Hard Working and Adapting: Keys to ‘Staying Power’ for Downtown Merchants
“Do it right from the beginning. That first impression as people walk in is so important. Give it your all, and they will come back. They will remember the pleasant experience.”
– Advice from the owners of Caniche
Long-time Salisbury downtown merchants say that the key to their “staying power” is loving their work and loving downtown. Working hard and being willing to adapt to new trends are both part of that “love.”
Take a stroll on South Main Street, and you’ll quickly find several downtown merchants within a block of each other who have earned the right to celebrate their “staying power,” if they could only take the time to step back and look at their achievements. Remember, they are busy, busy people and don’t often step back. They’re in the thick of it.
We all know that statistics of business success are all over the place. One to note is the U.S. Bureau of Labor with a report that approximately 20 percent of new businesses fail in the first two years and 45 percent fail in the first five years.
So, yes, success in downtown Salisbury is worth a pause … a reflection … a pat on the back.
- Caniche (https://www.shopcaniche.com/), a unique shop at 200 S. Main St., describes itself as “A Girl’s Best Friend” with an always interesting collection of apparel, jewelry and fine gifts. This shop is celebrating its 15th year in business.
- Thread Shed Uniforms, at 133 S. Main St., now specializing in work uniforms, has been in business for 45 years.
- Stitchin’ Post Gifts, (http://www.spgifts.com/) at 104 S. Main St., specializes in gifts and ladies’ accessories and apparel. Pam Coffield, the owner, opened her doors in 1975. This business is 45-plus-1 years in the making.
Caniche, which means “poodle” in French, is the work of Lesleigh Drye and Missie Alcorn. They love being part of what they call “the downtown family” and say that this year’s addition of Bell Tower Green will be bringing more people downtown. They see the downtown park emerging when they look out their back door. “The park will be another reason for this town to be a destination place,” says Lesleigh. “We know how special this place is and others will, too.”
They describe their “staying power” as “continuing to evolve and continuing to strive to do what is important to customers. Customer service is our number one priority … being there to make sure that the customer has a positive experience,” Lesleigh says.
They opened their doors knowing that they had to identify what makes Caniche special, and they acknowledge that the niche is a constant challenge. “Being in a small town, you have a lot of repeat customers,” says Lesleigh. “You have to change your product regularly and keep it fresh. You’d be surprised at how generous people are in gift-giving and how much thought that they put into their gifts.
“We have a really nice blend of gifts, apparel, and jewelry that is affordable,” says Lesleigh. “For instance, if you are going somewhere for the weekend, you can find a great hostess gift and even a new outfit to lift your spirits and make you feel good.”
When COVID hit, Caniche changed its business plan. The changes included adding an online purchase presence, making calls to customers, sending photos of options, and offering delivery. “We try to reach customers where they are. They have been very receptive and supportive,” says Lesleigh.
“We live in a very special community,” she says. “We had to close for six weeks, but we were here every day, taking phone orders, texting, sending pictures. Customers told us, ‘You will make it. We will make sure of it.’ We are very appreciative of our customers. We have a community that understands how important shopping local is for the downtown to survive.”
The Caniche owners welcome other businesses to downtown. Their advice: “Do it right from the beginning. That first impression as people walk in is so important. Give it your all, and they will come back. They will remember the pleasant experience.”
THREAD SHED UNIFORMS
Dave and Cindy Loflin have owned the Thread Shed in the unique 1898 Bell Block building for 45 years. Dave is a downtowner almost from birth and still enjoying being part of downtown every day. His parents, Arnold and Evelyn Loflin, were partners with Charles and Louis Ketner in Central State Beauty College, a downtown staple for years.
“I like the feel of downtown as a shopper and as a merchant. It’s important that we show the younger generation that a downtown can work and does work,” he says. “The downtown has always been the hub of any city. We’re fortunate to have a wonderful Historic Foundation that moves us forward but preserves the uniqueness.”
Recently, the Loflins sold their building to Bill and Cora Greene, who own the downtown bookstore building and plan to restore the original second and third floors of the Bell Block building into downtown living space.
THE ‘WORK’ MARKET
The Loflins aren’t going anywhere. They are leasing their storefront and will continue meeting the challenge of an evolving specialty business. Today, they specialize in work uniforms and boots for police, fire, emergency service, businesses, banks, and others, along with embroidery and printing. Originally, the shop specialized in apparel, thus the name “Thread” because of the popularity of calling clothing “threads” in the ’70s. Over the years, they handled school and Scout uniforms and formal wear, but have now zeroed in on the “work” market.
Change is important to a business that wants to maintain “staying power,” along with the right staff who pays close attention to the business model, Dave says. “It’s not a given success story. It’s something that you work on every single day,” he says. “We sell product, but we are problem-solvers. We are full service on anything we do.”
He, too, welcomes new businesses downtown and offers this advice: “It takes hard work. You have to put the time in and listen to your customers. Give them the best items at the best prices that you can, and they will appreciate your business. You will be just fine.”
