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Small businesses facing the coming shopping season

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The Black Friday shopping weekend last year brought sales that surpassed expectations at Sports Card Heroes on Main Street.

With a new location across the street, owner Rick Currence is looking forward to the 2012 holiday season, hopeful sales will again surpass projections with new products translating into additional sales.

"But you never know," Currence said standing inside his store. "It's so hard to predict."

While Black Friday attracts shoppers to big box stores and the Mall in Columbia, Currence is extending his hours Friday and opening on Sunday, which is not typical for him.

"It's possibly our biggest weekend of the year," he said.

Also aiding Currence for the weekend will be American Express' national initiative Small Business Saturday,which encourages holiday shoppers to shop at local small businesses instead of visiting their mall Nov. 24.

Laurel officials are promoting the event for the second year since American Express first started Small Business Saturday in 2010, and have even printed reusable shopping bags that promote shopping in Laurel.

Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said it's hard to judge how successful the event has been in Laurel without speaking to every store owner.

"Our expectation is to remind people how important local, small business is to Laurel and to all business," Moe said.

But some local business owners like Rainbow Florist's Debbie Zook are not expecting a bump from the weekend event.

"It does nothing for me," she said. "It's a regular Saturday for me."

Downtown Laurel business stalled

January will mark 28 years in business for Zook and Rainbow Florist, but business has never been worse.

"I don't want to sound negative, but it's just very hard," she said.

The poor economy and competition through online florist sites have cut business to the point where Zook has seven employees, compared to 22 employees 13 years ago.

"The Internet has hurt local business; it's just a convenience to order online," she said.

Matthew Coates, chairman of the Laurel Board of Trade and owner of Photography by Madison on Main Street, said many businesses downtown are necessity stores that have been hurt by the economy.

"Right now I would say a lot of folks are having tough times," he said.

Coates is hopeful that the Laurel Mall revitalization will help small businesses by keeping people in the area to shop instead of traveling to Anne Arundel County or Columbia.

"I think you're going to see a thriving community will come back and people will stay here, shop here in Laurel. That's going to make a big difference," he said.

Coates said the community needs to support small business instead of shopping at the big-box stores and that small business owners in return need to provide the utmost customer service.

But the effect Small Business Saturday could have is unknown among store owners, according to Coates.

"Right now, they (business owners) are hoping that folks will just come out and don't forget about them," he said.

Moe acknowledged the times are difficult for Main Street business owners dependent upon their store and the stock they're trying to sell.

"It's been tough and it's still tough out there," he said. "People are still struggling, people are still looking for jobs."

Improving the vitality of the Laurel business community will depend upon educating residents on the importance of small businesses and by continuing to promote Laurel's small businesses, Moe said.

The city government has targeted the Route 1 corridor and Main Street area through grant programs, including façade improvements, to help as well.

But most important, Moe said, is to listen to the business community for their feedback.

"As a local government, we need to listen and adjust accordingly," he said.

While some businesses may be struggling in Laurel, Currence said sales have been up over the past month with new products and the new location.

Currence and his brother chose Laurel more than 20 years ago to open their card shop because of its centralized location to so many major roads.

"You can get to Laurel from so many places within 20 to 30 minutes," he said.

Even though business could always be better, Currence said it also could have been a lot worse.

"It's been about what I expected it to be," he said of his 21 years in Laurel. "Laurel's been good to us."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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