For the Cravens — and for other small shops along Oxford’s historic Main Street — business comes down to personal relationships with customers. They can’t sell as much or as large a variety as the big shops along Quintard and at the Oxford Exchange, Craven said, but at The Tackle Box at least they know their customers' names.
“You get to know them like family,” Jewel Craven said of her regulars. “We’ve enjoyed it. Being around all our customers, some of whom have been coming in for years.”
The Cravens’ shop has endured many ups and downs in the economy, including the recent recession. If the country is to recover completely from that recession, small shops like theirs may have to play a big role. According to the University of Southern Maine's Institute for Family-Owned Business, family-owned businesses account for half of the U.S. gross domestic product and generate 60 percent of the country’s employment.
Additionally, the institute found that family-owned businesses generate 78 percent of the country's new job creation. The percentage of new Alabama jobs created by those small businesses is likely about the same as the institute's national figure, said Alabama Retail Association spokeswoman Nancy King Dennis.
Dennis said that the importance of family-owned businesses in Alabama's overall economy can't be overstated.
"Most of our members are small stores, under 25 employees," Dennis said.
Building relationships with customers
The Cravens’ shop was a newsstand when they bought it, which was so long ago now that they both claim not to remember when that was. Bright orange fishing lures and packages of plastic worms line the walls, replacing the stacks of newspapers, magazines and books that years ago filled the shop.
It’s a slow time of year for the fishing tackle business, Craven said. That leaves plenty of time for coffee and crosswords, but things will pick up a little closer to Christmas, Jewel said, as some come in to buy gifts. The fishers they cater to will return in force when catfish start spawning in mid-June.
How does a small shop weather a tough economy and competition from the big shops, to stay open since Richard Nixon was in the White House? Craven’s only advice was to “Be tough.”
Two doors down from the Tackle Box, Patty Massey was helping a customer who had come in looking for scented oils for her electronic fragrance lamp. Massey opened her Main Street shop, Bright Ideas Candle Outlet, in 2009. A Chicago native, Massey owned a candle shop in Hawaii for many years before moving to Alabama in the early-2000s.
She operated a shop in Heflin for five years before moving to Oxford, where she said she found a better location.
After three years of Oxford holiday seasons, Massey said, sales are starting to get better as she builds her clientele. But, she said, “It could be a lot better.”
Massey makes her own candles, with scents like Alabama kudzu and sweet pea, and she sells the fragrance lamps and oils. She added a line of jewelry recently when another business owner joined her in her Main Street shop.
There’s no doubt, Massey said, that making a small shop work takes building personal relationships with customers. It takes time, but is worth the wait because those relationships mean loyal shoppers, Massey said.
“They’re sweethearts, too. They really are,” Massey said. “They tell us about their symptoms and their tragedies. They tell us about their happy times.”
Massey spent a few moments with her customer, Evelyn Winn, opening different scented oils until she found just the right one.
Shops like Massey’s — with her handmade candles and one-of-a-kind gifts — are hard to replicate on a big scale, and that’s why Winn said she frequents the smaller downtown shops.
“I think you get some unique things,” Winn said. “… Here you can get a little opinion, and we miss that. I think that’s the problem. This is personalized.”
Shopping at the small, mom-and-pop stores is good, Winn said, because “you become family, and every Christmas I think about gifts like that” she said, pointing to her scented oils.
Meeting needs of customers and the economy
Experts and advocates say small businesses are vital to a healthy U.S. economy.
Smaller retailers are good at finding ways to meet the needs of customers that larger chains cannot, according to Brent Cunningham, a professor of management and marketing at Jacksonville State University.
"We always say that the stability that the U.S. enjoys is from middle-class and small business," Cunninhgam said. "The small businesses ... they know exactly what their customers want. They can offer products that Walmart cannot. Walmart offers the same thing in every store. They don't customize it for each community — where the small mom-and-pops can. They offer the one-on-one customer service, and Walmart can't do that"
Rosemary Elebash, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, is understandably enthusiastic about supporting all those mom-and-pop shops across Alabama.
In her own hometown of Opp — population 6,659 in 2010 —Elebash said that about the closest thing to a big box store one can find is the Dollar General, so small businesses are critical to the lifeblood of many Alabama towns, she said.
Elebash spent Small Business Saturday, a day set aside to help mom-and-pops get some of those residual Black Friday sales, visiting some of her own local small businesses with a small business owner.
“We walked in three of the businesses and they called me by name,” Elebash said. “As a matter of fact, one of them brought out a dress and said ‘This looks just like you.’”
That’s not service you’ll get in many large stores, Elebash said, and that makes those small shops special. Elebash added that those small businesses can make changes quickly to meet customer needs, because they have no boards of directors or shareholders to appease.
“If they decide they want to change their business direction, they can do that … because they are so familiar with their customer base … they truly are survivors, and thank goodness that they are,” Elebash said, because a dollar spent in a small business can mean as many as $7 returned into a local economy, she said.
“They’re banking at a local bank. They’re buying supplies from someone else locally. It really does turn over about seven times in your community,” Elebash said.
Those small business owners aren’t just revenue-creators, either, Elebash said. They’re youth baseball coaches, church leaders and volunteers.
“It’s nice to have small shops. I think it’s good for downtown. That’s what I’m here for,” Winn said, before admitting, almost under her breath, that as soon as she was done in Massey’s shop, she was headed to Dillard’s department store, over at the mall.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.