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Black Friday key for local retail stores

By Staff | Nov 27, 2009

Meredith Wait, President of the Shepherdstown Business Assoc.

As Fridays go, downtown merchants absolutely need this one to be black.

Yet in the midst of the worst economic recession in decades, Shepherdstown businesses have managed to hold their own.

With the boost from holiday shopping, retail businesses can do 35 to 40 percent of their total annual sales in the last two months of the year. Today, account books’ ink could go from red to black – making this a wonderfully Black Friday.

For Meredith Wait – president of the Shepherdstown Business Association, and owner of Dickinson & Wait Craft Gallery with Debbie Dickinson – there are some basic explanations for why German Street storefronts have remained filled despite closures in surrounding downtown areas.

“The whole of Shepherdstown, we’re doing something right that we don’t have boarded up spaces,” Wait says.

Retail and restaurant operators are passionate about downtown Shepherdstown, she adds. She calls it “pride of place.”

“We believe in our inventory. We believe in what we’re selling and serving in the restaurants,” Wait says.

But she concedes shoppers aren’t spending as much as in the boom years of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s. She figures stores need to double their numbers of shoppers this year because people are spending half as much.

“It’s been a very difficult economic year, and I would hope we would close 2009 on an upswing,” Wait says. “I think everybody would be really happy if they didn’t lose ground. It’s neck and neck with 2008.”

Wait notes that, along with consumer spending reductions, businesses have taken other hits, like the rising costs for electricity, rent and taxes. Profit margins are very tight, and it is forcing business owners to cut back on spending everywhere they can.

Wait is no stranger to tough times. In fact, she and her partner opened in 1991 during a recession.

“There were days when we sat there and nobody would come in,” she recalls. “Then, 20 years later, we’re pretty enmeshed, and we’ve made our living.”

But it hasn’t always been easy.

She recalls a December night when she and Debbie are sitting in the store, determined to stay open late, despite a lack of foot traffic.

A light snow begins to fall. It is about 7 p.m., and they hear heavy stomping outside. A man is knocking snow from his boots. After he shakes off the cold he announces his relief the store is still open. He had driven all the way from Baltimore and was determined to fill his entire Christmas shopping list at Dickinson & Wait.

“That night we realized the store became its own thing,” Wait says. “And, you know, that guy has shopped with us every year since.”

Wait says Shepherdstown business owners offer something that doesn’t cost a dime, a good experience. She doesn’t care if someone walks in and back out, without buying. “If we give them a good experience, they’ll be back,” she says, noting the downtown retailers will “send them to the next store”; they work together to steer business to each other. Operators make a point of having a full understanding of what the other downtown shops have to offer.

“All of us need to be advocates for our success, especially in this economic climate,” Wait says. She never waivers in her positive outlook for Shepherdstown, and she’s maintained her sense of humor: “We’d better stay in business because I’m not trained to do anything else.”