Experts say coast merchants can thrive, even in a bad economy

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - The uneasiness on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill has frayed nerves in South Mississippi. Merchants keep looking for ways to make a buck. But that can be very difficult when shoppers aren't spending money.

So what should they do? Experts say making money in this economy is all about promotion, and smart spending decisions. At least that's what 10 merchants were at a seminar hosted by the Mississippi Development Authority, the SBA and the Innovation Center.

Paige Riley was one of the attendees. Her relatives opened Hillyer House 38 years ago. And even though the economy is a mess, she has no plans to close the family tradition.

"However, it means you have to work a lot harder to make a dollar," she chuckled.

Shoppers still browse her Ocean Springs showroom every day. But for the first time in Riley's memory, they're searching more for deals than for top of the line products.

"We're not only faced with what the rest of the country is faced with, but we're still faced with this post Katrina that's not going away anytime soon," she explained.

Most retailers learned during the holidays that deep discounts became the best way to move merchandise in a sluggish economy. For instance, at Hillyer House, an artistic stand, priced at just $16, was a huge seller.

John Brandon wasn't surprised.

"We want it at 70 percent, 75 percent, 80 percent off. Do we not? People are really getting tight with their money," the Mississippi Development Authority representative said at the seminar.

Brandon hosted the three hour talk. It taught merchants how to survive, and even prosper, when shoppers are being a lot more frugal with their disposable income.

"People who are really focusing in on who their customer is, and finding new and creative ways to keep that customer, during these times, is really going to be able to grow and make their business expand in the future," he said.

When Ethel Shaw was asked if her Gulfport clothing shop could survive the economic downturn, she said, "Sure I can survive, because I have faith in myself and my customers. I can survive."

So can Paige Riley. In fact, she has to, because her family, and the government both have a stake in her success.

"I have a 30 year SBA loan. I'm in it," she laughed.

The next Thriving in Difficult Economic Times seminar is January 27 at 5:00. It will be held in the Leo Seal Conference Room at the Waveland branch of Hancock Bank. The next morning, Coast Electric in Picayune will host the seminar. By the way, merchants were charged up to $35 to take part in the Biloxi seminar.