Operating a small business in a small town is a tall order.
Grande. Maybe even Venti, to use Starbucks’ vernacular.
Then add the Yukon’s remoteness to the mix of small-town factors.
“But it’s a creative challenge,” says Terry Madley, owner of Madley’s General Store.
Madley, an independent grocery retailer in Haines Junction since 1986, has operated various small businesses over 30 years.
And even though he had to close his store for a month this past winter, he challenged the obstacles and reopened on April 1.
“I came close, very close, to giving it up and starting something else. But I desperately wanted to hold on,” he says.
“My heart is back in it, and I am determined to make a success of it again.”
Madley sees lack of population as a major hurdle to small-town business, and more of a problem in winter than summer.
“The tourists add a lot, but my base is still the locals,” says the soft-spoken retailer. “I want the right store with the right products and service all year round.”
Better roads and proximity to Whitehorse present a challenge for Haines Junction businesses.
Madley mentions the box stores.
“Every little bit picks away at your business,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Over the past 10 years, people are not buying as much at my store. They are using us more as a convenience store.”
He also sees staffing as a problem.
“Competing for staff with high-wage jobs and signing bonuses and such gets really difficult,” he says.
According to Michael Shuman, an American economist and lawyer, our spending patterns affect the global economy, and it starts in our own community.
In fact, he maintains that we can change the nature of world commerce simply by shopping locally.
He sees plenty of reasons to boycott the big chains in favour of local shops and services.
Shuman cites a 2004 study in a Chicago neighbourhood where a dollar spent at a locally owned restaurant had 25 per cent more economic impact than the same amount spent at a chain eatery.
He elaborates in his 2006 book, The Small-Mart Revolution: How Small Business Can Beat the Global Competition.
The small-town business problems haunting Madley are not unique to his enterprise alone.
The results of a recent random survey of small businesses in Haines Junction indicate similar obstacles and some businesses have closed.
In 1996, Valerie Drummond shut down Cabin Crafts, her quality-gift shop after 10 years in business. As Madley does, Drummond experienced a limited number of clients — not enough business to maintain a profit.
“People tend to focus solely on Whitehorse for all their shopping, and maintaining a large stock to offer my customers interesting choices was difficult,” says Drummond.
“We need about double the population to sustain little shops and businesses year round.”
Three years ago, Dianne Oppen closed her clothing shop, Oppen House, after 12 years in business.
“The town is just too small to support full-time, non-essential-service businesses,” says Oppen.
“And we need co-operation among businesses to partner and promote each other, and local residents supporting local business.”
Annette Sinclair, owner of Kathleen Cabins and Restaurant, agrees.
“We need a theme,” says Sinclair.
“And we businesses need to pull together, realize the gold mine we are sitting on as a destination point, opt for change and make it happen.
“We could be too comfortable as a government town, and relying on that. Change is necessary and we — not the government — have to do it.”
Sinclair would like to see more business owners in the Junction sharing their ideas.
“Sharing your ideas can bring people in. And as small-town businesses we need to be wary of thinking people will spend dollars in our business just because we are here. Make it appealing, including price-wise.
“If we don’t do it, some large corporation will move in and do it for us.”
“I wanted to create that rhythm, a continuity to get something going in this town; we need to get some excitement going here,” says Madley.
Vanessa Pasula, town councillor and operator of Fas Gas, is challenged by prices.
“Our biggest struggle right now is competing with Whitehorse prices; it’s difficult to compete,” says Pasula.
Another owner-operator mentions other interesting challenges: “It is awkward when people see us as just extensions of our business, not as people.
“Or the annoying but humorous perception that since we are business owners, we must have lots of money. We are on the bottom of their list when they get their paycheques.”
Other challenges cited in the survey include arranging financing for a business in a remote area, getting supplies delivered without horrendous fees, a shortage of local employees, and not enough housing for non-local ones.
Tiffany Drummond of Paddle/Wheel Adventures, offers an interesting perspective.
“There is difficulty hiring staff because there isn’t enough support to entice younger people to stay in the small town to work,” says Tiffany.
“There isn’t much funding to help businesses in small towns overcome this obstacle.
“And it is difficult to compete for staff with government-funded programs.”
However, all of the business owners who responded to the survey indicate that although they face these similar small-town business challenges, they are proud of their endeavours and enjoy their businesses.
“There’s a sense of community and a personal camaraderie. And you feel you’ve helped someone,” says Madley.
“The cashiers can look out the window and see the mountains. That’s a big plus,” he says with a laugh.
Likewise, the other business operators emphasize the benefits of the people contact, being able to serve the community and visitors, and helping to promote other community businesses.
Myra Egli of Egli Design recognizes the convenience of a small town. “It is easy to advertise in a small town because word-of-mouth travels very fast. I personally know a lot of my clients,” says Egli.
Sinclair of Kathleen Cabins is relatively new in town. “Once a few of the locals get to know you, they provide a network,” she says.
In the spring, Madley’s General Store conducted a town survey to assist with its challenges.
“Consequently, we have made some dramatic changes, and it has been a vibrant season even with the wet, cool weather.” says Madley.
One of the most dramatic alterations is painting the exterior of the store with a retro look.
And they have added a unique line of handbags, luggage, as well as Australian crystal jewellery.
But Madley emphasizes that produce is their number one grocery product.
“Closing was a negative thing for me and for the community. But now we’re open and we’re going strong.
“Any support the community can give us is appreciated, and will benefit us all.
“There’s still room for expansion; I originally envisioned a mini-mall on these lots,” he adds.
The economist Shuman would like that.
“By shopping locally,” Shuman says in his book, “you help to ensure a vibrant future for your community.
“That is because local businesses create economic stability, generate wealth, support a creative class, and celebrate local identity and diversity.”
Writer Marlene Bergsma, discusses Shuman’s concept in Harrowsmith Country Life, April 2008.
She writes: “So the next time you head out the door with money in your pocket, you have a choice.
“Instead of blindly wandering the aisles of a big-box store, you can nourish both your soul and your community by choosing to shop at home.”
The implications could be global as well as local.
Elaine Hurlburt is a writer living in Haines Junction.