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Small business owners learning ways to survive recession

When Patricia Lambright arrives at work each day, she prays. She places her hands on the wall of her downtown Brooksville clothing store and asks God to bless her neighbor's business. And next door, at the Rising Sun Cafe, they pray back for her.

Around Hernando County these days, businesses are trying just about anything to stay afloat.

For some, it's prayer. For others, it's cutting back on things or focusing on customer service. Others nurture strong relationships they've developed with customers over many decades.

With 10.9 percent unemployment, Hernando County has the second-highest rate of job-seeking residents in the state. The housing boom, which brought thousands of homes and jobs into the region is long gone. The median sale price of homes in Hernando has dropped about 40 percent, and one in every 176 homes is in foreclosure.

With the economy on life support, people are scared, and each decision has a potential trickle-down effect. If enough people decide to save money by skipping their afternoon coffee, someone could pay for it with their job.

Lambright has owned Patricia's Boutique for 18 years. With economic doom on everyone's minds these days, her daily routine has taken on new meaning. And it just might be working. January sales were up over 2008, and Internet traffic is way up.

But other established businesses are having to adjust. Larie DeWitt Hensley of Mallie Kyla's Cafe in Brooksville has tried to save money in ways customers won't notice, like washing her own towels instead of sending them out.

"For us, service is what is going to make a difference," said Hensley.

But things aren't the same, even at a hot lunch spot like Mallie Kyla's.

"There isn't a wait right now," Hensley said. "Local people need to come and support us so we can survive."

Customer service is also a high priority at Register Chevrolet on Cortez Boulevard west of Brooksville, which has been in business in Hernando County for more than 80 years.

"You feel good about being here after you've gone," said Tommy Wiley, Register's general manager. Seventy-eight percent of their business is repeat business and referrals.

"When times are bad, people aren't buying new cars," said Wiley. "They service what they have." The service business has been good these past few months.

Register also makes sure people leave feeling well treated and happy with their purchase, whether it's used or brand new.

"When we sell a preowned vehicle, it's a vehicle I would put my mother in to drive to California," said Wiley.

When businesses have to compete more intensively for fewer dollars, every penny counts.

Wiley scours everything, including phone bills. When someone in his office has used the costly 411 directory service too many times, he reminds them of a free service on the Internet.

"You're better to be proactive than reactive," said Justin Crowder of Crowder Brothers Hardware on Spring Hill Drive in Spring Hill. "If that means you need to cut costs before you have to cut costs, do it."

While Crowder has cut back a little on advertising, he also looks for ways to be more efficient. He knows it's a good time to be in the hardware business if he can control his costs.

"We offer a good value," Crowder said. "People can save money by making repairs instead of replacing things. They save fuel by being able to shop closer to home."

Efficiency and value seem to have paid off so far for Crowder. January sales were up over last year. That doesn't include the store's gun business, which has also been doing very well.

Crowder Hardware hasn't had to cut back on employee hours or consider layoffs, either.

A recent federal government report said that Americans are saving more and spending less.

Hernando business owners are hoping they can hold out until that changes.

In the meantime, owners at the Rising Sun Cafe are putting their principles to work. They recently decided to go without TV at home in order to keep an employee working at their cafe.

"Focus on creating jobs for other people and not yourself," said owner Lisa Callea.

Like it or not, she said, we're all in this together.

Small business owners learning ways to survive recession 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 1:19pm]

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