Small stores emphasize service to loyal customers

Posted December 26, 2008 3:58 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:11 p.m. EDT

— While the struggles of big box stores and national chains are well-chronicled, there is another segment of the retail market feeling the impact of a tough economy as well.

Small, independent stores are the lifeblood of many ex-urban communities. These mom-and-pop places depend on loyal customers to compete with the large-scale shopping centers.

In Oxford, at Stovall's Gifts, sales are down 35 percent this year.

Employee Lori Sharp said the store's owners were prepared.

"We knew it was going to be a little more challenging Christmas season," she said.

Anticipating a tough holiday and uncertain about the months to come, they cut back on inventory. Their stock was only about two-thirds of the size from a year ago.

"Most retailers that have been in business for a little while understand that January, February and March are a little slower," she said.

Stovall's Gifts has been a fixture in downtown Oxford for nearly 30 years. Like their bigger counterparts, they started after-Christmas sales Friday.

Many local retailers will be keeping a close eye on the books as the holiday shopping season winds down, trying to plan for the months ahead.

Ann Lowery of This, That and The Other Variety store, plans to put more emphasis on what she can offer that larger stores can't – that one-one-one relationship between buyer and seller.

"There are things you just can't buy in downtown Oxford," she admitted.

"You can give them personal service. You can remember, 'oh, don't buy that for your mom, you bought that last year,'" she explained.

At Granville Furniture Company, managers said shops like theirs depend on being the place where everybody knows your name. The store has been open in Oxford since the 1940s.

"We have three to four generations of customers here," manager Wayne Claiborne boasted.

Nell Gupton sang the same refrain from her clothing shop in Louisburg. She has been in business for 25 years, but saw sales fall 20 percent in 2008. She depends on the customers she knows.

"The same people are shopping," she said, "but they're not spending as much money."