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A big time for small businesses

Christmas brings challenges and rewards for local entrepreneurs, as there’s no downtime at the holidays

At Craig Miller’s St. Jacobs gift store Xclusive Elements, almost every nook and cranny is adorned with lights, pine branches, stuffed reindeer, and wreaths, and the holiday ambience will continue for the rest of the month. But no sooner will the holly and tinsel be taken down than Miller and hundreds of independent businesses across the region will have to get in the Christmas spirit all over again.

Craig Miller estimates that as much as 60 per cent of his annual business at Xclusive Elements will come from the last quarter of the year.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Craig Miller estimates that as much as 60 per cent of his annual business at Xclusive Elements will come from the last quarter of the year. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
“Believe it or not, we start preparing as soon as Christmas is done,” said Miller. “We’ll literally start sourcing what Christmas stuff we’ll bring in for next year in January. The last thing I want to see when Christmas is done is more decorations, but that’s what I have to be buying.”

While St. Jacobs foot-traffic peaks in the warmer months, for many of the independent businesses in St. Jacobs and elsewhere, getting on Santa’s wish list is a make-or-break proposition. “I bet you a good 50 per cent, maybe 60 per cent of our business is done from October 1 until December,” said Miller. “It’s a big summer town, but for the most part, if you don’t do well in that time, it’s a long winter.”

Is it “the most wonderful time of the year”? Maybe for Andy Williams, but for local entrepreneurs, the last quarter of the year is when the pressure is on.

“Unlike a lot of other communities, we really pick up at the beginning of September, with the universities coming back, and of course Oktoberfest,” said Art Sinclair, vice-president of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce. “From that perspective, if you look at the tourist areas like Muskoka and Haliburton, they kind of shut down at the end of August.

“Maybe it’s part of our agricultural background, the agriculture industry never shuts down. Maybe that translates to the entire economy of the region – we’re an all-season, all-year type of economy.”

The continuing survival of the townships’ independent retailers has grown more challenging with the ongoing rise of big box competitors. News of the St. Jacobs Walmart’s expansion came six months after Woolwich council’s approval of a Dollarama store at the Foodland lot (which sparked a protest from independent Elmira dollar store owners). With big brands posing an intimidating threat, the independents have to keep adapting.

“We’re always bringing in unique things that they don’t carry,” said Miller. “At some point, though, there’s always that unique product that in a year or two ends up in the big stores. At that point, you have to cut your ties with it and move on to the next thing.

“A lot of times when they bring a product in, we’ll ask, ‘Do you sell in any big box stores?’ Nine times out of ten when they say they do, we stay clear of it, or we try to think how we could display it differently.”

Robert A. Brown, whose eponymous Glass and Metal Studio in St. Jacobs offers handmade glass sculptures, sees the competition from the big brands as a mixed blessing.

“If it doesn’t happen, you don’t get anything – kind of like Detroit,” said Brown at his studio. “We’re getting home hardware investing heavily in this town – they’re going to be on both sides of the street next year. … We’re getting a bigger business deciding to have their home base here, and the Home Hardware across the street is going to have two floors of living space above it.”

Brown credits his continued success with an ability to adapt, which has grown more aggressive in recent years. His business has evolved to include service work: custom-designed glass showers and doors for homes.

“For every piece of decorative glass I do, I’ll do two of these,” he said of his shower doors. “There are very few people doing this. You need a big setup for it, and you need to know how to install it. I do both. … People like that, because generally if you go to a bigger company, there’s a person for each [stage].”

“You have to always be adapting,” said Miller. “If you don’t, your store becomes stale and your products become stale. You always have to keep it interesting and changing.”

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