Recession in the Village

Merchants wait out downturn

RECESSION IN THE VILLAGE
This is the first in a series of articles looking at how the unstable economy is affecting various aspects of Yellow Springs life, including businesses, nonprofits, the arts, housing and schools.

In a village that has seen five retail shops close in the last six months, it is no small feat to keep a business thriving, especially during a recession. A sampling of business owners interviewed last week agreed for the most part that trade has been slow this whole past year, and some have been hit by 10 to 25 percent losses over the past few months. Some still find the courage to open or expand, while the majority look for ways to minimize losses until the spring brings more shoppers to town and, they hope, some better news from the economic bellwether.

Among the businesses that have seen a downturn the past year, the average is a 15 percent reduction in business. Ohio Silver suffered an 11 percent decrease in sales from 2007 to 2008, much of it due to a significant drop in 2008 holiday sales, owner Marcia Walgren said last week. She thought the country had hit a recession in August 2007, when sales “really changed,” she said. But last year’s numbers proved it. And as Walgren is a jewelry dealer who trades in metal, the fluctuating price of silver, which went from a longtime steady price of $6 an ounce to anywhere between $12–$21 an ounce, has made business planning difficult.

Glen Garden Gifts has also seen about a 10 percent drop in overall business in the past year, Julie Quinones said last week. This past Valentine’s Day was down 20 percent over the previous year, due to the economy and the fact that the holiday fell on a weekend, when people often choose to eat out instead of buy flowers.

“We’re down a smidge, but it’s not as bad as I thought the media was saying it would be,” Quinones said. “I didn’t have flowers left over after the holidays, and in giftware we did about the same as last year [2007].”

According to the calculations of Bonadies Glass Studio owner Valerie Spinning, business has been going downhill for the last five years, culminating in an alltime low in November 2008 when her store did about 60 percent less business than the previous November. Overall, Bonadies is doing about 30 percent less business this year compared to five years ago, Spinning said, including this past holiday when business sank by about 10 percent, she said. Though it’s hard to say how she will do in the current year, Spinning experienced another first last Wednesday, Feb. 18, when no one but the mail carrier and another shop owner stepped foot in her store, located in a visible spot across from the Winds Cafe at the north entrance to the village.

“This is the first time that has ever happened here,” she said. “Even in a snow storm, I have people walk in.”

The Import House on Dayton Street experienced a 10 percent drop in sales in the last year, including “the worst Christmas we’ve seen ever,” owner Don Beard said of the 2008 holiday. And Tom’s Market also has been holding down orders to weather the soft sales the grocer has experienced since the holidays, store manager David Trollinger said this week. A couple of weeks ago the business began sending employees home in the early evening if customer traffic was light, he said.

Some restaurant profits down

Some of the food and drink establishments in the village are also experiencing a challenging business year. The Sunrise Cafe, which has steadily increased its business each year since opening nearly five years ago, experienced a 20 to 25 percent downturn, largely during the latter half of last year, cafe owner Brian Rainey said last week. Traffic in the restaurant is down, and the volume of food customers are ordering is also down, he said.

“We’re hanging on, but we definitely need to bounce back,” Rainey said. “If it’s July and I’m still doing the same numbers I’m doing now, I’m going to have some big problems.”

Winds Cafe co-owner Mary Kay Smith saw business fall off last summer and then take a nose dive in November, causing the restaurant to come in 8 to 10 percent under the previous year’s profits. The holidays in 2008 were also down, partly because businesses in the region weren’t holding staff holiday meals at the Winds, an easy way for businesses to economize. But the other main hardship for the restaurant has been the increased cost of food caused by the rise in fuel prices, which Smith said the restaurant can’t just pass on to the customer.

Smith has seen a lot of ups and downs during her 30 years in business, “but this is a little different,” she said last week. “It seems people are frightened of spending money and are doing things differently now.” Those trends have also forced the Winds to adapt, which Smith sees less as a temporary move and more like a new way of doing business. Starting in January, the Winds began changing its menu every two months, instead of every month. The restaurant will also offer more small plate meals and affordable wines and will make its fixed price bistro menu available three days a week instead of one. The aim is partly to cultivate weeknight diners and partly just to economize.

“I caution anyone that thinks they’re making short-term changes,” Smith said. “I think people will start spending again at some point, but I don’t think it’s ever going back to the way it was.”

Peach’s Bar & Grill experienced a small dip last year, owner Don Beard said this week, but the restaurant had to work a lot harder to maintain revenue than it had in the past. With $1 million in overall annual sales, the business went down by $19,000 from the previous year, due to a drop in liquor sales that was not quite made up for by a rise in food sales. With a menu that largely consists of food items under $10, people who perhaps can no longer afford higher-priced restaurants can still afford Peach’s, Beard said.

The Dayton Street Gulch has done steady business over the year, and even did more business over the holiday 2008 than the previous year. The pub also had a “record breaking” Valentine’s Day weekend this year, manager Sally Malone said.

“Business has been good — fortunately we’re the local hangout, and we don’t depend on the tourists,” Malone said this week.

Though Current Cuisine had less demand for catering services and more cake and tray orders last year than the previous year, overall business has been steady to slightly up from 2007, according to business owner Karyn Stillwell-Current.

