Local businesses grow despite tough economy

September 13, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN -- Tom Newcomer confesses "some people kind of questioned my sanity" in opening a new jewelry store in Hagerstown amid these tough economic times.

A lot of people might be puzzling, too, over the soundness of decisions made by:

  • Curtis Diller, owner of Stitch N Time in Greencastle, Pa., who is planning to spend about $500,000 next spring to build a new store, doubling the size of his young company;

  • Jeff and Beth Hull, owners of BJ's Custom Creations, who are still moving into the addition that well more than doubled the size of their Hagerstown operation late last year;

  • Belinda and Eric Callear, owners of Bee's Creations in Hagerstown, who expanded their young crafts and home décor store this month by adding about a third more space; and

  • Curt Spicher, president of the Hagerstown-based Spicher's Appliance and Electronics, who is building a new store in Chambersburg, Pa., in his first-ever strip shopping center, which he is building for about $6 million.

    These business owners represent some of the bright spots in the a gloomy economy. They are among the entrepreneurs finding opportunities and/or trying new strategies to beat this down economy.


New store is response to shoppers' wishes

Tom Newcomer, 47, the fourth owner of R. Bruce Carson Jewelers since it began in Hagerstown in 1902, remembers when his father, Charles, would get out Carson's old business records to teach him the financial lessons of decades past.

"My father would show me the books of over the years, including the Great Depression," said the younger Newcomer, who grew up in Smithsburg, and after college bought the business from his father in 1993.

"Certainly, the business has been managed through some very difficult times," he said. "Economy-wise now, it's a leaner time. It definitely is."

Late last year, after seeing sales grow many times over the years, Newcomer began to notice signs in his downtown store of the recession that others were predicting.

"Last year was the first year that we really kind of saw flat growth year over year, and it was just toward the end of last year that that just began to happen," he said.

Yet that was when Newcomer decided to open the second store, even while keeping a "strong and vibrant" downtown store.

He said he saw opportunity in the new Stone House Square shopping center in the city's North End. He decided a store there would meet shoppers' desires, reported in a marketing survey, for more convenience and accessibility.

Certainly, he understands why others have doubts. "Even though, right now, it doesn't feel at all wonderful for everybody that's in business, it's an opportunity to position yourself ... and, it's a way to grow the business."

"We pretty much doubled the investment into the business," he said of the new store.

He said both stores are doing well, even as he's seen changes in what customers are doing. "A lot of times, maybe, in a tighter economy, people will repair jewelry and not go out and buy new," which is why Carson's has a jeweler on its premises, he said.

In addition, "one of the things we've tried to do in this economy is to add several new lines, a few of those far less expensive so people can buy jewelry starting at $25 or less."

But still the best lessons, he said, are those he learned from his father.

"I think Dad was always trying to say, 'Be careful about things, take measured steps.' ... I remember him saying, 'OK, this is a lean time, look at this. Here's the checkbook. Here's the balance. Pay your expenses.' He would say that the Lord provides and things work out."

Customer service, marketing key to success

Curtis Diller is amazed at how well his Stitch N Time shop, a sewing machine and supply business, has done since he and his wife, Krista, launched it four years ago in Greencastle.

More amazing, given the economy, is that sales have increased 26 to 27 percent in the past year alone, according to Diller. "Our business is fantastic this year."

The Dillers have bought about 2.5 acres off U.S. 11 near Greencastle where they hope to erect a new store next spring. Plans are to make it about 5,000 square feet -- more than double the 2,400 they rent now.

How does so much success come during such an economy as this?

Diller, 28, offers several reasons. A Mennonite, he credits the Lord's blessings as well as strong support from other Mennonites as the business began.

But now, he estimated, his business from fellow Mennonites is 20 percent or less of his total sales.

So, for most of the surge, Diller said reasons include new marketing techniques, high customer-service standards, and an embroidery machine he sells to people interested in stitching logos on products "as a side job so if you lose your main employment, you've got something to fall back on."

Marketing workshops have given him lots of ideas, he said. "I mean, if you're going to win in today's economy, you really got to get past the boredom."

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