On a Wednesday at 3 p.m., Collected Thread, a small boutique gift shop, is devoid of customers. Lindsay Zodrow, the store owner with round glasses, a fern-colored fleece and a beaming smile, has just left to retrieve her toddler from daycare. Past the shelves of soft pink and blue scarfs, past the quirky cards that read “Happy Birfday,” and past the mid-century room divider is Collected Thread’s backroom. The backroom acts partially as a storage room and a personal office for Zodrow. Above Zodrow’s desk in the backroom hangs a postcard on a corkboard which reads:
“Lindsay, you are always a creative inspiration for me. Your passion and vision is shaping OKC for the better. Hang in there! 🙂 Happy Valentines Day! – Morgan.”
The postcard was from the owner of the Green Bambino, a baby clothing boutique in Oklahoma City. The last line reading “hang in there” is appropriate given the fact that locally-owned businesses like Collected Thread have been financially struggling for over a year and a half due to successful online retail shopping models employed by Amazon and other sites.
Last summer, after another frustratingly slow season for the local Oklahoma City business scene, Zodrow attempted to challenge that model.
On June 28, 2017, Lindsay Zodrow took a chance. She believed that, in order to gain the attention of local consumers, pleading to her customers through her online blog would help the metro public realize the hardships of running a small business. Although a blog post wouldn’t solve any problems on its own, Zodrow sought to unveil the affliction behind the inner workings of small businesses.
“It is a huge fight right now,” Zodrow said. “Most of the local businesses here don’t have loans, don’t have investors, and are doing it all on their own. You can’t sustain that.”
On average, Zodrow receives about 30 to 40 visitors to her website on a daily basis. On June 28 and the following day, over 4,000 people clicked on Collected Thread’s website to read her blog post.
Titled “Fight For Us!” the post cited the online shopping model of Amazon as the main cause for local business woes. Zodrow went on to list some local Oklahoma City businesses such as Chirps and Cheers, a stationary store in Midtown, Cuppies and Joe, a small coffee shop on 23rd Street, and The Social Club, a card store and salon in Norman, as having unique shopping experiences but also being affected by the slow local shopping season.
Since November 2014, NewsOK reported that since oil prices spiraled downward, the local economy also suffered if looking at the sales tax for retail over the past two years. In November 2014, Oklahoma received $35.7 million in sales tax, but that price dropped during the next consecutive three Novembers to $34 million, $33.4 million, and fortunately, $35.1 million. That upsurge indicates a rebound for retail, but is still $800,000 short of 2014’s sales tax mark.
However, this trend is not exclusive to Oklahoma City. According to a CNN report, more than 300 retailers have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017 in the United States. RadioShack closed most of its stores in March of this year due to high rates of electronic sales online. Payless closed 525 out of 4,400 stores in April. Most prominently, Toys ‘R’ Us recently filed bankruptcy in September, but has yet to close any of its stores as of late.
With online retail and immediate digital shopping that allows a user to order an entire wardrobe without stepping foot over a front door threshold, the existence of small, local businesses is threatened.
Several businesses in the metro are actually pushing forward, and doing so successfully. Chirps and Cheers, the stationary store in Midtown owned by Sami Ready and Susan Kropp, a mother-daughter duo, haven’t experienced a decline as many other shops around the area have. Sami believes it has to do with their location
“With all of the hotels and apartment complexes…people are always popping in for a greeting card, and we get to help people with invitations to weddings,” Ready said. “We love our sweet friends that come into the shop and support us, and we just love the community.”
Chirps and Cheers opened in 2009 in an Edmond location for the first five years of business, but has since moved to Midtown. Besides selling stationary, the small business helps sorority hopefuls build their packets and resumes for submission before entering college, sells school supplies and hosts crafting workshops. Their utilization of different fields within stationary along with having a strong community following seems to attract a loyal a sufficient amount of customers to comfortably keep operations up and running.
Dana Scott and Erica Smith, owners of the Social Club in downtown Norman, were best friends when they decided to combine their talents—business wit and salon styling—to bring those concepts together to create their half salon/half gift shop. Regarding Zodrow’s blog post, Smith agrees that Amazon has altered the model of small, local business shopping.
“It has never been more convenient to shop from the comfort of your own home,” Smith said. “But the thing you miss out on when you do that is the experience.”
Scott and Smith continue to operate The Social Club in Norman despite the shortfall of local business in Oklahoma. However, when comparing The Social Club and Chirps and Cheers, both have similar models of success: the stores are co-owned by friends or family and offer specialty services, such as haircuts at The Social Club and workshops and stationary services at Chirps and Cheers. This consolidation of ownership and variety of amenities may be the ticket to combating Amazon’s online shopping model.
Cuppies and Joe, once an urban house but now a converted coffee shop known for handmade cupcakes and Oklahoma-sourced coffee, sits on 23rd Street. The shop’s owner, Elizabeth Fleming, believes that the strength of small businesses in Oklahoma City can be found within the connection they share with each other.
“It’s nice because it is not cut throat. I feel like we are all rooting each other on and want each other to succeed because we know how hard it is,” Fleming said. “We have each other’s backs too; if someone is out of cups or lids, we can call on each other until our order gets in.”
Zodrow’s Collected Thread has now been open for nine years in the Plaza District. The shop itself is tucked in a cozy nook right across from some of the district’s biggest eateries like The Mule and Aurora Cafe, which is a plus. A case can be made for the variety of products Zodrow offers, which range from infant clothing to garments and accessories for fully clothed women. As a mother, Zodrow annually offers events for mothers and children alike during Mother’s Day, which acts as a catalyst for community building and an incentive for sales.
“I think I thought about [starting the shop] for two months, and then did it, which is crazy,” Zodrow said. “I’m still figuring it out.”
As Zodrow’s post said, many businesses may not be around the metro come January 2018. Several business owners and professionals have different opinions on how to stress the importance of keeping community businesses alive. Within these examples of local metro shops, it appears that tailored, curated services for the customer is the best advantage local businesses have over online retailers.
“To me, small businesses that create experiences for their customers put themselves in a position where they can’t possibly be replaced by online retailers,” said Dr. Jeremy Short, professor and Rath Chair in strategic management at the University of Oklahoma. “There are no online festivals with local food carts, for example. This kind of experience is communal, personal, tactile and can’t be replicated online.”
Bryce Bandy, co-founder of Keep It Local, a business that incentivizes metro dwellers to shop at local businesses by allowing exclusive discounts with a purchase of a Keep It Local card, affirms the experience aspect of small businesses. “I think you’re going to find a lot more creativity popping up and people trying to build it around experiences,” Bandy said.
The gap between local and corporate seems to widen as time passes. Either individuals are fiercely passionate about sustaining local businesses and their one-of-a-kind, handmade brands, or they resort to cheaper options on the web. However, the relationships that owners build with their customers and the experiences they provide will hopefully keep these hyperlocal staples afloat.
The essence of a community is its people. Without the distinct eateries and shops that reside in Oklahoma City’s many districts, areas could potentially face an identity crisis and, in turn, residents could lose touch with their surrounding neighbors.
“When you can put a face and a name to a local business and what they provide and you know the care that went into their product you want them to succeed,” Fleming said. “People don’t realize all that small business owners sacrifice and pour into their businesses.”
For Zodrow, the future is uncertain. “I go back and forth between being really hopeful and really concerned,” Zodrow said. “Everyone I know is on a budget, no one I know has money to shop. If it gets to the point where we’re just an online store, I don’t want to do it anymore. The community is too important to me.”