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Small businesses in Barboursville battle nearby retail giants

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."

@brfs:Destination stores

@bod:Next door to West Virginia Quilt, Gloria Limb's son, Jason Limb, mans the counter at David Hill Limited, a coin and stamp store owned by his grandfather, David Hill. In business for more than 38 years, the shop has seen four locations before finally landing on Barboursville's Main Street.

"It's off the hustle and bustle of Route 60," Jason Limb said of the store's new location. "It's more laid back here than it would be when we were on [Route] 60."

Unlike some of the other shops in downtown Barboursville, David Hill Limited has little competition in the surrounding area. Jason Limb said the closest coin shop is in Charleston. And while local pawn and gold shops offer similar gold and silver buying services, Jason Limb said that they offer little in competition.

David Hill Limited could be described as what Spudich calls a "destination store."

"That's a place you're going to drive to buy something," Spudich said.

That's precisely what some of David Hill Limited's customers do, Limb said. He said customers will drive from all over the West Virginia/Ohio/Kentucky area.

"People come from Beckley, Charleston, Ashland, and they pass every place to come here," Jason Limb said.

What's more, he said, customers who have not been to the shop in several years will still make their way back to the store on occasion.

"Our phone number has been the same for over 30 years," Jason Limb said, "so even people that haven't seen us in 10 or 15 years, they go to our old location and will still call us, and we direct them here."

Around the corner from Main Street, in a bright yellow house across from the local bank on Central Avenue, Eva "Jean" Spurlock, owner of Genie Inc. Embroidery, monitors the machines that put logos and inscriptions on hats, shirts and other articles of clothing. Her business keeps her busy, she said.

"If we worked 24 hours for the next week, we might get caught up," Spurlock said.

Genie Inc. has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Spurlock said she began in her Barboursville home's kitchen with one machine. Over the years, her business has taken on many ventures, including screen printing. At one point her company designed and constructed baseball caps from fabric.

 "I hired a lot of people," Spurlock said. "But that's not my thing anymore. China can make them for 50 cents each, whereas I couldn't."

Spurlock decided that the embroidery work made the most sense for her operation. Now, with the help of her daughter, Spurlock said Genie Inc. produces mainly industrial embroidery pieces for clients, with the occasional walk-in customer supplementing her work.

"People come here," Spurlock said. "We can work 16 hours a day. We don't really do a lot of advertising. They just know we're here."

Competition for Genie Inc., even in Barboursville's downtown area, abounds. Another embroidery shop opened recently down the street, at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue.

"There's been five [embroidery] businesses go in, four more around here close," Spurlock said.  "The more that goes in, the busier we get."

Part of Genie Inc's success could be in experience. Spurlock said she has been doing embroidery work for over 45 years. In that time, she has been able to build a strong client base and win the trust of her customers.

Spudich, the Marshall professor, notes that small businesses are in a unique position that allows them to win the admiration of their customers. Experience may be one that sets them apart.

"You have to earn your customers' respect," Spudich said. "Big business just want numbers."

Many small business owners interviewed for this article call Barboursville or nearby towns their home. Some, like Childers, the pet salon owner, have lived and grew up in the town. Others, like Gloria Limb, the quilt store employee, have lived and worked in the area a majority of their lives. Most agree that the town is a great place to run a business. 

Save for the occasional complaint about parking -- Main Street, for instance, has only a few dozen parking spaces in front of the shops featured in this story -- most business owners and employees said Barboursville's downtown offers an advantageous location coupled with its small-town feel.

"Barboursville is the best little village in West Virginia. And everyone knows that," Spurlock, the embroidery shop owner, said. "And it really is. It's just a convenient place."

In spite of the competition offered by big chains on Route 60 and the Huntington Mall -- and, in some cases, even from fellow small business owners in the Village -- business owners say they'll keep trying to succeed.

"It's a competitive world," Limb said. "We are going to make sure we stay here because we love it here."


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