Small businesses focus on service, performance to survive

Dissatisfied at working for a big-box retailer, Milad Meftah started his own business where he could fill a gap in the marketplace and build stronger relationships with his customers.

While Meftah has found some success and lots of personal satisfaction as a small business owner, he and other local merchants in Gainesville face a new wave of competition from national retailers who are moving into sprawling developments near Archer Road — potentially the biggest reshuffling of local shopping in 40 years, since the opening of The Oaks Mall in 1978.

“I worked for Home Depot as an independent contractor for years,” Meftah said, owner of The Floor Store, a small flooring and flooring installation business inside Thornebrook Village.

“Being able to service a customer in the best way and making them a priority, you feel that you actually accomplished something instead of just being a person on a payroll,” Metfah said.

The retail sector in Gainesville is growing out of the slump from the Great Recession. The monthly number of retail employees peaked in 2007 at 14,875 but fell to 13,176 by 2013. Since then, the retail employee base has rebounded, according to figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which projects it will grow by another 5 percent by 2025.

How many of those new jobs are coming to locally-owned businesses is less clear. There is no readily available data.

Regardless, just like when Oaks Mall shook things up before, Gainesville’s local business owners are leaning on customer service, distinctive products and building relationships to stay afloat amid a sea of competition.

Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Susan Davenport said her staff works to sell the benefits of small businesses, which account for most of the chamber’s 1,300 members.

“We’re trying to find ways that make them find the success that they’re looking to create,” Davenport said. “I think drawing awareness and helping those businesses tell their stories through different opportunities — that’s one of the fittings that we take very very seriously.”

Davenport pointed to the B2B Expo, where about 80 to 100 businesses come together with booths and “almost market to each other.”

“The public at large can also come in and visit those booths and get a sampling of those companies, who they are and who runs those business — really understanding what it is that they’re offering our community,” she said. “I think small businesses have a huge role to play in our economy.”

Brian Hiebel, a 40-year-old Gainesville resident, said he shops at Ward’s Supermarket to support the local industry. Hiebel values local retailers and shops primarily at Ward’s and Publix, which has a Florida-based headquarters.

“I’ve been an Alachua County resident for almost 20 years and I try to shop as local as I can being that Gainesville is not a big city,” he said, noting he doesn’t shop at corporate stores, like Walmart, unless he has to.

“Even when in big cities, I try to shop local as much as possible. It helps support the locals.”

Saporito, a store that specializes in fresh, flavored oils and vinegars, relies heavily on word of mouth. It isn’t a chamber member and its location in Le Pavillion plaza — 43rd Street Deli and Blue Agave — isn’t visible from heavily traveled Northwest 43rd Street.

“Business awareness is an area that’s a need. We have a very tiny advertising budget,” Katrine Dunn, the store’s co-owner, said. “I like to think of us as hidden gem.”

Dunn started the business three years…