STITCHIN’ POST GIFTS
Pam Hylton Coffield and her mother, Margaret Hylton, started Stitchin’ Post Gifts, after finding themselves out of jobs one morning when they arrived at work. They were working at National Fabrics at the original Towne Mall on East Innes Street (now Towne Creek Commons ). The morning of “the end,” they found the doors locked and the store cleared out. “They had shut the business down overnight and did not tell us,” Pam says. “That catapulted us into starting our own business. We looked at property at Rowan Mall and Towne Mall but that didn’t pan out.” Today, Stitchin’ Post Gifts is a downtown fixture, located on the Square in an 1860 building that retains its original wood ceiling, brick walls, and pine floor.
Pam knows all about “staying power” and she, too, welcomes new businesses downtown. “We have a really good group of shops downtown,” she says. “Every boutique is different. The gift shops are unique from each other. I don’t see anyone as a competitor; I see them as a complement.”
“I would never discourage anyone from following their dream,” she says. “Just keep your head straight and don’t overextend.” Here’s her straight-from-the-heart advice to future downtowners:
- Always do the right thing.
- Do what you say you are going to do. If you can’t, tell them.
- Make customers happy. “If a refund is outside the return period, remember that every situation is different,” she says. “If they want a different color or an item you are out of, call and get it. Make them feel good. Our customers are good friends, and we love that.”
- Be honest; don’t cheat.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Ask tons of questions and don’t feel bad about it.
- Be in touch with your inner voice. It’s important.
- A smile and personality will open many doors. You will go many places.
- Maintain consistency. “Stick to your hours. Don’t let your hours be crazy. Customers will never remember different hours. Don’t close early on a slow Saturday afternoon, if you have advertised that you are open to 5.”
She reminds would-be shop owners of the huge commitment of time. “It’s 24/7 for me. I never stop. It’s hard for me to turn it off. You need to understand the commitment before jumping in.”
She is a strong believer in marketing and giving back to your community. “A lot of people think that with this many years under your belt, you don’t need marketing, but I need to keep on marketing as much as ever, especially in today’s world,” she says.
Stitchin’ Post Gifts involves charities with its promotions, such as a recent “Love Your Pet” event with 100 percent of profits going to charity. The shop has been involved in promotions for the homeless shelter, the Battered Women’s Shelter, child abuse prevention, Alzheimer’s Disease causes, the Cancer Society, and others. Pam has served on the Salisbury City Council.
LESSON IN LIFE
Pam says that a good financial background helps keep the doors open, and she credits her parents with teaching her that. Instead of an allowance, her dad, Wallas Loflin, took young Pam to Home Savings and Loan and opened an account in her name with $25 in it. “He wanted me to see how the money would grow,” she recalls. “It was a huge lesson in life. Watch the pennies. Watch the money. Be aware of what you are buying. Never spend more than you take in.”
She also had some good advice from a vendor in the early days. “One of my very first sales reps told me, ‘Don’t expect to make money in the first three years. Put the money back in the business.” And I thought, ‘How am I going to pay my bills if I don’t take a salary?’ So, I took a part-time job to help me get through the first three years. He was right.”
Stitchin’ Post Gifts is all about “the new hot thing,” Pam says. At the start, instead of opening a dress shop, Pam and her mother grabbed on to the cross-stitch craze that originated in Denmark but was exploding in America. She calls it “humble beginnings,” those years when they taught hundreds of needlework classes — knitting, crocheting, macrame, latch hook rugs.
“Women went back to work in the mid-’80s and needlework interest waned. Our next hot trend was twist beads. That introduced me into another world — country gifts,” she says. In other words, gifts involving ducks, cows, pigs, and other animals. In the ’90s, the shop became the place of collectibles — Beanie Babies, gnomes, Tom Clark, Snow Babies. Then, “the collectible market died overnight,” she says.
Following all these trends, Pam says that she knew that if she didn’t diversify, she was going to be dead in the water. She moved to the t-shirt craze of the early 2000s, and that has led to the ladies’ boutique of today. Even that has taken on new meaning. “I never thought that I would be selling men’s shoes, but the world has gone casual,” she says. She’s selling Hey Dude Shoes with the same enthusiasm and customer support that has driven the other “hot items” through the years.
MASTERING COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS
COVID and its restrictions have been “an out-of-body experience,” Pam says. The first days of the store being closed for six weeks in spring of 2020, Pam arrived as usual. The dark store with no customers or staff was strange, but Pam found she couldn’t keep up. “Customers were calling and wanting merchandise, and I was handing purchases out the door and mailing orders. She brought back staff to help, and they dived into “Facebook Live.”
“It’s been a life-saver with communicating with customers,” Pam says. “And it brought a lot of people back into our store after we re-opened.” They set up a studio on the third floor of their building, and every other Tuesday at 7 p.m. customers join them online. One staff member is on camera modeling clothing and showing merchandise; another manages comments and questions coming in.
“This was like starting another business,” says Pam. They set up Pay Pal and do invoices and camera work with a cell phone. “This is a good tool for my customers who have fulltime jobs. It gives them an option to shop with us, and we ship to their homes,” says Pam.
Another challenge faced … another diversification of the business model … even in trying times.
Rowan County knows its food! Blessed with abundant water supplies from creeks and rivers and good soil in much of the county, our county thrives on and celebrates its long history of farming. Nowhere is that more evident in mid-summer than a drive through western Rowan, where fields of tall green corn meet each other, covering the landscape.
There may be “money on the ground” coming toward Rowan County in The American Jobs Plan, now before Congress, and it is good news for all of us who travel on roads and bridges that the North Carolina Department of Transportation has declared structurally deficient.