It's make-or-break year for stores

This year will make or break businesses that are teetering on the brink after a brutal two-year recession, industry experts say.

With the holiday shopping season in the books, some Columbia-area retailers are looking for a brighter 2010.

Others face shutting their doors.

One discount store that sells handbags is facing failure because of competition from department stores that discounted their goods. A men's clothier said if he hadn't made changes five years ago, he would be hurting today.

A new children's clothing store had a successful first year despite the economy by good word-of-mouth marketing. And an entrepreneur who has been growing slowly for 10 years constantly adjusts his business model to stay competitive.

"If you're barely hanging on, you can't hang on any longer," said Kip Weiss, who owns four Columbia-area Big Thursday stores, which sell S.C.-themed products.

Weiss said this year will be the final test for whether businesses will weather the economic meltdown that is just starting to ease.

Holiday sales rose 3.6 percent between Nov. 1 and Christmas from the same dismal period in 2008, according to SpendingPulse, a division of MasterCard Advisors.

But the uptick might not be enough to help some struggling stores.

Columbia retailer Twinkle Waghel said she will have to close her Emman Handbags at Columbiana Centre if business doesn't pick up.

"We're going to keep it open for two more months and see how it goes," she said. The store, which opened less than a year ago, sells $40 to $60 generic handbags and sunglasses that cost $20 for two pairs.

Many discount retailers have done well in this recession as shoppers look to save money. But during the holidays - typically the biggest shopping season of the year - department stores were offering deep discounts on designer labels and rivaling her discount prices.

"It hurt us," Waghel said.

For other Midlands retailers, 2009 ended slightly better than 2008, giving them hope that the year will bring gradual recovery.

Weiss, who opened Big Thursday as a kiosk at Columbiana Centre 10 years ago, gradually has grown his business, opening his fourth store in Lexington a couple of months ago.

He said sales in 2009 were slightly better than 2008.

"It's all relative to really what you're selling," he said. "People I think are holding back on higher ticket items that need financing."

Weiss said he has stayed afloat by adjusting his product lines and services to meet demand.

"I've looked at different ways to acquire a different customer. I've sat back and tried to change with the times," he said.

For example, he dramatically increased his Gamecock apparel offerings after Lou Holtz was hired as the University of South Carolina head football coach in 1999 and recently brought in embroidery machines so customers could personalize items.

For Devine Street retailer K.D.'s Treehouse, word-of-mouth and special events have been the keys to success in a down economy.

The owners started planning the organic children's clothing business in July 2008, "when everything was looking rosy," said partner Kris Burns. They started receiving merchandise and preparing to open in September, when the stock market tumbled, ushering in the worst of the recession.

Still, sales in 2009 were "close to 90 percent of what we thought we would get," Burns said.

The store hosted events for Earth Day, back to school and Christmas, and also benefited from the local shopping campaign kicked off in Columbia this fall.

"We have over 700 names on our e-mail list, and they come in and they spread the word," Burns said. "We're just hoping to see further recovery."

On Main Street, clothier Vaughn Granger said he feels like 75 percent to 80 percent of "the nightmare is over."

Granger started making changes five years ago at Granger Owings - traditionally a men's clothing store - when he brought his oldest son into the business. He began to hire a younger sales and support staff and added clothes for the whole family.

The younger crew helped him market his store in different ways, including using Facebook and Twitter to advertise sales. And they helped him add clothing lines that would appeal to younger family members and women.

"We felt like that was the future of our company," he said.

If he hadn't made those changes when times were good, Granger said surviving the economic downturn would have been much harder.

His worst year was 2008, when sales were off about 8 percent, he said. Sales improved somewhat in 2009, he said, but he expects a full recovery this year.

"You can just feel the attitude of the consumer. They're ready to go back to normal."