Four businesswomen who operate distinctively different Ceres businesses sat down Friday and offered rare insight into the struggles of small businesses in a town that is dwarfed by neighboring communities of mega retail proportions.
Seeking to place the "Shop Local" campaign back on the front burner, Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter arranged for the meeting. Under her leadership the Chamber rolled out the campaign in 2014 but the drive seems to have lost traction, especially since Turlock continues to siphon off Ceres money by expanding shopping and dining opportunities just 12 minutes south on the freeway.
The four women - Shella Joiner of Addy's Boutique & Gift Shop, Dovie Wilson of Curves for Women, Tina Borden of Supermom's Frozen Yogurt and Denise Boyd of Floral Cottage - were eager to talk but a bit apprehensive about walking the thin line between conveying frustration about a lack of local support for their businesses while not sounding like whining or appearing ungrateful for the community they serve and the customers they attract.
Business was so slow recently that Joiner - who daily relies heavily on social media to advertise homemade and custom home décor, purses and clothing at her downtown Ceres shop - posted a Facebook video with an ominous tone. She announced to her 2,500 followers that she would have to close her shop after a 16-month run if business didn't pick up.
"We just put it out there that hey, if you guys don't start coming we're going to be shutting the doors and then all of a sudden people were showing up and spending money," said Joiner. "So I really don't think that there's not money because the economy is picking back up again."
Joiner feels the problem plaguing her business and others in Ceres is one of local folks shopping in other cities. That is the crux of the Chamber's Shop Local campaign message - buy locally before running off to other cities.
"I want to sell a lot more yogurt," said Borden. "I hate when I hear, ‘Oh we were in Turlock and we went to Yogurt Mill or we went to Yogilicious' and you live in Ceres. It's like, yeah, remember we're here."
Borden feels the frustration in being hit up for donations for by individuals or community groups while never seeing reciprocating trade.
"They want our donation but they don't want to shop," said Borden.
Joiner nodded, adding "What they don't realize is that donations become impossible if people aren't shopping."
"We're not here to complain, this is to educate the community," said Ledbetter, "on why it's important to shop local because later on they're going to come to Tina and ask, ‘Will you sponsor my softball team or my baseball team?' but she needs to have that revenue the rest of the year in order to do that."
Ledbetter said she had to retrain her mind and spending habits to fuel up in Ceres before leaving town.
Borden doesn't know how to change the mindset of Ceres buying public who often prefers to stack up in a Starbucks drive-thru lane rather than try a mom and pop business.
"You see three cars in my drive-thru but you see 10 cars in the other drive-thru and you still go to the other drive-thru instead of be patient to come to my drive-thru? They wait for the big chain, not for the little person. It doesn't make sense."
Joiner understands that the businesses represented at the table are not peddling necessities like groceries and gas but also understands that lots of people are taking their business to other cities.
"Ceres talks about supporting local but as the little guy we're really feeling like that's not happening and I think people really need to feel that," said Joiner. "You've got to give people an incentive to shop local. Well, the incentive to shop local is that you're supporting a local family that's doing business in your hometown."
But she is now offering another incentive: A 10 percent discount to anyone who can produce a receipt showing they spent money that day at any Ceres business. Customers are taking advantage of it, but she would like to see all Ceres businesses team up and follow her lead. So far, Joiner is the only one at the table offering the deal.
"That's where it has to start," said Joiner. "It has to start with somebody doing it and there's no rules on me giving out discounts so if I want people to shop local it's not just my business. You have to give and you have to look out for other small businesses. As business in this city, if we don't back each other no one's going to succeed."
In the same vein, Ledbetter said the Chamber is organizing the issuance of a free discount card that allows shoppers to enjoy 10 percent off goods at participating Chamber members' stores. The card hasn't been rolled out yet because energies are being spent on the upcoming barbecue event.
She said the Chamber is working on updating a printed directory of Ceres businesses.
"We're getting to roll a new one out if we get enough Chamber members to advertise in it to cover the cost," said Ledbetter.
Denise Boyd says her floral business is doing better now than in the 18 years she's been on Mitchell Road, feeling the economy has bounced back. But she became most vocal about the city allowing vendors to pop up on street corners to compete with her as she sells flowers for Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.
