Ever since big box stores came into prominence, Kathy Phillips has seen a lot of change in the floral business.
They can be a challenge to mom and pop establishments like her store, Calaways Flowers and Antiques in Delta. That’s especially true around the Christmas season, a time of year many local businesses rely upon for success.
“Christmas is an all-month holiday,” Phillips said. “When you’re a small business, (all holidays) are important. And, definitely, business has changed a lot with flowers and plants with big box stores.”
Like other small businesses in Fulton County, hers has been affected by the pull large, all-inclusive chain stores can have on consumers. Rather than buy locally, people will travel miles to purchase Christmas gifts they can find in their own neighborhoods.
As owner of the former Bill’s Sports Center in Wauseon, Bill Drummer experienced that first-hand. Now executive director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, he said the importance of supporting local businesses, especially during the holiday season, can’t be understated.
“It’s the difference between a business staying open next year, and not staying open next year,” he said. “After the Black Friday madness is over, I really think we need to focus on buying local. They all have their fingers crossed, hoping for a big holiday season.”
As an example, Drummer said, Wauseon residents can purchase Chamber of Commerce gift certificates, which are good at members’ businesses. He said that benefits all citizens, since the revenue the business owners receive will go back into the community.
“That way it ensures that whatever you give is spent locally,” he said. “And it makes sure the local businesses get their fair share. People don’t realize the importance of local shops.”
“We are the ones that support the schools and organizations,” she said. “They’re looking at local merchants to support them. Anything going on in the community, they look to us for help. It’s so important to support us for us to give back.”
Christmas , Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day are all crucial occasions for her floral business, Phillips said. So it can be difficult when local customers choose to drive 50 miles or more to larger businesses for items her store can offer.
To survive, businesses like Calaways have to diversify. For Phillips, that means offering customers unique items the chain stores don’t carry, as well as personal attention.
“In a small business like ours, what we have to sell is customer service. That is so important,” she said. “In some of your big box stores, you don’t have that customer service.”
On a local level, consumers can often discover more unique, novel gifts, Drummer said.
“As a whole, at all the local retailers they’re going to find things they can’t find at the big box stores,” he said.
And he dismissed the idea that merchandise at larger venues is always less expensive. “You’ve got to look closer, because a lot of times you’re not saving money. People have that perception because it’s a big box store.”
Consumers are conditioned to visit large chain stores merely because they advertise regularly, something small, local businesses often don’t have the budget for, said Neil Toeppe, executive director of the Swanton Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Chances are, you’re dealing with the owner or a family member (locally). Those folks live and die by word of mouth,” he said.
The benefits of local shopping are often lost on people, Toeppe said. They include the fact that small businesses in Fulton County employ 90 percent of its residents.
“When you’re supporting small businesses, you’re supporting the people that live and work in your community,” he said. “It’s always better to think about what you have in town. We like to support our local schools, and it’s no different than supporting our local businesses.”
Small businesses offer quality products the same as big box stores, and the service is will be better, Toeppe said.
“You’re going to get treated well because they can’t afford negative publicity,” he said. “Also, there’s the social aspect of local shopping. You’re going to run into people you know.”
In its 40-year history, Fessenden Hardware in Swanton has always carried Christmas lights and decorations and items suitable as gifts. Among other things, the store has hand tools, tool kits, batteries, heaters, and scented waxes and soaps.
Company Vice President Eric Fessenden said county residents need only give the business a chance to realize what it can offer.
“People used to shop in town more before we got the big boxes,” he said. “A few still come in for gift certificates and to Christmas shop. It all comes from the residents supporting the business so we can support the community.”
Fessenden said he feels the competition from larger stores, so he tries to stay competitive with prices and customer service.
“We may be perceived as more expensive but price to price we probably average out. The stigma is that we overcharge, but we don’t,” he said.
“I have stories of people saying they didn’t think we had it…and came here and found that we did have it and it was cheaper. (And) you’ve got us explaining and helping you. You don’t get that at the other stores.”
Customers will also find superior holiday foods at locally-owned businesses, said Barb Hug, manager of the Doughbox Bakery in Archbold.
“Everything here we make on the premises. All our dough is made here. It’s something that’s very rare anymore, and I think people would want that and like that,” she said.
There’s a charm to small bakeries and groceries because their products are handmade, Hug said. “It’s the real deal.”
The Doughbox Bakery cares what its customers think, she said.
“We want them to have a nice experience when they’re here. I hope they feel that we’ve given them that personal touch,” she said. “We offer something so much more unique than the big stores have.”
It can often be more convenient to pick up baked goods at a big box store, but you get what you pay for, Hug said. It’s not the same level of quality.
“The people that do come in are delighted,” she added. “You walk in here and you can smell the yeast and you can smell the cinnamon. It’s like walking into your grandma’s kitchen.”
Hug believes it’s important to shop locally because “it’s good to be able to support the people that are local, and to keep our small towns alive and prospering.”
Drummer said when somebody works hard to keep a local business open, despite the lure of larger stores, it should be supported.
“As you lose these small retail shops, they won’t be replaced. And that’s the sad part of it,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.