Niche stores can flourish

If prospective small businesses can learn one lesson from Wells
Big and Tall in Marion – who recently announced it would be closing
after almost 50 years – it’s be special.

The Wells family moved to Marion from California in 1966 and
opened Wells California Clothing, a used clothing store. The
store’s focus eventually changed to new men’s and ladies’ wear,
buying clothes from the then-flourishing gar-ment district in St.
Louis.

When current owner, Sabrina Yearack, joined her family’s
business in 1988, she persuaded her father Chuck to again shift the
store’s direction and move exclusively into big and tall
clothing.

And that course of action was very successful for Wells Big and
Tall. They flourished in an era of big box stores and malls by
offering a quality, specialized product at a great price.

But nowadays, big and tall clothing is becoming more common
place at larger retailers and the market is not as special-ized as
it once was.

“The quality products are harder to come by and if you do get
them, they’re at a price,” Yearack said. “And my customers don’t
want to pay that anymore and I get that. Everybody’s trying to save
money and clothing is the last thing people need today with the
trends what they are as far as dressing.”

Yearack said with the cost of goods going up – because of the
price of cotton and transportation – it’s harder for her to make a
profit. She’s seen too many of her peers go into debt trying to
keep their businesses afloat and decided it was better to get out
“while the getting’s good.”

“I’ve never borrowed any money to keep my business going, and
now’s not the time to start, not in this economy,” Yearack
said.

However, Yearack said someone could make a go of her business if
they were willing to make less money, work hard and keep overhead
low.

“There’s always room for small business, but in a small
business, there’s not as much room for profit-ability,” Yearack

Many small independent businesses in Southern Illinois continue
to find their niche and do well, despite a lackluster econ-omy and
lots of competi-tion.

My Favorite Toys is an independently-owned toy store that opened
in the University Mall in Carbondale six years ago. Just recently,
they opened a second location in the Times Square Mall in Mount
Vernon.

Samuel Cox, owner of My Favorite Toys, said any specialty retail
store has to be all about customer service. Cox said you need to
know your product well enough to not be a nui-sance to a customer
when they walk in.

“When you can be genu-ine in that, people see it,” Cox said.
“They’ll go away appreciating what you do and not feeling like
they’ve been browbeaten.”

Another key point of op-erating your own business, Cox said, is
being true to who you are as a store and not falling for the latest
fad.

“Every time there’s some hot trend based on a certain license or
movie, the temptation is to jump into those things and to be more
than what we believe we should be. In that same regard, there are
so many new gizmos and video games and we’ve said from the start
that’s not the kind of store we are.”

Russ Breading, owner of Breading’s Shoes in Mur-physboro, has
seen trends come and go in his 45 years in business.

While large chain stores have hurt sales over the years,
Breading doesn’t really feel they are in the same business.

“We do things Wal-Mart doesn’t do,” Bread-ing said.

In fact, Breading feels this is a good time for small
businesses. His sales of work boots and women’s shoes are strong.
Breading said the biggest problem is the lack of factories
producing quality material. He can remember a time when there were
40 shoe facto-ries on one street in St. Louis.

The key to Breading’s success and longevity is offering a
quality product, but also forming relationships with his customers
over the years.

“You have to build your business,” Breading said. “I don’t care
if you’re in the mall in Carbondale or the mall in Marion, you have
to build your busi-ness and it doesn’t come overnight.”

But most importantly, Breading said, you have to really enjoy
your job.

“Some people are in the retail business who shouldn’t be in the
retail business,” Breading said. “To wait on customers today,
you’ve got to like what you do.”

[email protected]

618-351-5805

On Twitter: @BrentStewartSI

 

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