"In the beginning I went around and around with the city," said Boyd, who was told she couldn't put up a pop-up stand for flowers on special occasions in her own parking lot without a special permit. She stopped doing it because the process was expensive and a hassle.
Ledbetter agrees that the city shouldn't allow pop-up vendors when it hurts brick and mortar businesses.
The shop owners also feel the city's crackdown on A-frame signs is onerous and is a missed opportunity to snag business.
"As small businesses that see a small town that's growing, why are we not allowed to do things to benefit our business?" asked Joiner. "I think that sometimes they neglect to think of how their rules affect small business. If you have an A-frame and it looks nice why shouldn't that be allowed?"
The council put an end to A-frame signs because the proliferation of signs gave Ceres - particularly Whitmore, Hatch and Mitchell - a tacky look. That hasn't stopped Joiner from displaying pieces of furniture in her shop garden at Fifth and Lawrence as a way to draw attention to her products.
Boyd also acknowledges that hers is a specialty business, often the first to suffer in an economy where discretionary dollars are precious.
"None of us are in a necessity type business," said Boyd. We're on the lower part of ‘oh let me go spend money this week.' They don't just stop in every week to take flowers home to the wife. They've got to have flowers because they're in trouble or it's their anniversary or somebody died."
She estimated that about 90 percent of her business is made by phone orders placed for flowers but has noticed walk-in traffic has increased with the re-opening of Enterprise Rent-A-Car next door. She is stunned when longtime residents stop in and say "I didn't know you were here."
None of the four businesses advertise in this local Ceres newspaper. They say print advertising is expensive so Joiner relies on the free advertising of social media while admitting the audience is narrow.
"The advertising thing is very expensive and hard on small businesses like us," said Joiner. "Even paying $10 sometimes can be like hard."
Wilson said her Curves franchise already pays for national advertising, which is a cost she can't control. It robs what she could otherwise spend in the local newspaper. For Wilson, social media advertising only has worked "to a certain degree."
Wilson admits that her business is struggling and at times she'd had to work with landlord Nick Pallios about meeting rent deadlines.
"I think I'm unique in the fact that I service women only of a certain age group and I haven't been able to break that barrier (of getting younger women)," said Wilson. "I have my regular clients but I'm not bringing in new clients. I don't feel like I'm in competition with In-Shape. I know that Planet Fitness is going to go in over by Save Mart and I don't feel like I'm in competition because I'm in a real different sort of caliber."
An area of the mindset they need to battle is that shopping is cheaper elsewhere.
"Can you really compare the size of my yogurt to Yogurt Mill or the self-serve?" said Borden. "Technically mine is cheaper, especially if you're going to self-serve."
Likewise, she says her flavored coffees are larger than Starbucks sizes.
"My drink may be $4 something for 20 ounces for a medium but there's can be the same price but you're only getting a 16 ounce.
"It's not that we want to compete with Starbucks because you can't compete with Starbucks. But it's more that you want people to be patient for what we are making. You get a blended drink at Supermom's. It's going to take a little bit to make that blended drink. I have good blenders but they have great blenders."
Her service tends to be slower, she said, because she has one or two employees working at any given time.
"We don't have labor like everybody else has labor so we need some patience when you make your order. People are just in the rush and don't give themselves enough time to get through a drive-thru."
Like anything in life, there's an ebb and flow to the businesses represented by Borden, Joiner, Wilson and Boyd. July can be terribly slow because people are spending discretionary money on fireworks, the county Fair or away on summer vacations. December is slow, too, said Borden, because holiday shoppers tend to take their business to Modesto and Turlock where they buy yogurt or coffees. Even Christmas Tree Lane visitors tend to bypass her store for Starbucks.
Compounding the summer slowdown is the noticeable absence of spending of Ceres teachers who mostly live outside of Ceres.
"When school goes out we slow down," said Borden. "I mean Ceres Unified is huge for Supermom's. The majority of teachers do not live in Ceres so when school is out your business is dead."
Ledbetter feels that it's important that all Ceres residents make an effort to spend money here. The more sales made here means more taxes for local services.