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Albany retailers stress importance of shopping locally

Online, big-box shopping threatens survival of mom-and-pops

Capp Council shows off a cocker spaniel puppy at the popular Pets N Pals store in the Albany Mall. Local business owners are urging Southwest Georgians to “shop local” during the busy holiday season. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Capp Council shows off a cocker spaniel puppy at the popular Pets N Pals store in the Albany Mall. Local business owners are urging Southwest Georgians to “shop local” during the busy holiday season. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Nancy Frahlman gets friendly with a pair of pythons at Pets N Pals in the Albany Mall. The family-owned business must compete with big-box and chain outlets to keep its doors open. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Cleve Council will, under intense questioning, admit that he has on rare occasions left Dougherty County.

“I remember going to Sylvester once,” Council, who helps run the popular family-owned Pets N Pals business at the Albany Mall, quipped.

Usually, though, like so many other small business owners in the community, Council, his brother Capp Council and their uncle Charlie Hancock are at home, minding the store that has been a part of the family since 1997.

“Pets N Pals has been in the mall, I believe, since it opened,” Cleve Council said. “Our family bought it ‘97, and it’s pretty much consumed our lives since. But we’re proud of what it’s become over the years. Kids come to the mall for two reasons: to see Santa and to look at the animals in Pets N Pals.”

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Capp Council, left, and his brother Cleve Council have been helping run the popular Albany Mall Pets N Pals business since their family bought it in 1997. The Councils and other local business owners say they rely on the support of their friends and neighbors in the community to survive in a competitive market. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Competition from online shopping, from corporate-funded “big-box” and volume-focused discount chain outlets and an ever-tightening economy are among the roadblocks that have conspired to make life harder on locally-owned and operated businesses. But many of those Southwest Georgia entrepreneurs say their friends and neighbors who support them, especially during the all-important holiday shopping season, are doing more than keeping them in business.

“The big box stores get corporate money and national-level advertising, so they’re going to make their money,” Shanna Boges-Shealy, owner of the Sweet Potatoes kids’ boutique, said. “They don’t depend on the people of Albany to survive. Locally-owned businesses like ours do. But then we’re part of this community. We’re involved in the community.”

Hancock said that, as lifetime Dougherty County residents, he and his nephews “spend every dime we make (at Pets N Pals) in Dougherty County.”

“From taxes to health care to available supplies to vet services, all of our money stays right here at home,” Hancock said, and Council adds, “This is our corporate headquarters right here. You might get a help line with one of the big chain stores, but we give our customers our cellphone numbers. We’re a part of this community.”

In a report released earlier this year, the National Retail Federation offered compelling evidence that online shopping has impacted locally-owned small businesses significantly. NFR figures show that in 2012, online shopping grew to $579.5 billion, 19.3 percent of all retail sales in the country.

Local business owners say they’ve felt the impact.

“We draw customers daily from a 40- to 60-mile radius,” PJ’s Decorative Fabrics owner Mitch Mercer said. “But the way things have gone lately, we’ve seen about a 50 percent drop in customer traffic. A lot of that has to do with the Internet. A lot of our competition now is online.

“But what helps us is that we provide customer service shoppers cannot get online. They’ll tell us ‘I can get that $20 cheaper online,’ but what they don’t take into consideration is that if there are problems (with the items ordered), they have no one to turn to.”

That’s not the only minus to Internet commerce, local vendors say.

“A lot of times, you have no way of knowing what you get until it’s delivered,” Knights Appliances store manager Jerry Justice said. “What’s sold (online) as ‘new’ may be refurbished or not what you wanted at all. You have no one to show you the features to make sure you’re getting just what you wanted.”

Local retailers say the “bargains” that many discount and big-box chains promise don’t always provide the advertised savings.

“We used to try and explain the differences in what we offer and what the huge chain stores like Walmart offer,” Geeks Computer Store computer tech Samantha Davila said. “But now we just warn them that they’ll get what they pay for. They might save a few dollars in the overall cost, but the people at those chain stores don’t know how to operate (the computers), they can’t tell them how to use them and there’s nothing but basic software on the machines.

“We’ve had a lot of people come back to us complaining about what they got with their ‘cheaper’ purchase. They’ll sheepishly ask us for help.”

The Albany Area Chamber of Commerce is making a concerted push to stress local shopping during the holiday season. The chamber’s efforts are logical: More than 80 percent of the organization’s member businesses are locally-owned and operated small businesses.

As the busy holiday season approaches, it’s become increasingly clear that “shop local” is more than just a slogan for the entrepreneurs and small business owners trying to compete for consumers’ shrinking expendable income.

“I’ll tell you what shopping local means to businesses like ours,” Riverfront Bar-B-Q owner Dale Saunders said. “It’s how we’ll either survive or die. In the restaurant business, we have to do our part by providing good food and customer service. But local people have got to get back into the mind of supporting the local restaurants and businesses when they spend their money.

“It’s the only way we’ll survive.”