November 30 will mark the 10th anniversary of “Small Business Saturday,” a tradition started by American Express to encourage shoppers to visit small businesses. And on the Northside that shouldn’t be a problem. Shoppers have many stores to choose from.
In fact, Northsiders shouldn’t have any trouble checking off their Christmas lists with the variety of shops, some new and others established local institutions.
“Shopping small,” as it is now called, is as important as ever, with small businesses not only competing with national brick-and-mortar juggernauts, but online outlets that have low overhead and therefore cheaper prices.
This year, experts told CNBC that more than half of all Christmas sales will be made online.
Despite this projection, it’s far from doom and gloom for local retailers.
Small businesses are thriving on the Northside, even as they adapt to the new online reality.
They credit their success, in part, to offering top-notch service that customers can’t find online.
Local stores also boast significant employee experience, with staffers in many cases having worked in their respective industries for 10 years or longer.
Finally, Northside retailers point to the fact that because they are part of the community, they work to support the community.
“It’s what drives each and every local business,” said Keith Kinkade, owner of Kinkade’s Fine Clothing in Ridgeland.
Kinkade’s will celebrate 10 years on December 1.
His store has been known to take out ads in the local newspaper congratulating high school sport teams on winning state titles, as well as ads in the Northside Sun commending Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s annual graduating class.
The men’s clothing outfitter also buys ads in school sports programs and gives to local charities.
“You’re not going to see (big box retailers) take an ad out thanking the little league baseball team that came and saw them,” he said. “I go to church in Jackson. My kids go to school in Madison. I work in Ridgeland and I live in Madison.”
As for experiences, Kinkade’s will also treat customers to special snacks, such as fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, around the holidays. The week of Thanksgiving Kinkade plans to continue another tradition: giving away 200 full-size pecan pies to customers. (Those pies are also locally made.)
While supporting local groups and offering refreshments might get new customers in the store, Kinkade said it’s his store’s unmatched customer service that keeps them coming back.
“These aren’t so much our customers, but our friends,” he said. “You can order stuff off the internet all day long. But if you have a problem, would you rather ship it off to someone you don’t know or (buy it here) and bring it back to us?
“If you come in and say, ‘Keith, there’s a flaw in this shoe.’ We’re going to take it back immediately, give you a new pair, and take it up with the manufacturer,” he said. “We’re going to make it right. You can’t find that customer service on the internet.”
Jude Muse, owner of The Treehouse Boutique in Fondren, echoed Kinkade’s sentiments.
“We want to make sure it will be the right fit, the right quality and we will stand behind it if it’s not,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about getting it and returning it.”
Treehouse has been in business for 15 years.
Much like Kinkade’s and Tree House, Courtney Peters said her success can be credited to providing a level of customer service and expertise not offered online.
Courtney Peters Interior Design opened in 2006.
Over the years, Peters has worked to develop her reputation for selling high-quality merchandise and offering sound advice for individuals hoping to decorate or redecorate their homes.
She said that reputation comes from being in the business for more than a decade, and from learning the ins and outs of the industry.
“I try to buy with companies that are dependable and I have a relationship with,” she said. “If there has ever been an issue, I have been able to take care of it.”
Marlana Walters has owned Everyday Gourmet, a kitchen specialty shop, for more than 12 years.
Like Peters and Kinkade, she said online retailers cannot match the experienced offered by her or her employees.
“I talked to a customer yesterday about a griddle. She was afraid it would scratch her cooktop. We said, ‘here’s what you have to do: slowly heat it up and don’t (immerse) it in cold water after you use it, because it could warp.’
“It’s little things about how to use certain products that they may not get somewhere else.”
Albriton’s Jewelry also boasts an experienced staff. “We have employees who have been here for 10 years or more,” said Albriton President Cameron Albriton.
That expertise is key in informing customers about diamonds and other stones, as well as advising them on the appropriate pieces to purchase, Albriton said.
Albriton’s has been in business for 99 years, having been opened by Albriton’s great-grandfather in 1920. Today, the store has a new free-standing location on Old Canton Road.
Being a family owned business offers flexibility, according to Albriton. “We have a six-month layaway policy. When someone says, ‘Hey Cameron, I need eight months to pay this off.’ I can work it out.”
Beth Griffith, owner of the Fashion Post, said her business has adapted several times during the boutique’s 40-year history.
Initially Fashion Post was a store geared toward career women. As more boutiques opened, Griffith shifted the store’s focus to mothers of brides. Today, Fashion Post still serves those mothers.
Griffith admits that it’s a niche market, but one that does not lend itself to online shopping.
“They have to come in to be fitted, to try it on,” she said. “You can’t just look online and find something. What if your body shape doesn’t work with that dress?”
Fashion Post has actually benefited from online shopping, especially if the item they purchased online isn’t what they expected.
“We can take people who come in with a dress from somewhere else and redesign it, change it,” Griffith said.
While many national retailers have had to scale back operations because of the internet, complications with online shopping was a reason why Fran Fowler opened Livi James.
The retailer caters to boys and girls from sizes six to 16, a group that Fowler said is nearly impossible to shop for online.
Fowler opened the story in April.
“I have a six-year-old girl and a seven-year-old girl. When ordering something online or from trunk shows, either they didn’t like it, or they couldn’t fit in it when it came in.”
Fowler wants to keep parents from having to go through that experience. “There were not many places around here where you could have kids go and see and try on clothes except for the big boxes,” she said. “So, I (opened) a place.”
Fowler’s intuition has paid off. She has seen many moms visit the store during the school day, only to bring their children back that afternoon to try something on. She has also gotten feedback from parents who say the store was needed.
Indian Cycle and Sportique credit their employees’ expertise and community involvement with their ability to continue to be a mainstay on the Northside.
Indian Cycle, for instance, sponsors three cycling teams and organizes 12 riding/racing events across the state. It’s something co-owner Jim Ballard doesn’t expect Amazon to do anytime soon.
Additionally, he said customers seek the expert advice from Sportique and Indian Cycle employees.
During the winter months, families depend on Sportique for help in choosing outdoor wear.
“It’s very common this time of year for a family of four or five to come in and get fitted for ski wear,” he said. “We have the merchandise in stock and the expertise to tell them what they’ll need.”
That expertise includes asking the right questions, such as where clients will be going to ski, whether they’re experts or beginners, and how long they plan to be on the slopes.
Even so, Ballard said the internet has cut into sales. To combat this, Ballard said his stores will continue to do what they do best: offer strong customer service.
To that end, the store has twice-weekly staff meetings to review customer interactions and the like. Employees are required to attend.
“We can’t touch the internet on price. They can’t touch us on service,” Ballard said. “It comes down to what the customer wants. Do they want price? Or do they want service?”