Small business Saturday boosts local businesses - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Small business Saturday boosts local businesses

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There are days when Sandra Young feels a little like David battling Goliath, competing with the big box stores for customers and sales.

"Mom-and-Pop stores don't exist much anymore. The big conglomerates have pretty much put us out of business," said Young, co-owner of Just Right Gifts in Wheeling. "But if you want a personal, one-on-one shopping experience and people that care about what you're looking for ... shop with your little stores."

That's a choice Young and other small business owners throughout West Virginia and across the nation are hoping the buying public will make Nov. 30, branded Small Business Saturday, and continue throughout the gift-giving season.

"Small business is so important to all communities," said Tina Combs, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Martinsburg and Berkeley County. "I think they say more than half the U.S. workforce is employed in small business — small business stabilizes the workforce and really helps the economy." 

In West Virginia, small business is big business: The U.S. Small Business Administration says that as recently as 2010, there were more than 118,000 small businesses in the state employing more than 287,700 people. SBA classifies a small business as having fewer than 500 employees, though it says most small businesses in West Virginia have 20 or fewer and still many are one-man operations.

At the same time, SBA reports more small businesses in West Virginia closed their doors than new ones opened in 2011.

"Small businesses are essential," said Mark Jordan, co-owner of Flowers Unlimited and the new Boutique 147 in Martinsburg. "Small businesses are what's keeping the heartbeat of the downtown going. 

"Without them, it would be hard for the city itself, the downtown area, to exist. It keeps money local and keeps people employed."

Jordan said he shops small year-round "because I know how it is."

"Obviously, it takes all sizes of businesses to make an economy diversified and help the community grow," he said. "But downtowns have changed from the old days, when the name-brand stores were downtown. They moved to malls and strip centers; downtowns now are specialty shops."

Jennifer Ferrell, Main Street West Virginia coordinator, says communities need small businesses as much as small businesses need their community.

"The more we get people in, the more they're going to shop and the more it helps our businesses," she said. "And when business thrives it helps the economy. 

"It's kind of a cycle, and if people aren't going downtown for any of it, businesses are going to suffer."

Ferrell said the state's 12 Main Street communities and 14 On-Track communities are using Small Business Saturday to boost foot traffic in their downtowns, with a range of special activities and events on tap. 

Elkins, for instance, will have live music, origami making, holiday portraits and, for kids, a tea party and Polar Express; Charleston's East End kicks off its holiday bazaar and in Morgantown, shoppers who spend $25 or more Nov. 30 are eligible to enter a drawing for an Apple iPad. There will also be pictures with Santa "and a few other things," Ferrell said, plus a big festival band at the Metropolitan Theatre.

The idea, she said, is to "make people want to eat, work, live and play downtown, because the more people you bring downtown, the more they're going to shop."

Young, who just passed the seven-years-in-business mark, said it's a daily struggle.

"China makes stuff so cheap," she said. "And even though we think our prices are really good, we think our quality is better and that we stand behind our products better. It's hard to compete with Taiwan and China and the cheaply made products and imitations."

But Jordan said it's a battle worth fighting: Flowers Unlimited had developed a loyal clientele in its 11 years in Martinsburg, and when their customers clamored for a boutique-style women's clothing store, he and his partner, Anthony Hess, decided to oblige.

"People are loving it," he said. "There was a hunger for it, a need." 

He said they've been approached by developers who want them to leave downtown for strip centers and the like, "but we just won't do it. We have such a love for the downtown. There's so much potential here."

Jordan said a shopowner friend in Frederick, Md., told him "not too long ago it was worse than this area is; the revitalization just has to start."

"I think we're beginning to come alive," he said. "It's a slow process, but as long as we can get the community to see what we have here is a gem, a rare gem, and we need to keep it up."

And Combs said it's important for the buying public to realize that when they shop small, their money stays in the community.

"We just ask people to support their local businesses," she said. "These are the same businesses people go to to ask for donations for sports and special causes. 

"When you shop, shop at the businesses that support the community."