A few retailers steady, expanding

Some retailers are also holding steady, such as Living Green, which turned a year old in November. Customers do seem to be buying fewer items and spending less when they buy, owner C.J. Williams said last week. She has heard shoppers talk in the store about “cutting back,” “being more practical,” and “instead of giving gifts, focus on family and food,” which actually reflects the “reuse, recycle, reduce” philosophy the store promotes, she said. But villagers have supported the store for daily items such as recycled paper products and lightbulbs, which Williams can order by the case with a discount, she said. And she has come up with other promotions such as special ordering building materials for contractors (sun domes and bamboo fences) and undercutting Internet prices on regional items such as E-cell rechargeable batteries from Michigan and the Earthopoly game made in Cincinnati.

It has also helped that the property owner reduced the rent for the business due to the economic hardships business owners are suffering across the country, Williams said.

“He said ‘what’s good for you is good for me’ and I was touched — it was so refreshing, and it goes back to what Obama is talking about,” she said. “It matches our spiritual approach to the business, which is working for us.”

“People will start spending again…but I don’t think it’s ever going back to the way it was.”
—Mary Kay Smith, owner, The Winds

Super-Fly Comics & Games, which opened in 2007, has enjoyed a modest but steady 10 percent increase in business over the past year and a half. This past holiday owners Anthony Barry and Thacher Cleveland recorded a 10–15 percent increase in sales over the previous holiday, and then a 50 percent increase this January over last January, which was likely linked to the expansion and grand reopening sale when the business moved next door into the space formerly occupied by Dingleberry’s.

But Barry and Cleveland have also worked to create a calendar of gaming tournaments and events that draw a regular stream of customers into the store and hopefully keep them coming back, Cleveland said last week. And the business partners have reinvested nearly everything they’ve made to grow the business by about 20 to 30 percent to fill out the new space.

And despite the widespread economic worry last fall, when Global Gallery closed up shop on Xenia Avenue, building owner Jennifer Horner seized the opportunity to try her luck with Eden World, which opened earlier this month. Trying to maintain a bright outlook without being naive, Horner knows her decision was risky and that the market has changed. But she has ideas for operating a new kind of service-oriented retail shop that connects consumers to the de-stressing and relaxation they’re really looking for. And Horner is counting on the progressive, innovative and evolving nature of Yellow Springs to help her lead “the transformation of business into a new age.”

Starflower Natural Foods also chose to open in November, even after a different health food store in the same location had closed over the summer after two years of business. Starflower’s sales have been better than the other store, which she managed, perhaps because Neuman has managed to run the business almost completely by herself and has reinvested everything back into growing her store, she said. She also guesses that customers’ commitment to eating healthy is not tied to their pocketbooks.

Mixed reviews for health, beauty

That has not been the experience of osteopathic doctor Suzanne Croteau, who reopened her office in Yellow Springs after two years in Centerville. The health care practice, which no longer takes insurance, has experienced financial strain because patients who pay for their own health care have cut back due to the economy, according to business manager Beverly Frances. She is scheduling a third of the patients she used to book for the office, Frances said. Croteau’s business in Centerville, where she sees patients two days a week, is down 20 percent.

“We’re making sacrifices in our own lives; we’re really struggling,” she said.

Wavelength Beauty Wellness Centre began feeling the effects of declining business in 2006, when Aveda product sales began to fall, and continued to flag by as much as 30 percent over this holiday, business manager Kristl Mapes said last week. While retail accounts for just under a third of total revenues, overall business went down by about 5 percent last year, according to Wavelength’s owner Gary Glaser.

Some operations, such as Town Drug, seem to lie outside the economic crisis and are able to prosper in spite of the trends. According to Town Drug pharmacist Tim Rogers. Since he came to the pharmacy in 1999, business has doubled, and for the past several years has remained quite steady. The pharmacy has been hurt a little by insurance companies that mandate patients mail order their prescriptions, and Rogers doesn’t discount the fact that if more people continue to lose their jobs and insurance coverage, the pharmacy will feel the effects. But for now, Town Drug can still compete with and often beat the drug prices at Krogers, Rite Aid and Walgreens, which keeps business here going.

Countering the drain

While they are challenged, businesses do have ways of adapting to tough times. Glen Garden cut down its flower orders and reduced employee hours to conserve resources for the time. Spinning now almost always mans her own shop and has taken a big cut in her own pay to keep the business running. Peach’s is trying to advertise more and book events that draw bigger crowds, while Rainey at Sunrise is creating less expensive menu options and sometimes doing his own dishes.

Perhaps the response is working, or maybe the economy is rebounding somewhat, as some businesses have seen a glimmer of hope in sales numbers so far this year, even in the dismal months of January and February. While the rest of the nation supposedly experienced a 1 percent growth rate in January, Ohio Silver’s Walgren said her store did 12 percent better than last January. And the Winds has done 1 percent better this January than the previous one, Smith said.

The Winds has focused on really listening to local patrons and catering to their needs. Living Green also wants to take customers’ suggestions and to make the store a place where locals can find the things they need, Williams said. Sunrise is playing the same waiting game while trying to implement new ideas to serve the local clientele.

“The weather always breaks, and we’re just going to hang on and keep hoping things will get better,” Rainey said. “Especially with the Antioch traffic reduced, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen this year.”

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