Christmas decorations at Carr Mill Mall beckon customers to start their shopping early this holiday season. Photo by Kyle Curtis
With the Christmas season fast approaching, Carrboro residents face the sometimes difficult decision of where to shop. Carrboro small business owners have a much more daunting task at hand; convincing residents to spend their money on Main Street rather than at the mall or Wal-Mart.
This Christmas season will be the twenty-ninth for the Carr Mill Mall. Located in an old cotton mill in downtown Carrboro, Carr Mill doesn’t feel like a normal mall. The floors are still old wooden planks and the wide, arching windows bathe shoppers in comfortable sunlight during the afternoon shopping hours. Boutiques and specialty shops are the mainstays at Carr Mill, along with Elmo’s diner and the Townsend Bertram Outdoor Outfitters.
Everything is not all peaches and cream for small businesses these days in Carrboro, though. Small business owners have faced difficult times in recent years as they struggle to remain competitive with corporations. Typically, a corporation can supply a product at a lower cost to the consumer than a privately owned small business. Therefore, the privately owned business needs another angle to attract the consumer.
Bill Simmons owns Head over Heels, a hair salon at Carr Mill. He says that he is the only remaining owner still in business from when Carr Mill opened in 1977. Staying in business and remaining fiscally competitive is a real challenge for the small business.
The picture is not all bleak for these businesses, though. Jayne Coats at Shades of Blue characterized Carrboro as “an activist community dedicated to buying local products and keeping Carrboro dollars in Carrboro.”
Anna Pepper, owner of The Painted Bird, showed off some local artwork she is selling. Pepper said she tries to keep her customers happy by offering things that are distinct and have been largely produced by local artisans and craftsmen. The Painted Bird sells a variety of items, ranging from women’s clothing to artwork and novelty items.
Pepper and The Painted Bird moved to Carr Mill four years ago from University Square in Chapel Hill. She had been at University Square for 28 years, but grew dissatisfied with some of the changes that had taken place and decided to try her luck in Carrboro at Carr Mill. Pepper said she really likes the new location, especially the sunlight from the large windows.
Having been in business for such a long time, Pepper had some valuable insights into the world of the small business owner, as well as the customer. She identified three primary customer types. The first is the early shopper that really wants to shop around and make sure he or she is getting the right present. This type of shopper will often take notes on the merchandise and return later to make the purchase. The second type is the after mall-sale shopper. This shopper will arrive on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, burned out from the mall sales of the day before. Finally, the third shopper of the season will be the last minute shopper. This shopper will arrive in the last two weeks before Christmas. The last two weeks before Christmas are the busiest for Carr Mill, and the stores stay open until around 8 or 9 o’clock instead of the normal six.
Pepper is a little bit worried about how this season will go at The Painted Bird. She says that customer service is a big selling point for her store, and that she always tries to staff with “people that like people.” She said that there is a fine line between offering good customer service and getting a little pushy. Pepper says that if you go too far and oversell your product you can alienate the customer and they will leave and never come back, so you have to be careful.
Worrying Pepper in particular about this Christmas season is the high cost of gas. More on gas means less disposable income to spend on gifts, which could really hurt the small business this Christmas. Furthermore, Pepper expressed that online shopping is becoming more popular and was uncertain what role that would play in the future of her business.
Everyone knows what is available at the mall. This Christmas season, spend a little time shopping at a small business as well. You may find a great gift that you would otherwise never have found. You will definitely help strengthen the community by keeping Carrboro dollars in Carrboro. Even if it costs a couple extra bucks, it is worth it.