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Small Business Saturday offers more intimate shopping experience for those looking to avoid the rush

Small Business Saturday campaign has been catching on in local communities that have always depended on the success of small, independently owned businesses. Megan Olson, manager at Wally & Mel’s and Ali J Boutique in New London, said small town stores feature specialty items and customer service that keeps customers coming back. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

NEW LONDON — Once the dust has cleared from the Black Friday shopping stampede, and before Cyber Monday has people searching the web for online deals, consumers looking for a more intimate shopping experience can find comfort, customer service and some good deals on Small Business Saturday.

Initiated several years ago by American Express, the Small Business Saturday campaign has been catching on in local communities that have always depended on the success of small, independently owned businesses.

While small businesses typically do not rely on one big holiday shopping day to put their finances in the black, calling attention to hometown stores on Small Business Saturday provides an opportunity for business owners to talk about why shopping local and shopping small has big returns for consumers and their communities.

“You’re keeping your money in the community,” said Rick Norsten, who’s owned and operated Rick’s Cycling and Sports Center in downtown Willmar for 30 years.

His specialty bike shop carries “more depth and more expertise” when it comes to products and knowledge about the merchandise than large stores do, he said.

Shoppers that opt for big-box discount stores are “losing a lot of uniqueness in products by not stopping at the smaller stores,” said Norsten.

Megan Olson, manager at two New London clothing stores — Wally & Mel’s and Ali J Boutique — agrees.

“We give shoppers a variety of merchandise that they can’t get at a big corporate store,” said Olson, adding that customer service is another reason why people like shopping at small stores.

“It’s more personal,” said Olson. “We work one-on-one with the people who shop here.”

People get stuck in a fashion rut, she said. “They come in and say, ‘I’m going out on a date, help me find something,’” she said. “We have a relationship with a lot of customers.”

The number of clothing boutiques, arts and crafts studios, home decorating stores and cafés in New London is expanding, which Olson said helps all the stores be successful.

“Shopping here is different,” said Olson, of the string of small stores in New London. “It’s quaint. It makes you feel all comfy and cozy inside.”

Because there’s a variety of small specialty stores in one small town, Olson said customers are willing to drive to New London from the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Willmar to shop.

Greg Melges, who has owned and operated Mel’s Sport Shop in Spicer for 56 years, said his customers also come from all over the region looking for good hunting and sports equipment and some advice.

“We can maybe give them an answer to the questions they have,” said Melges. The big-box stores “can’t seem to help the people,” he said.

“We sell muzzle loaders and we have a muzzle loader expert here,” said Melges.

The same is true for the archery, guns and fishing equipment they sell. Melges said his employees “do the sport and know how to use the equipment” and can share that knowledge with customers.

Melges, who is 75 years old, has expanded his business nine times over the past five decades.

When people shop locally the money stays in town and is put back into the business, which generates tax revenue that helps the community and schools, said Melges.

Small businesses have to fight the perception that because they’re small they can’t compete on price and quantity of merchandise.

But Norsten said because he has a specialty business, he has a broader variety of bikes than a big-box store.

Norsten said because he is close to the consumer, he’s able to “fit the person with different-sized bikes to make their purchase a lot more enjoyable.”

He’s also able to react more quickly to consumer demands.

“We’re on the pulse of what the consumer is looking for,” said Norsten, adding that his business is doing quite well.

Sometimes not having as much square footage as a warehouse store is a good thing for consumers.

It means customers “don’t have to run around the store looking for somebody to help you,” said Melissa Mord, who owns and operates Mord’s Hardware Hank in New London with her husband, Randy.

Sometimes customers don’t have to get much farther than the front door.

“They just tell us what they want and we go and get it for them and bring it to the counter,” said Mord. “We’re friendly. We’re here to help,” she said. “We’re a small, quaint little store.”

Besides “everyday” and specialty products, Mord’s also provides services such as plumbing and window and screen repairs that large home improvement stores don’t.

Mord’s also has a friendly orange cat named Dusty that they adopted from the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter that roams the aisles and entertains customers with its shopping bag antics.

You don’t see that at a mega-store.

Last year Mord’s had a small line of people waiting to get into the store on Small Business Saturday to catch the big deals on grills. They’ll be offering specials again this year to round out the “hometown shopping experience,” said Mord.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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