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Independent shops think outside the big box

TAMPA — It has been a less-than-cheerful year for almost all retailers, but the big chains have figured out ways to survive the recession: Lower prices, hold more sales, offer rewards to the best customers.

Tampa's small, independent shops —where profit margins are slim and prices are harder to slash — have found it tough to compete.

On Black Friday, many don't even try.

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year, but independent retailers wonder how much of that traffic, if any, will filter into their stores.

Last year, Trista Page had just one customer at her weeks-old South Tampa custom soap and lotion store, Indigo Bee, at 3205 W Bay to Bay Blvd.

Jennifer Dutkowsky of the eco-friendly Why Not Boutique, at 3217-A S MacDill Ave., didn't fare much better.

This year, "I debated, 'Do I open, do I not?' " Dutkowsky said. "Do people shop boutiques on Black Friday?"

Both Page's and Dutkowsky's shops will be open today, as will most Tampa boutiques and small shops. Instead of doorbuster or one-day-only specials, though, they and many others hope to lure customers over the next several weeks with holiday events, a few sales, grab-and-go gifts and free wrapping.

Then there's the family-friendly environment promised today by Amy Haynie of Tampa Street Market, which is marking "Green Friday" with a storewide sale. The shop at 4715 N Florida Ave., which sells handmade furniture crafted from salvaged materials as well as eco-friendly items and toys, is one of only a few places in Seminole Heights for gift shopping.

Haynie knows that most shoppers will be busy elsewhere. But "we'll have ornament-making for kids and refreshments for people when they come," she said. "We're just trying to keep people shopping independently, giving them a reason to come in other than just the cool stuff we have."

For small retailers, the recession has been "really difficult," Haynie said.

"The big stores advertise constantly," she said. "We don't have an advertising budget. That was definitely the first thing to go."

For newer retailers especially, the question is often, "Am I going to spend $150 on advertising, or am I going to buy more product?" said Dutkowsky, who opened Why Not Boutique last year.

Dutkowsky markets her shop with a blog and a Facebook page and through word of mouth. She has helped gather a group of other South Tampa retailers and boutique owners in an effort to band together for special events, cross-promote and add support. The group has a Facebook page called Shop Local South Tampa.

"Shopping local is the way to go," she said. "It fits in with our 'green' niche.' "

Angela Llewellyn, part of the Shop Local network, hopes that a little extra bling will help bring in the customers today to her Love That! boutique at 4109 S MacDill. She is discounting the popular and pricey jewelry line Otazu for the first time, marking items down from 10 to 40 percent off.

She won't open early, but she plans to stay late, maybe catch some of the crowd that likes to go out for dinner the night after Thanksgiving.

"We'll be here with bells on," Llewellyn said.

On Black Fridays past, during years when his family's Nicholson House was leasing space in a mall, Charlie Purcell would spend long hours hawking ornaments and unique gifts.

Purcell recently reopened his family's shop in Whaley's Plaza at 533 S Howard Ave.

Today will be fairly quiet, he figures, and this holiday season may be harder than most.

Still, "we're in a very good and lucky situation," Purcell said.

"We have the word of mouth to keep us going," he said. "If we didn't have that, it'd be real tough times."

Independent shops think outside the big box 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 3:30am]

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