Merchants hope shoppers will keep their money home for the holidays

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 2004

Picture this: A dollar bill that can fly like Santa and the reindeer. From your pocket to a business on Main Street. From the pocket of an employee who works in that Main Street business to a restaurant on John R. Junkin Drive. From the checkbook of the owner of that restaurant to the local bank where he does business. From a bank employee’s purse to the collection plate at her church on Sunday.

Multiply that dollar bill by many thousands that will be spent by Natchez-area shoppers during the holiday season and just imagine the shower of greenbacks.

Mary Flach, manager of the Natchez McRae’s store, can picture that. She does not hesitate to get on her soapbox when it comes to the promotion of hometown shopping.

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&uot;If my husband Dennis wants binoculars, I go to Sports Center in Natchez to get them,&uot; Flach said. &uot;Shopping at home provides jobs at home.&uot;

Exactly right, said Tammi Mullins, director of the Downtown Development Association and another outspoken advocate for shopping at home.

&uot;We’re all friends here. We want our friends to stay here and make a living,&uot; Mullins said. &uot;And it’s just as important whether it’s five dollars you’re spending or five hundred dollars.

&uot;If you spend money at Darby’s; she might spend it at Pig Out Inn. The dollar keeps going round and round. But if you take it out of town, it’s gone forever,&uot; Mullins said.

Flach thinks it’s the essence of

being a community. &uot;If people don’t shop at home, there won’t be a community,&uot; she said. &uot;McRae’s has been here for 26 years and we employ 100 people. Shopping at home provides jobs at home.&uot;

Taking a shopping trip out of town can be a pleasure, she said. But the people who do all their shopping on such trips are not putting back into the community what they get from it.

Mullins said she urges people to think of Natchez shops first and to try to find products they want at home before deciding the items aren’t available in Natchez.

&uot;Give the local businesses a chance first,&uot; Mullins said. &uot;I think our merchants try really hard to keep up with the latest trends, and I think many people would be surprised how easy it is to find what they want right here in Natchez.&uot;

Adults who always shop out of town are sending the wrong message to their children, said Laura Godfrey, CEO of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce.

&uot;A lot of people don’t realize that when they don’t shop at home they are making a statement to their children that it’s cool to shop somewhere else,&uot; Godfrey said. &uot;Children need to be taught the value of shopping at home.&uot;

Like Mullins, Godfrey said the quality and quantity of merchandise in Natchez is surprising. &uot;For a town our size, I can’t believe the quality of stores we have here,&uot; Godfrey said. &uot;We may not have The Gap or some of the ones they call the big box stores, but we have the same items.&uot;

Keeping the dollars at home protects that quality and quantity of merchandise Godfrey describes, Mary Flach said. She knows first hand how it works at her own store.

&uot;When people shop out of town, it takes away from our gross margin; it takes away from the volume of goods you can offer,&uot; Flach said. &uot;I personally love Natchez and want it to succeed.&uot;

Stores like McRae’s and like Wade Craig’s Sports Center put big emphasis on customer service. The personal relationships between customers and retail store employees are another reason Natchez residents should shop at Natchez stores, Flach and Craig agreed.

&uot;We try to keep a hometown feeling in our store even though we’re a big store,&uot; Flach said.

At Sports Center, with locations in the Natchez Mall and on Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, Craig said customer service is what the business is all about. And local customers are his most important shoppers.

&uot;We’ve geared the store to local shoppers,&uot; he said. &uot;We give personal service. We have people who know the products, who can help customers who come in looking for something but might not know the differences in certain products.&uot;

If Mary Flach came looking for those binoculars for her husband, for example, she might not know that the most powerful are not always the best.

&uot;There are hundreds of types of binoculars,&uot; Craig said. &uot;Most people don’t know the differences, but there is much more to it than just the monocular power. Some are drop resistant; some are moisture resistant. You can have plastic or glass lenses.&uot;

His more than 40 employees know their products, Craig said. They can help parents select the right baseball glove for a child, guide buyers to the right selection of outdoor clothing, explain why one ball is better than another or one ice chest more appropriate for the buyer’s needs.

&uot;We’ve tried hard to keep the local customer with our product knowledge,&uot; Craig said. &uot;And we know our customers. We can speak to them when they come into the store and we can enjoy their coming into the store even if they don’t buy anything.&uot;

Sports Center has expanded into Vicksburg and has expanded its business with high schools throughout Mississippi and Louisiana, now selling uniforms and equipment to more than 300 schools.

Craig said thinking about ways to build up a business is critical to success. &uot;You just have to be aggressive and try things you haven’t done before,&uot; he said. &uot;That’s what we do, always trying to reach more people as customers. That allows us to hire more people and increase our payroll.&uot;

Laura Godfrey said that is how a community survives and grows. &uot;It’s critical at this point that we shop within the community. The only way we can grow is to keep our money at home,&uot; she said.