By Michael Ramsburg
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. -- Just off U.S. 60 in Cabell County, the hamlet known to locals as "The Village" sits quietly next to the hustle-and-bustle of a large area shopping complex and the steady flow of commuters who head west to Huntington and east toward Charleston.
Along this town's Main Street, small shops stare at a quiet town park, where the occasional visitor may sit at the town Gazebo or throw pennies into the central fountain. Town traffic is steady, albeit slow moving, and two stoplights divide the main block of Main Street between Water Streets and Central Avenue.
Inside the shops, business owners chat with the customers who pass through the door, greeting everyone who enters -- and many by first name.
The small shops compete with much larger, often well-known stores on nearby U.S. 60 - as well as the Huntington Mall, about 4 miles from the Village's Main Street. To keep up with the competition, small businesses in the Village try to set themselves apart.
For example, it's been open for less than a month, but Petiquette Canine Charm School and Salon owner Tim Childers said his shop is doing well.
Childers' business offers pet grooming and training services, and sales supplies such as food and treats. But he faces competition from Petco, a national pet supply and service retail chain, which offers the same services (and a few more) less than a five-minute drive from Childers' shop.
In an attempt to set his store apart, Childers said Petiquette offers a holistic approach to pet care. His business offers only all-natural and organic pet foods and treats, and his training courses are small and intimate -- an approach he says allows him to better meet his pet client's needs.
"A lot of people that do the classes, they'll put 20 or 30 people in a class," Childers said. "You can't really get to know the dog in a psychological manner and what causes it to present the behaviors that it presents."
Childers said his approach, at least so far, seems to work. Many clients followed him from his previous job, he said, but new customers seem drawn to the personalized attention at his small shop.
David Spudich, a former small business owner who now serves as the head of the Entrepreneurship Department at Marshall University's College of Business, says personal attention is a key to a small companies' success.
"Small business has their personal touch and relationship with their customer," Spudich said. "Customers like to be known. If you go to a big box store, you're just another person in there. You go into a small store ... they know you."
Four doors down from Childers' pet school, the West Virginia Quilt shop, a fabric and quilting accessory store, has been in operation for about a decade.
Gloria Limb, sister of West Virginia Quilt owner Michelle Hill, said the business began as an online-only venture.
"We've always been involved with textiles, crafts, sewing. Our mother was just an avid knitter," Limb said. "She had us all learn how to do all these skills, and so we've always had a passion for fabric."
Turning her sister's "passion for fabric" into a profitable business is no small task, especially considering the competition form national retail outlets like nearby Jo-Ann Fabrics and Walmart. Still, Limb said, the business has carved out its own niche in the small community.
Limb said comparing West Virginia Quilt's products to those found at some other national retail stores is "like comparing a 200-count sheet to an Egyptian cotton."
"We sell only 100 percent prime primo cotton fabric where you're fabrics going to last," Gloria Limb said.
To keep up with the competition, Limb said West Virginia Quilt tries to price match comparable items. Limb's sister even developed her own line of quilting templates, dubbed Chenille Sew Easy, offering the product in the store and online.
What's more, West Virginia Quilt tries to understand each customer's personal needs. Store staff and enlisted help even go as far as helping customers design -- and, in some cases, create custom quilts.
Spudich, the Marshall professor, said individualized approaches like the ones utilized at West Virginia Quilt make consumers feel like they matter, as opposed to being another cog in a massive money making machine. He cites the example of a restaurant.
"You have these chains and you're just another customer," Spudich said. "The waitress comes ... they introduce themselves, then they'll give you the menu.
"You almost feel like a car getting a service work done on you."