart outside her store or holding a sidewalk sale to bring in more people, especially locals.

Osondu said Shay’s visit was well-timed since the recession has definitely hit home.

“It’s a very scary time,” Osondu said. “We’re always trying to figure out how to get people downtown.”

Becky Trump, who co-owns Olde Brick House, said though customers continue to steam into her store, they are markedly buying “smaller dollar” items.

Despite Shay’s claims that he was not a motivational speaker, he ended the presentation with an adage that reflected a positive way of viewing the recession: “It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass; it is about learning to dance in the rain.”

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