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Small businesses must find a niche to survive

In August 1988, Barbara Bartlett opened a store in Spring Hill offering discounted shoes and waited for customers to start buying her stock. And waited.

And waited.

Sales at the Shoebox on U.S. 19 were not what she expected them to be, Ms. Bartlett said. "It was the fact that just run-of-the-mill shoes could be bought anywhere," she said.

Those people who did come into the women's shoe shop often were looking for unusual sizes, or special shoes for their hard-to-fit feet. So about six months into its life, the Shoebox changed course.

The store, with its new stock of orthopedic shoes for problem feet and high-quality walking shoes, is now doing brisk business.

Ms. Bartlett said that if she hadn't made the change, "I would have gone under. I would have gone under without any question."

More and more Hernando County merchants are going to have to follow Ms. Bartlett's example in the coming year, said Hal Robinson, executive director of the West Hernando Chamber of Commerce.

Gone are the days, say Robinson and others, when a shopkeeper could simply hang a sign and be guaranteed a slice of the market because the population was growing so quickly. Increased competition coupled with a slowdown in growth means retailers will have to find ways to attract customers to their stores.

"I think it's going to be a year of adjustments. There are a lot of businesses large and small that are going to be shaking out," Robinson said.

Said James Kimbrough, president and chief executive officer of SunBank and Trust Co.: "It will be a belt-tightening year."

Indications are that Hernando businesses will be facing increased

competition. There were a record 7,323 business licenses issued in Hernando County, nearly 500 more than had been issued the year before.

And the Crystal River Mall is scheduled to open in October, drawing off whatever shoppers are not already making regular mall treks to Port Richey or Ocala.

"It's a shakeout time," Robinson said. "We've got a lot of stores in the same businesses." He declined to say where he thought the market was glutted.

But Robinson pointed to the Shoebox as an example of what more merchants are going to have to do to survive: Find a niche of their own.

"I've heard a number of other retailers, the owners of the smaller shops, looking for new angles, new areas, new products to get into," he said.

One of the advantages of filling a niche market is that you don't need to pay the premium rents in a high-visibility plaza, because customers will be willing to come looking for you and your products, Ms. Bartlett said.

Customers are willing to wend their way to the tiny center that houses the Shoebox because the alternative would be driving to Tampa or Clearwater, she said.

Another advantage to specialization is that it fills needs that people have, Ms. Bartlett said. "This morning I delivered a pair of shoes to a gentleman who had spent two years looking for a pair because he takes a 12 1/2 A," she said.

For people with foot problems, finding a store like the Shoebox can be a relief, Ms. Bartlett said.

"I'm telling you, there are more people smiling going out of this store than going out of any other store in town," she said.